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30 facts about gambling's start in Atlantic City

LEGALIZED CASINO gambling finally arrived in Atlantic City on May 26, 1978, and it was met with enthusiasm and wonder. Now, 30 years after the first legal roll of the dice at Resorts International, it is a multibillion-dollar business, awaiting the construction of several new multibillion-dollar hotel-casinos to join the 11 already there.

LLEGALIZED CASINO gambling finally arrived in Atlantic City on May 26, 1978, and it was met with enthusiasm and wonder. Now, 30 years after the first legal roll of the dice at Resorts International, it is a multibillion-dollar business, awaiting the construction of several new multibillion-dollar hotel-casinos to join the 11 already there.

Looking back 30 years ago, though, the first casino seems almost homespun and naive. Here are 30 tidbits, quotes, factoids and remembrances of those early Atlantic City casino days.

1. The referendum allowing casino gambling in Atlantic City was the fourth attempt to get casinos into New Jersey in the 1970s. Finally restricted to just Atlantic City, the referendum passed on Nov. 2, 1976.

Stephen Perskie, the state assemblyman from Atlantic City who introduced the legislation and pushed the referendum, had a victory party at the old Howard Johnson's Regency - which eventually became Caesars, the second casino. At about 2:30 a.m., he said, he was finally winding down from the excitement and suddenly realized there had been another election that night. "Who got elected president?" he had to ask. (For the record, it was Jimmy Carter.)

2. Resorts International got the first license because it had been smart enough to buy an old hotel - the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall - that already had more than 500 rooms, the state statute minimum for a casino-hotel. The rooms had to be at least 375 square feet, so only 566 of the more than 1,000 rooms in the old hotel qualified.

3. Now casino gambling can be round-the-clock, but the original rules required casinos to open at 10 a.m. and close at 4 a.m. on weeknights, 6 a.m. on weekends.

4. The original operators of Resorts, Jim Crosby and Jack Davis, started in business as the Mary Carter Paint Co. They partnered with A&P heir Huntington Hartford II (who died Monday at age 97) on some property on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, then started a casino there and sold the paint company.

Davis and Crosby were among the first to see the potential in Atlantic City, and Resorts International started buying up land and Chalfonte-Haddon Hall, even after a 1974 gambling referendum failed.

5. Crosby and Davis were huge Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme fans, so they brought them in to be the first entertainment at Resorts. The night before the casino opened, Steve and Eydie gave a show for more than 1,000 invited VIPs.

6. Former Philadelphia DJ Ed Hurst, who grew up in Atlantic City, and his wife, Cissy, were good friends of Steve and Eydie, so they were there on that first pre-opening night. "It was crazy. Everyone in the city was nuts for it," said Hurst. "They gave a great show and then, I think, no one went to bed before the casino was going to open the next morning."

6. Crosby was ill the day of the casino opening, so he was in bed much of the weekend.

7. New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne, a normally loquacious sort, was a man of few words at the Resorts ribbon-cutting. "My father always told me not to bet on anything but Notre Dame and the New York Yankees," he said. "For those of you not willing to follow my father's advice, this casino is now open."

8. Lawrence threw out the ceremonial first dice. "For the record, I threw a five," he recalled. "I went on. I made a couple of numbers. I made my point and proceeded to crap out."

9. Gorme was a little freaked out by the experience. "I've never been so frightened in my whole life," she recalled. "It was like a John Wayne movie. They had a couple of security guards. But it was incredible, the amount of people that came pouring in there."

"It was like Macy's basement," Lawrence said.

10. Michael Escourt is a pit manager at Resorts now, but the day the casino opened, his job was counting coins: "We were supposed to take the money from the slot machines to a counting room and weigh it and count it. But there was so much money, we were walking on top of it. It was crazy. The first few days, we were working 17-hour shifts."

11. The fire marshals would only allow the first 5,500 people in - the legal maximum for that first, small casino floor. It took less than 10 minutes after the doors opened to reach capacity.

12. Irene Iocanelli of Atlantic City won the first $50 slot jackpot. Her husband was a crane operator who helped build the first casino.

13. Police estimated that 350,000 people came into the city for the 72-hour Memorial Day weekend, which was about the same number of visitors the city had during its 1950s heyday.

14. Parking at Resorts that first night was $8 - $3 more than it is today.

15. Crosby justified the high price of parking and drinks ($2.50, about twice the norm in Atlantic City at the time) by saying, "We're not in the business of cashing Social Security checks . . . I think we will draw a higher type of crowd - manners, culture."

16. David Burns is in environmental services at Resorts today, but on that first weekend, he was part of the cleanup crew. "It was impossible. There were huge cups and mountains of confetti all over the place," he said. "We only had a few hours when it was closed to clean it up. Then it happened again. We just never knew there were going to be that many people."

17. The most expensive item in the hotel gift shop when the casino opened was a toy slot machine, retailing for $49.95. And it's still the most expensive item, though now the price is $74.

18. Perskie, credited with getting the legislation and the referendum passed, was from a political Atlantic City family. But it was his grandfather's brother, an artist, who had first envisioned Atlantic City as a gambling mecca.

"He was a free spirit, with a mane of flowing white hair and a flowing ascot," said Perskie. "I found a newspaper article from during the Depression about how Jacob, my grandfather's brother, was pressing for the local government to promote gambling in Atlantic City. I promise you my grandfather, a conservative judge, was mortified by that suggestion."

19. Stephen Perskie has seen video of the ribbon-cutting, and he is embarrassed by it. "I had seen Gov. Byrne just before he spoke and he told me what he was going to say," said Perskie, now a judge. "I'm mouthing the words and smiling. I look a little silly."

20. Steve Calendar is a top executive at Resorts now - senior vice president of operations - but on opening night, he was a recent Glassboro State College graduate lucky enough to become a craps dealer.

"There were 10,000 people who came to apply for jobs and only 365 of us on the floor that first night," said Calendar. "None of us had ever seen a live table until we actually had to do it. Then we were working 10 hours a day, with never a dead table. It was rock-and-roll from the first minute."

21. But it was touch-and-go, or maybe kick-and-go, with the showgirls at Resorts. The 30 dancers went on a picket line just before their first show, protesting the lack of a contract. The American Guild of Variety Artists negotiated until the final minutes. Luckily, the show went on.

22. This from Daily News staff writer Kitty Caparella's description of those showgirls' first performance, on May 26, 1978: "Most came equipped with sequined G-strings, and all had that leggy look that's standard for the Las Vegas types. Headpieces of hot pink ostrich feathers made them bigger than life as they wafted boas of the same color, turning the stage into a frothy pink cloud with legs."

23. For the first weekend, lines were as much as two blocks long on the Boardwalk, with waiting times of about two hours to get in. At some points, Resorts put up impromptu signs along the line, a la Disneyland, to show how long the wait would be.

24. Resorts stock soared with the surprise that so many people would go to that first casino. "Cissy had a few bucks and wanted to buy some Resorts stock," said Hurst. "I told her to forget it, to buy Allegheny Airlines. Resorts went over $100 quickly and Allegheny went nowhere. Needless to say, she has never listened to me about stocks ever since."

25. Though the casino was a success, other attempts at reviving Atlantic City had been resolute failures. "There was Pauline's Prairie, named after the head of the Atlantic City Housing Authority, Pauline Hill," said Allen "Boo" Pergament, an Atlantic City historian. "She contrived this idea of tearing down a 10-block area in the northern part of the city and selling it for completely new buildings. That was 1972 and the 'prairie' still exists as mostly vacant land."

26. Resorts had paid all of $2.5 million for Chalfonte-Haddon Hall, which was still a working hotel. Most of the casinos now planned for Atlantic City will cost 100 times that much to build.

27. Resorts had casino gambling to itself in Atlantic City for 13 months, until June 26, 1979, when Caesars Boardwalk Regency, built around the 11-year-old Howard Johnson's Regency Motor Hotel, opened.

28. Bally's Park Place opened Dec. 30, 1979, the third casino-hotel in town. Again, Bally's took an existing hotel - in this case the Dennis - and renovated it.

29. The Brighton, the first completely new casino-hotel building but built on the site of a former hotel of that name, opened on Aug. 31, 1980. It eventually became the Sands, imploded last year to make way for a proposed $2 billion casino-hotel from Pinnacle Entertainment.

30. Resorts eventually lost its cachet and in 1988 became the subject of a bidding war between Merv Griffin and Donald Trump. Griffin eventually emerged with the original hotel and Trump ended up taking over Resorts' stalled, second casino project down the Boardwalk, the Taj Mahal. *