July 24, 1977 was Jean and Billy Weinberger Day by proclamation of the governor of Nevada. There were parties. So much celebrating that Willaim S. Weinberger remembers, "It was like a Polish wedding."
Las Vegas was saying good-bye to one of his own - the president of Caesar's Palace and good friend of Frank Sinatra, entertainer, sports figures, hotel employes and gamblers, lots of gamblers. Weinberger traded Vegas for this seashore derelict to help save Atlantic City through gambling or, as Weinberger prefers to call it, "The Gambling Industry."
"Who wants to come here? I can't even get my kids to come here," Weinberger remarks to a man trying to organize a fund-raiser in Atlantic City.
Weinberger, now president of Bally of New Jersey, which plans to build an $83 million casino hotel here, is optimistic about Atlantic City's future, but its past and present puzzle him.
"In the summer," he says, gesturing out the window of his Cadillac, "you can look on any of these streets and you'll see 400 people inbare feet, each carrying his own beach chair." He shakes his head. "Crowds of people in bare feet, carrying beach chairs are not" Weinberger says, "my cup of tea."
And the bicycles. "I want to show you something," Weinberger says, leading the way into the garage of the high-rise building where he own a top-floor apartment. Bikes and grown-up-size tricycles stand everywhere around the few cars. Weinberger pushes open the door into a second room. Bikes are as thick as kudzu vines in a Georgia field.
"Hell, I bought a bike. I haven't had a bike since I was 16 years old," Weinberger, now 65, says. The first day he rode it to work, he hit a bench on the Boardwalk and went right over the handlebars. He's ridden to work a couple of times in what his secretary says is a snappy Oleg Cassini outfit, but Weinberger's good-humored account of his biking exploits doesn't conceal that other activities are more to his liking.
"The excitement," Weinberger replies quickly when he's asked what he misses about Las Vegas. "The excitement and my friends." Of Atlantic City, he says, "You can't get into any trouble here."
His job is to attract gamblers to a casino hotel. "If a fella walks into the casino, I don't care whether he's winning or losing just as long as he's playing. The odds will take care of things," Weinberger says.
By all accounts, Weinberger was superb at his job and the odds never let him down. A Vegas casino, he explains, makes 20 percent of "The Drop," the amount of money that people gamble with. Year after year the profit is within a quarter of one percent of 20 percent. Weinberger spent his 12 years in Vegas after leaving a family restaurant and catering business in Cleveland.
In the late afternoon, every day, seven days a week, Weinberger would take his seat on "my throne," a cocktail lounge table with two telephones overlooking the casino. He held open court for friends, employes, guest - anyone who wanted to approach and meet Billy Weinberger,say a word of thanks or make a complaint.
Weinberger has a terrible memory for names which, with 300-500 rooms turning over every day at Caesar's Palace and daily foot traffic at 20,000 people, could be as disastrous in his profession as a ballplayer's inability to hit the curve ball.
He carries a tiny pad in an elegant case and scribbles down first names and little facts about people. It's "Hiya George, how's your racehorse?"
He is a gentle, big man who wears conservative, expensive clothes and insists on paying every check that comes near him. Weinberger won't discuss his financial arrangement with Bally, but he says of his position at Caesar's: "Frankly speaking, I was if not the highest paid hotel executive in the world, one of them.
"I moved from paradise to Devil's Island and I hope to help convert this into another paradise," Weinberger says. He has no throne in Atlantic City, no regular pals. In 40 years of marriage, he estimates, he's had dinner at home fewer than 100 times and he's still going out for dinner most nights, but in Atlantic City going out isn't that easy."
Jean Weinberger makes it clear that she isn't going to learn to cook after all these years, but she is hiring a cook until the Bally hotel, tentatively to be called the Park Place Casino Hotel, opens.
"What you got?" Weinberger replies when asked which casino game he prefers. On their honeymoon the Weinbergers went to Havana (the a center for legal gambling) and Weinberger went bust at the carp table.
He's found a couple of gin rummy players here, but it doesn't match the Monday night game Weinberger and a few friends started in Vegas that became one of the fixtures of the town. It was a social event.
Weinberger's stories are filled with the names of celebrities who all appear as first names except one - "Mr. Sinatra." Weinberger was one of 175 Sinatra friends who recently paid $2,500 each to fly with Sinatra to Israel.
Mickey Rudin, Sinatra's lawyer, is another close friend. Weinberger and Rudin are spending the last two weeks of May together at "the fat farm" at Duke University. Weinberger weighs 223 and says he wants to lose 15 pounds at the farm.
"At my stage you're supposed to slow down, but I outwork and I think I outthink most young people," Weinberger says. His real hobby is work and his wife has told him that if he ever wants to retire, it would be okay on one condition - that he get a job.
Part of Weinberger's job, when he's running a casino, is what he calls "preserving the customer." When a gambler has lost his cash and whatever prearranged credit he has, Weinberger tries to preserve him by getting him away from the tables.
"A gambler when he's playing will promise you anything," Weinberger says, chewing on the end of an inexpensive cigar. (The cigars are the only inexpensive thing about Weinberger, and he offsets them somewhat by keeping Cuban cigars in his office refrigerator to give to friends.)
Extending credit is a vital part of the casino manager's job. "As soon as a guy shows any speed, you want to know who he is," Weinberger says. He remembers when an Italian walked into Caesar's and began playing very high. "By the time he wanted credit, we knew all about him and his paying habits."
The major sources of information are a casino's friends in a player's hometown and other casinos. In Vegas Weinberger was awakened an average of four times a week by late-night calls from other casinos checking a gambler's credit record.
"If you give a guy $100,000 and he drops it and wants another $10,000, what do you do? It's very difficult."
Weinberger's decisions these days are made of less familiar terrian than a casino. He meets with New Jersey bureaucrats and politicians to plan a casino and win a state license.
Weinberger's phone in his office overlooking the Boardwalk at Park Place rings with calls from reporters seeking his opinions or an update on Bally's progress. And friends seeking advice. "In Paris, the Plaza Athenne, or the Georges V. or the Ritz are all OK hotels," he tells one.
Atlantic City gambling, 18 months after it was approved by a referendum, is finally so close to Memorial Day weekend, people can taste it. But Bally's about 2 1/2 years away, while Resorts International will open the first casino this month.
"I'm yesterday's newspaper right now," Weinberger tells a man who wants to help with a benefit. "I don't think I could draw flies here.
"Wait until I've got a hotel. When this hotel opens it's not going to be a local incident," Weinberger says.
"July 1980," Weinberger says to caller after caller who asks when he'll be open for business. He savors the words.