VENICE, Italy — At first glance, the stately casino overlooking the Adriatic from the Lido looks a little down at the heels. Elegant croupiers still spin wheels set in polished mahogany, but waiters seem to serve more beer than champagne.
Sunburned women wearing costume jewelry and middle-aged men dressed in knit shirts and polyester jackets crowd around the felt-topped tables that once were the playgrounds of the rich and famous.
The clientele has completedly changed in the 50 years since the municipal casino opened its doors on June 30, 1938, to a crowd that danced and gambled until dawn.
"At one time, the casino catered to the upper class, the nobility. Now, the casino is for salesmen and businessmen," said co-director Antonio Clabot without a trace of lament.
"Movie producers, great industrialists and the nobility don't come to the casino here now," he said. "If they come here, they find trade unionists."
Chandeliers hang from the lofty ceiling inside the marble-lined gaming rooms. Croupiers dressed in tuxedos speak in hushed tones, deftly toss markers onto requested bets and offer a gentle "thank you" to nudge big winners who may forget to tip.
The casino is open from April to October on the Lido, Venice's beachfront. During the rest of the year, it operates from luxurious quarters on the Grand Canal.
Gamblers in Venice can take their chances at roulette, chemin de fer, thirty-forty, blackjack and occasionally at craps. There are no clanking slot machines with flashing lights and ringing bells, no gaudy and beckoning neon signs.
Egypt's late King Farouk became one of the casino's most renowned gamblers after he was forced to abdicate and go abroad in 1952. He was a regular between April and September of 1953, tipping meagerly when he lost but giving croupiers chips worth a million lire (1,600 dollars at 1953 rates) when he won.
In one night alone, the deposed king won 130 million lire ($208,000 at 1953 rates) at chemin de fer.
"We get a thousand people a day, and there can't be a thousand Farouks," said Clabot.
The minimum bet in Venice is 10,000 lire (about $7.40) and the maximum single bet is 200,000 lire (about $150). But gamblers in roulette, for example, can make many 200,000-lire bets at the same time.
Clabot said he can't give an average figure for the amount the casino wins each night, but he said the total from the Lido operation last year was 82 billion lire ($65.6 million).
A few years ago, the huge amounts of money changing hands at Italy's four casinos began attracting underworld figures. People seeking to dispose of money obtained from kidnapings would buy chips, play roulette long enough to look respectable and then cash in the markers.
Italy's internal revenue service raided the casinos in 1983 in a crackdown on the money laundering. Officials said the raids were also launched to block Mafia efforts to get control of the casinos in Venice, San Remo, St. Vincent in northwestern Italy and Campione d'Italia, the Italian enclave in Swiss territory.
Most Gamblers From Italy
The Venice casino is owned by the city, and the profits go to the city. But strangely, in a city that thrives on foreign tourism, only about 15% of the gamblers in Venice are foreigners.
Most of them, said Clabot, are people from central and southern Italy spending their vacations along the coast near Venice.
"They no longer come in smoking jackets, but in blue jeans," said Clabot, a no-nonsense businessman who seems to prefer working people with money to blow to such glamorous former players as film director Vittorio de Sica or producers Angelo Rizzoli, David O. Selznick or Darryl F. Zanuck.
"A famous person comes here, stays one night and has a lot of curious people hanging around. But they don't play," he said. "The curious are not players."