IT'S PROBABLY NOT too much of a stretch to suggest 2009 can't end quickly enough for those who make their living in Atlantic City's gaming industry.
After all, the past 11 months have seen gambling revenues plunge more than 13 percent citywide, with some casinos registering month-over-month losses north of 20 percent. And while dealing with such a financial catastrophe, the 11 gaming halls have watched helplessly as two major, business-draining competitors opened in Eastern Pennsylvania - Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem and parx casino, debuting today in Bensalem. Not to mention a bill making its way through the Pennsylvania Legislature that would allow table games - AyCee's last gambling advantage - in the Keystone State.
But 2009 wasn't a complete failure in Atlantic City. Despite the one-two punch of nearby competition and a slow-to-recover economy, the town did a heck of a job maintaining its status as a show-business capital on a par with New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Led by the powerhouse partnership of Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa and concert-promotion behemoth Live Nation, the industry lured an impressive array of vintage and contemporary acts to its venues.
Granted, Boardwalk Hall, which in past years has hosted such A-plus-listers as Barbra Streisand, Madonna and the Rolling Stones, had somewhat of an off-year. (Jimmy Buffett's annual, Caesars Atlantic City-sponsored visit in late August was pretty much the high point.) But the individual properties came through pretty impressively.
Here's is a recap of some of the year's entertainment highlights.
Some significant names debuted this year, among them "Seinfeld" co-star Jason Alexander, who brought his self-help guru alter ego, Donny Clay, to Harrah's Resort Atlantic City. Also making a splash at the bayside casino was film star Chazz Palminteri. He spent six summertime weeks dazzling visitors with a one-man stage version of his autobiographical hit movie, "A Bronx Tale."
Borgata's rookies included revered comic-actress Lily Tomlin, and Hollywood pranksters Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean in "Unplugged and Unwigged" mode, showcasing music from such "mockumentaries" as "A Mighty Wind" and "This Is Spinal Tap."
But among the most memorable newbies were three whose fame isn't quite on the level of those listed above. Heading this group was hypnotist Joe Boccuti, whose "Hypnosterical" at Trump Marina was an R-rated hoot. Why this guy doesn't have a permanent home in Atlantic City is one of life's great riddles.
On the other hand, comic-magician Paul Kozak has established local residency: Seven nights a week he performs a 6 p.m., family-friendly show at the Comedy Stop at Tropicana. Like Boccuti, "Koz" deserves a permanent, high-profile casino showcase.
Even more off the beaten track was the Atlantic City Hilton's presentation of the Boston-based Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra, best described as a classic-rock cover band on steroids. The huge ensemble tore it up with frighteningly clonelike renditions of signature songs by Queen, David Bowie, the Who and other rock gods.
After a decade in the Nevada desert (where they headline at the Rio in Las Vegas), the always-brilliant Penn & Teller returned for a typically amazing Memorial Day weekend gig at Harrah's.
A more consistent visitor is Frank Caliendo. The Borgata regular proved again why he is the top impressionist working today.
Jerry Seinfeld played Caesars and turned in the funniest set he's done in Atlantic City in many years.
Warhorses Crosby, Stills & Nash likewise turned in their best performance in memory at Borgata.
A 'Who's Who' of talent
A dazzling array of stars filled out Borgata's dance card. To name but a few who played there this year: Stevie Wonder, Robin Williams, Bill Maher, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Journey, Jackson Browne, Depeche Mode, Cheech & Chong, No Doubt and Kid Rock, Diana Krall, John Legend, Mary J. Blige, Seal, Carlos Mencia, Tracy Morgan and Wanda Sykes.
Extended-run extravaganzas no longer anchor the year-round entertainment scene as they did throughout the 1980s and '90s, and those that did hit the boards in '09 were not always of the highest caliber. But there were a noteworthy few.
The move from Trump Plaza's intimate, old-school nightclub to Trump Taj Mahal's more cavernous Xanadu room worked out well for impresario Neil Goldberg's "Cirque Dreams" franchise. While the second annual edition of his "Holidaze" production benefited from the switch, the difference was really seen in the summerlong presentation of "Pandemonia."
The third entry in the Trump organization's troika of warm-weather frolics also scored in a big way as AyCee vets Mark Kalin & Jinger and their campy aide-de-camp Jeff Hobson offered "Carnival of Wonders," a first-class magic show, at the Plaza.
Maybe the year's nicest surprise was Tropicana's fall production of "Footloose."
Coming as it did on the heels of the thoroughly wretched "Fame," my expectations for "Footloose" were basically nonexistent. But a cast whose dramatic chops were far above what we've come to expect at the Trop put this version of the popular movie-turned-Broadway-hit over the top.
The hottest show business trend of '09? That's an easy one: reality TV stars.
From master of the canine universe Cesar Millan ("The Dog Whisperer") at Resorts Atlantic City to the big-haired harpies of "Real Housewives of New Jersey" (Hilton) to a slew of celeb chefs (see below), reality TV denizens seemed to be in town weekly.
And why not? They boast legions of rabid fans and, unlike musical acts, they require neither large entourages nor elaborate staging. It would be the upset of 2010 if this booking philosophy didn't gain even more traction in the casino realm.
From a casino entertainment perspective, perhaps the most surefire aspect of the reality TV craze was in the kitchen.
Spearheaded by Harrah's Entertainment's ultrasuccessful Food & Wine Festival, TV chefs including Paula Deen, Guy Fieri, Tom Colicchio and Emeril Lagasse seemingly made Atlantic City their home away from home. And you can expect even more of the same next year.
Recognizing a need to expand the customer base beyond gamblers, Harrah's entertainment successfully mined business in some unusual places.
Beyond the foodie universe, the company's four properties (Harrah's, Caesars, Showboat and Bally's) lured an affluent - if often overlooked - demographic to town with its first "Weekend Out in A.C." event for the gay/lesbian/transgendered community.
By all accounts, it was a rousing success, and a 2010 encore seems assured.
Inarguably, the biggest and most successful bash was the mid-August Atlantic City Air Show. Sponsored by Borgata, the aerial spectacular drew an estimated 750,000 people to town. If Borgata and the city could figure out a way to make the air show the centerpiece of a multiday happening, AyCee would have an event worthy of international attention.
The club scene - which every weekend throughout the year drew thousands of well-heeled young partyers - added a significant player with the midyear opening of Dusk at Caesars.
Unfortunately, tragedy wasn't far behind, as club co-founder DJ AM, who grew up near Rittenhouse Square, was found dead in his Manhattan apartment just weeks after Dusk debuted.
One more thing . . .
From me and mine to you and yours: May you have a wonderful Christmas and a happy, healthy, prosperous and lucky 2010.
See you in January!
Chuck Darrow has covered Atlantic City and casinos for more than 20 years. Read his blog http://go.philly.com/casinotes.
E-mail him at email@example.com.
And listen to his Atlantic City report Saturdays at 1:25 a.m. with Steve Trevelise on WIP (610-AM).