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Living it up on the Boardwalk in ATLANTIC CITY

August 04, 1985|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Money flows into Atlantic City like the ocean breezes.

Indeed, there's an old spinning wheel in the parlor, spinning dreams of that long, long-gone dough. Where it's gone, players agree, is mostly into casino coffers. For, as in gambling palaces everywhere, the big profits stay with the operator.

Still, there are winners. Occasionally the slots, which represent the city's major single draw, pay off handsomely. The Golden Nugget displays the blowup of a check for $1.3 million it presented to a player 17 months ago. And there's the picture of Rita Campanella of Philadelphia who won herself $800,000 with the pull of a lever.

Harrah's declares it paid out $926 million to slot players in 1984, and a sign outside Resorts International tells of paying $64 million in a single month recently. The hotel asks: "Did you get your share?"

Without question, the casinos get theirs. Last year Atlantic City's casinos reported gross revenues of $2 billion, proving that the town is on a 24-hour-a-day roll.

It hasn't always been so rosy. Several years ago Atlantic City appeared doomed. The word was passed: "The last one out of town turn out the lights." The once-proud resort was dying, and already mourners were holding a wake.

It wasn't until Atlantic City approved gambling that the wheel of fortune began spinning again in its favor. First on the scene was Resorts International. Business took off, and others followed--the Golden Nugget, Caesars, Harrah's, the Sands, the Tropicana, Bally, etc.

Altogether, 10 hotel

casinos are drawing 30 million persons a year, making Atlantic City the nation's most visited attraction. Hotels report an 85% occupancy year-round, and on the average weekend not even the offer of a bribe will get you a room.

Still, the hotels aren't holding back. They're promoting, and the bus wars are the vanguard of battle. A passenger who pays $15 to get to Atlantic City from places like Philadelphia and New York is rewarded with $10 or more in coins, free drinks and coupons that can be redeemed on the next trip.

Resorts International alone gets 100 busloads a day for a total of 4,000 passengers. It amounts to a $40,000 giveaway every 24 hours. Noontime in any casino is like Times Square on New Year's Eve.

As the day grows later, the crowds grow bigger. The bus people are mostly high pullers, which is to say the slot machine players. The Nugget, the most innovative of casino operators, recognized high pullers as a big-league crowd and founded a club exclusively for them, with the result that members are wined, dined and entertained much as the high rollers are by management. Coupons coughed out by machines can be redeemed for bonuses.

The idea proved so successful that other casinos established clubs. At Resorts International, members are given free trips to the Bahamas, unlimited free parking, free drinks and other rewards. Resorts lists more than 40,000 members who have hit jackpots ranging as high as $500,000. One woman has a favorite machine she plays for as long as eight hours a day. John Belisle, director of Resorts' Superstar Club, estimates that she's fed it more than $300,000 in coins during the last 18 months.

Unlike Las Vegas, Atlantic City attracts mostly day trippers who spend a few hours gambling and then return home to New York, Philadelphia and other nearby cities. The average stay is six hours, the average loss or win--who knows?

Outside on the Boardwalk it's not exactly the Easter Parade. It's a mostly motley crowd, in sharp contrast to the fashionably dressed vacationer who promenaded along the famed strip in the late 1800s and into the 1900s. Crowds patronized expensive Fifth Avenue-style shops and spent hours on the amusement piers. Frank Sinatra sang with the Tommy Dorsey band, and vacationers danced to the music of Freddie Martin. They swam and sunbathed and rode a giant Ferris wheel.

Atlantic City was the Entertainment Capital of the Jersey Shore, and its hotels dazzled everyone. They were elegant; their guests haughty, refined. Atlantic City was enchanting, a world of excitement. There were the diving horses, palmists, fireworks, vaudeville and pageants. The Miss America contest brought Atlantic City new fame.

With the advent of the jet, though, vacationers sought more distant and exotic destinations. The old regulars went off to the Caribbean and Europe. Blight set in along the Boardwalk. Atlantic City was the East Coast's dowager in decline. Nothing, it seemed, could stop the downward spiral.

Finally in 1978 Resorts International opened its casino, and from that moment Atlantic City appeared on the rebound, although certain pessimists disagree. They point to decaying neighborhoods and vacant lots littered with refuse. And while Police Chief Joseph Pasquale insists that crime is on the decline, others shake their heads. Barely three blocks behind the Boardwalk the unemployed occupy tenements and a friendly cop advises, "Stay away."

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