Living it up on the Boardwalk in ATLANTIC CITY

Times Travel Editor

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."

Atlantic City today is a case of rich man, poor man. While unemployment is high, the city's shakers and movers insist there's work, but that some prefer the welfare rolls.

Stella Iapalucci, who drives a tram along the Boardwalk, says, "Atlantic City is alive, and the casinos made it happen."

One of her passengers, white-haired Lettie Nitzky, recalls when vacationers wearing bathing suits were banned from the Boardwalk.

It's a different scene today. You get the idea it's Halloween 365 days a year. There is no dress code. In some cases there's practically no dress at all.

Squeezed between the multimillion-dollar hotel casinos are tawdry pizza parlors, hot dog stands, palmists and shops dispensing everything from T-shirts to saltwater taffy and chocolate-covered pretzels.

The Food & Brew occupies an old Warner Bros. movie theater where Miss America contestants once appeared. Hostess Michelle Petti describes crowds outside as "rude and obnoxious" and insists Atlantic City has "changed for the worse."

Up the street a billboard erected by Caesars coaxes customers to its restaurants and "the only tables in Atlantic City where you can't lose." Nearby, Mme. Patsy reads palms and a plastic surgeon is occupied doing face lifts.

Three Britishers breezed down the Boardwalk the other day in one of Atlantic City's fabled rolling wicker chairs, pushed along by a lad from Naples, Fla.

"Atlantic City?" one of the ladies asked. "It's wonderful!"

During the era when Atlantic City was still the "Queen of Resorts," the wicker chairs were a constant reminder of happy, carefree holidays. Vacationers sought refuge in magnificent hotels--the Ritz and Shelburne, the Chalfonte-Haddon, the Marlboro-Blenheim. These and others.

Now flashy casino hotels are strung along the Boardwalk, together with a new 34-story condominium development, the Ocean Club, whose 725 apartments are up for grabs for $180,000 to $1.6 million apiece. Even at those prices, the development is nearly sold out. Buyers include Vic Damone, Rod McKuen, LeRoy Neiman, David Brenner and Art Linkletter.

The lavish, $200-million development is described by its operators as the most expensive piece of residential real estate between New York and Florida--a self-contained resort featuring shops, a gourmet restaurant, a health club, swimming pool and nightclub.

Next door, high rollers and high pullers pack Steve Wynn's Golden Nugget with its 1,200 slot machines and six restaurants. (Would you believe a place called Lily Langtry's serves Chinese meals?) A sign at the Nugget's door reads: "You are now entering the world's most fabulous casino where the highest bets are made and the highest jackpots in the world are paid."

Big Gold Nugget

Displayed inside is planet Earth's second-biggest gold nugget, along with an immense cage containing five Disney-like mechanical birds. Frenchy, Bessie, Mac, Lulu and Maude sing out every 15 minutes.

Downstairs in the Creamery banana splits go for $4.25 a pop, and high overhead as many as eight persons squeeze into a Jacuzzi in a suite reserved for high rollers.

A few doors away the Tropicana lays boast to "the biggest jackpot in Atlantic City" ($2.2 million). The hotel's Slot City players pull the levers on 1,450 machines while hot-air balloons dangle above aisles named Watermelon Way, Orange Avenue and Lucky Lane.

Ron DePietro, an ex-blackjack dealer, lures high rollers to the Tropicana with gifts ranging from Cadillac El Dorados and solid-gold putters to TV sets with 50-inch screens. Big spenders are delivered to the Tropicana daily in the casino's own airplane from La Guardia Airport in New York. Like the postman, DePietro charges ahead despite rain, slush or snow.

Champagne, Sandwiches

Once when a high roller's car broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike, DePietro rushed to the rescue with a limousine stocked with Dom Perignon and a hamper stuffed with sandwiches. Another time when a Philadelphia player was snowed in, DePietro had the man's driveway cleared with a plow. He's rescued others with Lear jets and helicopters. Anything to get them to the game on time.

Comps come automatically. Rooms and food. "But," DePietro cautions, "no broads."

DePietro tells you flat out that the house isn't going to lose in the long run. He recalls one high roller who blew $1 million in a single evening. Afterward the man had dinner (on the house, of course) and was flown home in the hotel's helicopter. DePietro tells how the loser shook hands before leaving and said: "Thanks, Ron. I had a wonderful evening."

Atlantic City casino operators use every known persuasion to attract players. Resorts International operates its own helicopter airline, employing big choppers like the one Ronald Reagan flits about Washington in. The three 24-passenger Sikorsky S-61 craft fly between Atlantic City and New York. This is the nation's first helicopter airline with full cabin service (a stewardess pours champagne while passengers listen to stereo).

4-Hour Agreement

Resorts delivers other players to Atlantic City daily in a 48-passenger turbojet designated Flight 711. To qualify for the free ride on 711 players must agree to bet $25 chips for four hours. If they duck out to another casino, Resorts refuses to fly them home.

Resorts is building a $400-million hotel and sports center. Adjoining it will be another casino hotel, the Showboat.

At the same time, Resorts is going ahead with plans to reconstruct Steel Pier, adding a six-story over-water shopping mall with moving sidewalks.

The hotel's flack, Phil Wexler, was on hand recently when a day tripper hit a $27,000 jackpot with the $10 in coins she was given by Resorts. But she wasn't happy. She complained that in all the excitement she'd lost her $3 lunch chit.

The newly rich matron found Wexler. "I lost my lunch money," she said. "I'm hungry."

Wexler took her by the hand and led her off to a deli. "I'll buy," he said.

The lady pocketed her $27,000, and Wexler picked up the tab.

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