Summer Reading 2017: Betting on Gambling to Transform Atlantic City

When the resort city become home to the first legal casinos outside of Nevada, it signaled a change that would ultimately sweep through the gaming industry

2017 summer clary
While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book — from nonfiction to novels to poetry — with a New Jersey connection.

How did gambling become the province of government? As the name of this book suggests, gangsters no longer control gambling in America, state governments do. And New Jersey had a large role to play in that role reversal, being an early adopter of government-run lotteries, racetracks, and casinos. The early days of casino gambling in Atlantic City are profiled here.

Siren Song

The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Atlantic City

“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” — Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City”

Friday, May 26, 1978

Despite an overcast morning and thinner-than- expected crowds on the Boardwalk, Atlantic City did its best to put on a show for the day-trippers and gawkers who turned out on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend in 1978. The Boardwalk’s ticky-tack souvenir shops, saltwater-taffy stands, and greasy snack bars braced for the annual surge in foot traffic as welcome as a beach breeze on a warm summer day. Steel Pier’s arcades and amusement rides beckoned to children and teenagers; for their parents and older folks, the pier’s music hall booked faded singer Eddie Fisher and comedian London Lee for shows all weekend.

In a hokey beginning-of-summer ritual that evoked Atlantic City’s historic role as the home of the Miss America Pageant, a lifeguard playing the role of King Neptune carried two “mermaids” through the surf and deposited them in a boat. The bikini-clad women—Miss Atlantic City Nancy Small and Penthouse Pet of the Year Victoria Lynn Johnson—were rowed out beyond the breakers where they dipped large wooden keys into the ocean, symbolically unlocking the ocean for the summer. As the mayor looked on approvingly and banks of photographers snapped away, an observer asked which of the models had been featured in Penthouse, prompting one wiseacre to comment, “I don’t know. I can’t tell with their clothes on.”

The city and state hoped that the day would be remembered as much more than a routine exercise of nostalgia. They worked for years and overcame a host of doubts and setbacks to launch the greatest experiment in Atlantic City’s colorful history—legalized gambling. In 1976 the state’s voters had approved a referendum to make the city the only place in the United States with legal casinos outside of Nevada. With 60 million people living within a one-tank car trip away, the rewards had the potential to be enormous.

The state’s daring risk was an appeal to the city’s illicit history. For generations, illegal casinos and numbers rackets had been as much of a fixture of Atlantic City as the wooden planks that formed the Boardwalk. But by the late 1960s every symptom of urban decline afflicted Atlantic City: population loss, unemployment, poverty, and crime. New Jersey politicians believed that casinos could rejuvenate tourism and reverse the fortunes of the sagging city.

At ten o’clock in the morning on May 26, 1978, New Jersey governor Brendan Byrne joined other dignitaries at Resorts International Hotel for the opening of Atlantic City’s first legal casino. Resorts hired husband-and-wife singers Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé to entertain patrons at the casino’s 1,750-seat Superstar Theater. Lawrence had the honor of being the first to roll the dice, losing a ten-dollar bet at a craps table.

After the ribbon was snipped and handshakes were exchanged, the casino quickly filled to its 5,500-person capacity. As the day wore on the line to enter Resorts was shorter than projected, with many deterred by the threatening skies and authorities’ warnings of nightmarish traffic jams on the three main causeways connecting the New Jersey mainland to Atlantic City.

For most of the players who made the trip, it was the first time they had been inside a legal casino. Joseph Cristofaro, a repairman from Philadelphia, cheered his $300 win at the roulette table, then frittered away half of it in two spins of the wheel. “As soon as I get in rhythm, I’m going to break this place,” he vowed. New Jersey housewife Caren Reich brought ten dollars and squealed after winning twenty-five dollars after only sixteen pulls on a slot machine. She happily scooped the coins into a cup and declared that her next stop would be the blackjack table.

While the slot machines whirred and the craps players roared, about thirty people, mostly black, demonstrated on the Boardwalk near Resorts to protest alleged discrimination in the hotel’s hiring practices. In recent decades, the city’s year-round population had become increasingly black and Hispanic, and they felt that their needs went unnoticed in the corridors of power. The protesters complained that Resorts hired minorities for housekeeping and kitchen jobs but rarely for secretarial or managerial positions.

There were other problems. The state’s comprehensive examination of Resorts delayed its ability to conduct the required background checks of prospective employees, leaving Resorts with a shortage of card dealers that forced ten blackjack tables to close. The hotel had too few cashiers to make change for players and not enough mechanics to repair the casino’s nine hundred slot machines when they broke down, an all-too- frequent occurrence. A woman who won a jackpot asked her husband to guard the slot machine while she chased down an employee who could pay her the remainder of her winnings. The hotel’s restaurant closed several times during the day because of management disarray.

The crowds didn’t seem to mind the inconveniences because Resorts was filled at the casino’s scheduled closing time of six o’clock Saturday morning.6 While employees prepared to reopen it later that morning, about a thousand people eager for more action waited behind velvet ropes.

On the third day, many thousands more lined up for hours to enter the casino. A sense of feral desperation was in the air. Sleepless players reportedly relieved themselves into plastic cups to avoid losing their spots at their slot machines or tables. The president of the hotel noted that “a lot of people abandoned their kids at the door of the casino and went in to gamble” at the adults-only casino floor. Resorts imposed a dress code to screen out beach riffraff in shorts and T-shirts or bare feet.

All weekend, the casino floor was at or near capacity. A Resorts vice president estimated that it was the largest slot drop of all time and said that one hundred thousand people were in the casino on each of the weekend days. It took longer than expected to weigh the mountains of coins and count the piles of paper bills. When the results from the first six days were finally tallied, Resorts took in an average of $438,504 daily for a total of about $2.6 million in gross revenue. “It’s obvious from the turnout this weekend that we could have filled six casinos,” declared Marvin Ashner, president of the Atlantic City Hotel and Motel Association.

After so many years of neglect and ridicule, Atlantic City was hot again. The appetite for gambling was strong, but could it last? Would casinos really pull Atlantic City out of hard times, or would powerful business interests and their allies in government benefit at the expense of the people? Could New Jersey defend its vulnerable gambling industry from the mob and also carefully manage its growth?

There was a lot riding on the answers to those questions, not only for Atlantic City and New Jersey but also for governments across the nation. If Atlantic City’s grand experiment succeeded, it would no doubt inspire other states to authorize casinos to revive depressed areas and bring in a fresh source of revenue to their treasuries. After all, most states in the Northeast had experience running lotteries, so the taboo against government-sanctioned gambling had long been broken.

And yet the potential of casino gambling’s expansion to neighboring states loomed as an existential threat to Atlantic City. Yes, Resorts International was raking in big bucks as the only legal casino on the East Coast, but what would happen if casinos opened in nearby Philadelphia or Delaware or even in Connecticut? Would people still come out to the shore to gamble? Or would Atlantic City be stuck with a row of half-empty casinos along the Boardwalk? New Jersey would find that it could manage many things about Atlantic City’s casino industry, but it couldn’t control what other states would do.

Used with kind permission of Rutgers University Press, © 2017, all rights reserved

This book is available on Amazon.