Resorts Atlantic City: The Roaring 20s Themed Casino with a Naked Circus [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]
Resorts International opened as the first casino outside of Nevada to legally allow full casino gambling in the United States. The Atlantic City landmark has a long history that goes back way before blackjack was legal. From it’s time as a hospital to it’s new found fame thanks to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and a naked circus, Resorts has a colorful past that’s all tied together thanks to the spin on the of Wheel of Fortune!
The block Resorts currently occupies started off as two separate three story boarding houses during the early days of Atlantic City, New Jersey’s vacation boom era. The Chalfonte House opened in 1868 and The Haddon House opened a year later on both sides of North Carolina Avenue.In 1896, Haddon House was expanded into a full hotel and took on a new name, Haddon Hall. The Chalfonte was reconstructed as well and welcomed their first guests as a modern hotel on July 2, 1904. Haddon Hall would continue to add new wings and expand their room count throughout the 20’s. Shortly thereafter, the entire complex was bought and merged into one large complex and renamed. The new Chalfonte-Haddon Hall and was connected via a pedestrian sky bridge and at the time of the merger, the count was a whopping 1,000 rooms making it the largest hotel in the city.
During the early part of the 20th century, Atlantic City was one of the premiere vacation destinations in the US and vacationers were packing the hotels, especially in the hot summer months. The long boardwalk, numerous hotels, amusement piers, and easy train access would welcome visitors for long stays to enjoy the shore. Only a few of the numerous hotels that were operational during that time still survive today, including part of Resorts.
The classic board game Monopoly was also developed based on the city’s hotel boom. Although the official history to the game has been lost, it was being produced commercially by 1924. However, two of the streets featured in the game no longer exist. St. Charles Place was absorbed by the construction of the nearby Showboat Hotel & Casino and Illinois Avenue was renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.
As the guests continued to flock to town, World War II would have an impact. Many of the Boardwalk hotels were taken over by the military and The Chalfonte-Haddon Hall was seized by the military and was turned into an Air Force hospital and was temporarily renamed The Thomas England General Hospital.
After the war ended, the hotel was once again open and welcomed guests. But, as the decades rolled on Atlantic City would begin to see a drastic decline in tourists. This was a direct result of easy automobile and airplane travel to more exotic or distant locations. Families could easily hop on a plane and head to Florida or California, sadly abandoning the shore town.
One by one, many of the city’s hotels would close or be turned into residential housing. Seeing the decline in tourism, New Jersey politicians began to toy with the radical idea to legalize gambling in the state. The issue was taken to the voters, but was defeated on three separate occasions. New Jersey still wasn’t done, yet.
A new company, Resorts International became interested in developing a resort in the city when they learned of the state’s plan to pursue gambling for a fourth vote by only limiting casinos to Atlantic City. They became interested in Resorts as it already had ample space for a casino, restaurants, and shopping. They took controlling interest of the Leeds & Lippincott Company, the then owners of The Chalfonte-Haddon Hall and bought it out.
Resorts International heavily contributed to the November 1976 vote that finally approved casino gaming for the city.
Their first plan was to close the original Chalfonte Hotel and cut the number of rooms in Haddon Hall to only 566. The rooms were too small and antiquated in the Chalfonte to renovate them to current safety codes. Rooms in the Haddon Hall underwent renovation and the lower level was expanded by removing walls and columns to open space for the casino. The company also dropped the hotel’s hyphenated name and it now became simply known as Resorts International.
After a little over a year and half of work, the new casino opened for gaming at 10am on May 26, 1978 just in time for the summer vacation season. Eager players lined up around the block for hours to get in and some waited in lines three and four deep to get on a slot machine.
New Jersey’s original gaming laws only allowed the casino to be open 18 hours during the week and 20 hours on the weekend. Being the first game in town made Resorts an instant hit and the money started flowing.
It was just after Resorts opening as a casino that scenes from the motion picture, Atlantic City starring Burt Lancaster were shot in the building. Several scenes feature the interior of the new casino and their famous oyster bar. While not a blockbuster hit, the film captures the city’s transition to gambling and was nominated for all top five Academy Awards.
The abandoned Chalfonte was finally demolished in 1980 and is currently a parking lot.
As more casinos continued to open, Atlantic City quickly earned its reputation as a little sister to Las Vegas.
Although Resorts was highly successful, it began to struggle as newer and more glamorous casinos opened. Resorts made little improvements to the property and instead focused on constructing a new resort next door known as the Taj Mahal Casino.
Resorts became unable to find enough financing for the project and as their bottom line continued to fall, they became the target of a hostile takeover by real estate mogul, Donald Trump. Trump purchased enough shares to have a controlling interest in the company. When Trump tried to buy all of the remaining shares, he suddenly found himself outbid by talk show host and game show mogul, Merv Griffin.
Griffin, the man who created Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy also wanted a piece of the casino action. After months of negotiations, Merv threw down enough money and came to a deal with Trump to take control of Resorts, while giving “The Donald” everything associated with the Taj Mahal. Trump then opened the Taj and it is still in business next door on the Boardwalk.
As part of the deal, Griffin also gained control of Resorts Paradise Island, a non-gaming resort in the Bahamas. Griffin sunk millions into renovations. Eventually, he sold off the island and finally his entire entertainment group to Sun International Hotels who would in turn sell the casino to Colony Capital who only completed minimal upgrades. Again, the resort was falling behind all the other properties in town.
Another of Colony Capital’s mistakes was the closure of historic hardball squash courts located on the fifteenth floor in July 2001. Tournaments had been held there since 1929, but the space has since been transformed into additional rooms and no trace is left.
Colony did construct a second, new hotel tower in 2004, bringing the total room count back up to 879. The tower featured 42 new suites and additional casino space.
The Atlantic City casinos earned high revenues throughout the 80’s, 90’s and into the early 21st century, but that would immediately change when Pennsylvania finally approved gambling in their state in 2006.
Atlantic City quickly lost a large customer base that would arrive in town on daily bus trips. Now, they could play closer to home and the loss was an immediate. Just as AC had gotten back on its feet, this devastating blow caused things to again look grim.
On top of that, the recession of 2008 and casino competition from other states slashed the amount of money that was rolling in. Resorts began to show it’s age and as the newer and more glamorous Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa more appropriately welcomed whatever visitors came to town; Resorts International found themselves unable make the mortgage payments and had their outstanding loan cancelled.
Everybody wondered what would happen. Was this it? Was Resorts done? When I played there at that time, even the employees had no idea what was going to happen next. Luck would again be on Resorts shoulder as Dennis Gomes the former Tropicana Resort president and his company purchased the property in December 2010, just days before it would have been forced to shut down.
Gomes made immediate changes and took inspiration from the success of HBO’s series Boardwalk Empire. The show earned huge ratings for the cable channel and Gomes decided to take full advantage. In early 2011, the hotel was rebranded with a Roaring 20’s theme. Cocktail waitresses and dealers now wear costumes from the era and the security guards are dressed as twenties’ police officers.
Gomez would come under fire however, for laying off many long time employees as a cost cutting reduction. He came under further fire when 15 older and middle aged cocktail waitresses were released when they “didn’t look good enough” in the new sexy flapper uniforms. While several of the employees filed a lawsuit, others were offered jobs in other parts of the resort.
As part of the many changes for the “Roaring Twenties” theme, a new gay club Prohibition opened on the top floor of the original tower, comedian Joe Piscopo opened a new comedy/jazz club, and perhaps the most unusual was the addition of a naked circus for the summer months. While the circus is family friendly during the day, the late evening show features only minimal coverings of the performers. I did not see the show but the naked performance starts at $35 per ticket. .
Also part of the rebranding was the addition of Blanche, the singing bartender at the 25 hours bar on the casino floor. Blanche had been an Atlantic City staple and had worked for years at the Tropicana. She sings into a microphone and banters with customers all while serving drinks. She doesn’t miss a beat.
But, Blanche is not the best bar tender in Resorts… that honor goes to Jim Biddle who holds down the fort at the Double Down lounge, the high roller club located on the first floor. Jim is honestly the best bar tender on the East Coast and another Atlantic City native. To the regulars who go there, Jim has become nothing short of a legend and probably should have had his own talk show decades ago. Jim can carry on an intelligent conversation about anything and it’s hard to challenge him with a beverage he doesn’t know. Sadly, it’s tough to get in to see him as the club is restricted to high roller card members only. I am nowhere near that, but a close friend is, and thanks to him one of my greatest pleasures in coming to town and chat with Jim.
I’ve played at Resorts regularly for almost a decade now. There are times when the machines seem a little looser than in other gambling halls in town. But as with all gambling, it’s all about a certain bit of luck. I can’t always say that I’ve walked out of there a winner, but Resorts was the first place I ever got to visit in AC and I’ve had some very wonderful times there.
The roaring 20’s theme is a great idea and has definitely re-energized the place. The crowds are slowly coming back and its hopping on the weekend. They have also lowered their room rates and also offer dining and drink specials every day.
Most of the hotel rooms in the original Ocean Tower have been renovated. I was placed into an un-renovated room when I stayed last weekend, but it wasn’t so bad. They are not the nicest in town, those can be found at the Borgata, but there are also far worse. The room cost can be a bit expensive on summer weekends as that is the prime tourist time. But, it worked for a place to sleep… I wasn’t there for the room.
Just watch out for the vending machines in the hotel towers. I paid $1.75 for a child’s size 8 oz. water. You couldn’t tell by the picture on the machine. Just avoid it!
I do applaud Gomez for mostly making positive changes to bring Resorts back to her former glory. Some of what he did wasn’t the right way to go about it, but the place is much better off. People are returning and hopefully our economy will recover so that more visitors can enjoy some time in this old landmark on the shore.
Name: Resorts Atlantic City
What: Hotel / Casino
Where: Atlantic City, New Jersey
JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS – Not a bad value for your buck. It’s cheaper to stay during the week and in the off-season. Room rates here are highest Memorial Day through Labor Day. They do offer very good promotions and will send you discounts and offers in the mail for just a little casino play and by signing up for their player card.
There is one big thing they are missing… a video poker bar. Go to any casino in Las Vegas and somewhere on the property, they will have a bar full of poker machines (known as bar tops). Most of these places will give you free drinks as long as you are playing the machine. You get more personal service eye to eye with a bartender and a tip will keep them coming back for more. Sadly, there are few places to do this in Atlantic City and it is definitely missed. I hope that the management can use some of the currently abandoned space and open up such a place. The drink service is good on the floor, but it’s just not the same. Even if they just added a few to their current 25 Hours bar on the casino floor, they would make money.
And if you happened to be one of the few people watching the Jimmy Smits show Outlaw last fall on NBC, I was at Resorts when they shot some scenes for the pilot. The show wasn’t very good and only lasted 8 episodes. This was the latest in a multitude of times the resort made an appearance in film and on television.
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