Big Del Connor passed away just before Christmas, on a cold, gray Potomac day when the river looked like slate. He was only 62, healthy for a man who didn't so much sit on a bar stool as envelope it, healthy enough that most people thought this resort he built would die before he did.
People here say that Connor believed this dingy, cracked-paint resort would someday awaken to a renaissance, that someday, somehow, it would be again as it was 30 years ago, when The Saturday Evening Post called it "Las Vegas on the Potomac." In those days, Connor owned the grandest casino in town, the "Little Reno," a pier as wide and long as a football field, open 24 hours a day, with 200 slot machines, twin grand pianos bought especially for Guy Lombardo, and a dance floor said to be as shiny as Pat Boone's patent leathers.
Connor owned one-third of a mile of river front, an amusement park, a 115-room hotel built around a summer home that once belonged to Gen. "Lighthorse" Harry Lee, father of Robert E. Lee. He flew his customers from Washington in his "Champagne Cruiser," a 1933 Boeing 247, pink inside and out, a champagne glass painted on the tail. Following the 18-minute flight to Reno Sky Park and Connor's one-mile landing strip, passengers were driven to Little Reno in a pink limousine.
Then the slot machines were gone, banned in a fit of Old Dominion morality. The year was 1958. Casinos closed, jobs were lost. And Colonial Beach became just another town along the road to Stratford, Robert E. Lee's birthplace.
Today, Reno still stands, though half of it has been destroyed by fire. The Collier Boys from Stafford, Va. have replaced Guy Lombardo. Pac-Man has replaced the slots. The beach has eroded to just 25 feet, hard sand and pebbles used by only a handful of tourists on a summer day when the air is humid and still. Dead fish float on the water and on the block-long boardwalk weeds grow through cracks in the cement.
Lerena Fries is still tending Fries' Hotel and Restaurant, as she has for 47 years, and Alice Rock, 82, is still keeping Rock's Hotel alive, offering 12 of the town's 85 hotel rooms for $12 a night. Local merchants say business this summer is down by a third from last year. Last year they said it was down a third from the year before. But once again, Colonial Beach is changing.
Video games talk across the empty afternoon as an air conditioner from Jones' Snowball Stand throws a rush of hot air at the few passersby. A couple doors down, rock and roll blares from the open windows of the Ambassador Hotel, where a man in his early 40s is running around on the roof in a red bathing suit and a yellow cape. He is Jeff Swanson and three years ago he bought the place--the hotel that Del Connor first owned when he came to Colonial Beach.
Jeff Swanson is from Brooklyn. He has a college degree in marketing and a concept for Colonial Beach, just as Del once did. "What do kids need but music, food and a place to sleep?" asks the man who once stood up at a council meeting and demanded to know the town elders' stand on nuclear disarmament. Swanson's concept is a Rock and Roll Hotel--live music on the weekends with a "Georgetown Flair."
"Colonial Beach is a freak trip," he says at a staccato, Big Apple clip. "Why not play on that. Bring the people out. We're going to get in Guinness Book of World records with a continuous, three-day Foosball game. Then I'm gonna have a kid float on a raft for three days straight. We're gonna shake, rattle and rock and roll this town back to life!"
In 1949, when Maryland legalized gambling, it didn't take Del Connor long to realize that he, too, could have gambling. The Maryland border included the Potomac, so if he built a pier out over the water, the slot machines would be in Maryland, even though the door to the place was in Virginia.
Soon there were six casinos, three of them owned by Connor, and 20,000 gamblers a weekend. The Saturday Evening Post article appeared in the Sept 7, 1957 edition, along with a story introducing a clan dubbed "The Amazing Kennedys" and one about Phil Silvers and his television series, "Sergeant Bilko." An ad from Kodak introduced color slides.
Connor's Little Reno was characterized as a "gambling hell . . . where victims of gambling fever were queded up six deep . . . ashen faced and glassey eyed, their hands stained black from clutching coins." People dozed in cars in the 1,000-car parking lot, while girls wearing slacks and boys in multicolored sport shirts danced inside, "favoring a vigorous free style which has obliged Connor to post a sign: NO BOP DANCING." "Fleet-footed money changers" ran through the crowd, while hundreds bellied up to the horseshoe-shaped bar, where "a generous slug of whisky" was served for fifty cents.
Presiding over it all from his perch at a bar stool was Del Connor, huge but tailored, a presence in a crowd. He wore silk sport shirts and pleated slacks. He'd been born to the wife of a policeman, the eldest of seven children who dropped out of 10th grade in Fairmont, W. Va. to go to work in a glass factory and later the Navy's Torpedo Station in Alexandria.
After the war, he bought the Ambassador Hotel in Colonial Beach for $15,000, but he was so cash poor after the purchase that he couldn't afford to pay $14.97 to have the gas hook-ups installed for his ovens. In 1949, he sold the Ambassador to his brother and took a chance on casinos. Soon he was a millionaire several times over.
Colonial Beach prospered with him. Ninety miles from Washington, the resort was founded by a steamboat company during the Gay Nineties, but it had just about died with the invention of the Ford. Eight years after the slots came, the population had risen from 1,000 to 2,400. There were 11 hotels and five motels, 35 cottages and apartments, 200 new buildings, a couple of bowling alleys.
Connor became known as the town's beneficent boss, a "live wire with a heart of gold," says one long-time resident. He held benefit dances for the Chamber of Commerce, built them a headquarters in the middle of town, donated food to the poor at Christmas, resanded the public beaches every year at his own expense. He started the town's Potomac River Festival, held each June. Every year, he'd ride the parade in a pink car that reared up on its hind wheels, spun, bucked and fired blank shells from a toy cannon. "Comical," Del once said of his act. "The people laugh themselves sick."
The town got pretty gamey, too. The Washington Times-Herald called it "lawlessness and licensiousness" in an article headlined: "Out of Control." It told the story of a teen-age Washington girl found nude by the scene of an auto accident "so drunk she was oblivious of her nudity." After midnight, the town "matches anything the writer has seen on shore patrol duty . . . in Guantanamo Bay, where the principal source of livelihood is prostitution."
Even though the local preachers had been quiet for some time, articles like this got them sermonizing. They filled their churches with tirades entitled "The One Armed Bandit" and "Sodom and Gomorrah." Finally, in 1958 Virginia Gov. Thomas A. Stanley used his influence with Maryland Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin, and the slots were banned at the piers.
Said the Colonial Beach mayor: "I can say Colonial Beach will do all right."
It didn't, at least not the way it used to. A few tourists still come, attracted by Colonial Beach's proximity to the Washington area or to the Shenandoah Valley. The economic analysis all over town sounds the same. "When people are out of work as they are now," says James Karn, executive secretary of the chamber for 35 years, "the first thing to go is vacations."
"The place is just kind of boring," says Melvin Pete Hoffman, a resident for more than 50 years. "Maybe if they had a race track or a golf course or a summer theater, even a movie theatre. But no one is interested."
Nobody, maybe, except people like Jeff Swanson. Though Swanson has decorated his place with pictures of Jerry Rubin and Ho Chi Minh and says, "I became a socialist in 1973," he looks at his club as "something I own, something that I can make happen, something that will make me the money I will need when I get burned out."
Swanson sees potential in "funky Colonial Beach." The average house sale last year was $49,000 and 36 high-rise condominiums are being built on the riverfront. The most expensive two-bedroom models will sell in the $85,000 range. And down past the boardwalk, the Army Corps of Engineers is reclaiming 2,000 feet of eroded beach in a $1.1 million project, three quarters of which is being paid for with state and federal grants.
"It's like this," Swanson says, leaning closer, whispering, taking you into confidence. "All these old ladies up and down the beach are ready to sell their places at the drop of a buck. We can take over. We can bring people in by plane. We can have rock benefits, have one coming up this fall. We can get P.M. Magazine and Howard Stern.
"I got ideas. Ideas will make this place fly. How do you think Mr. Connor did it? Big Del Connor had ideas." CAPTION: Picture 1, Once the grandest casino in town, the "Little Reno," a pier as wide and long as a football field with 200 slot machines and twin grand pianos, still stands, though half of it has been destroyed by fire. By James McNamara -- TWP; Picture 2, Del Connor and his brother Dennis. Del became known as the town's beneficent boss, a "live wire with a heart of gold." By Ollie Atkins -- The Satruday Evening Post; Picture 3, Colonial Beach today. By Ray Lustig -- TWP; Pictures 4, and 5, Jeff and Nancy Swans on, who bought the Ambassador Hotel three years ago, with a creature from "Alien." Colonial Beach waterfront looking south.;Picture 6, Alice Rock, 82, is still keeping Rock's Hotel alive, offering 12 of the town's 85 hotel rooms for $12 a night. By Ray Lustig -- TWP; Picture 7, Jimmy Jones' Snowball Stand is a neighbor of the Ambassador Hotel in Colonial Beach, where things may start changing. By Ray Lustig -- The Washington Post