The Casino File: A Tic-Tac-Toe-playing chicken? Tropicana Atlantic City celebrates 40 years; Sting tix on sale
Tuesday, Tropicana Atlantic City marks its 40th anniversary. In honor of the occasion, we take a look back at the casino’s rather checkered history.
In the beginning
When it opened on Nov. 23, 1981, the adult playground popularly known as the Trop was the eighth legal gambling den in Atlantic City. Built by the Ramada hotel chain on the site of the Ambassador Hotel (which hosted many of the legendary gangsters who convened in May, 1929 to create the basic architecture of organized crime in the United States), it boasted a full-service casino and a 521-unit, futuristic, pagoda-style hotel tower. In 1983, the Comedy Stop, the city’s first venue devoted exclusively to standup comedy, opened on the tower’s ground floor. Among the then-up-and-coming performers who appeared there were Ray Romano, Rosie O’Donnell, Lewis Black and Drew Carey (fun fact: Romano was performing at the club when he learned CBS had bought his sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond). The Comedy Stop closed in 2015.
A family thing
By the late-1980s, AyCee was riding high thanks to its east-of-the-Mississippi-River legal-gambling monopoly. But the suits at Ramada decided the town needed a family-friendly element. In 1988, an expansion project added a second hotel tower, but there were even more significant changes:
The property was rechristened TropWorld, and a family-centric marketing blueprint was instituted. The expansion included a small, indoor amusement center called Tivoli Pier that featured Boardwalk-style games and a motif inspired by the Atlantic City of the late-Victorian era.
Though many people fondly recalled the town’s halcyon days when it was a summertime mecca for families, the kid-friendly strategy didn’t fly; by 1996, Tivoli Pier was history and the property was rebranded Tropicana Casino & Resort Atlantic City.
The games chickens play
Arguably, the most significant period of the Trop’s existence began when Dennis Gomes was hired as the casino’s CEO. Gomes got into the gaming business after a career in Nevada law enforcement (it was he who initially spearheaded the investigation into organized crime’s chokehold on various Las Vegas casinos that was immortalized in the Martin Scorsese film, Casino). After serving as an executive at numerous Vegas properties, he was brought to Atlantic City in 1991 by Donald Trump to run the Taj Mahal Casino-Resort (now Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City).
But it was at the Trop that Gomes, who died at age of 68 in 2012 while undergoing treatment for kidney disease, changed the game in Atlantic City. It was during his time there that the Havana-in-the-‘50s-themed The Quarter—AyCee’s only Vegas-style retail, dining and entertainment complex was built. This was the result of Gomes’ belief that in the face of the expansion of legal gambling in other states, Atlantic City casinos needed to offer more than gaming tables, slot machines, entertainment and nice restaurants.
While The Quarter and its Havana Tower hotel have been a success from its November 23, 2004 opening, it was also the site of the worst construction accident of the legal-casino era. On Oct. 30, 2003, several floors of The Quarter’s partially built parking garage collapsed. Four people died and 21 others were injured.
Construction ultimately resumed and The Quarter opened, but Gomes, who thoroughly understood that casinos were, at essence, a part of the entertainment industry, wasn’t content with his glittering mall and insisted on pushing the marketing envelope. Among his promotional concepts was the presentation of large-scale, long-running exhibitions dedicated to such subjects as John F. Kennedy, the Titanic and, most controversially, the history of torture. But the stunt that garnered the most notoriety (via national media coverage) was the introduction of a chicken that played Tic-Tac-Toe against Trop guests.
Gomes, who favored track suits or khaki pants and open-collar polo shirts rather than the expensive suits worn by most gaming-industry chieftans, ultimately left Tropicana. In 2010, he joined with Central New Jersey businessman Morris Bailey to purchase Resorts Atlantic City, where he continued to innovate until his untimely death (among his projects there was the creation of Prohibition, the first gay-focused nightclub located in an American casino).
Following Gomes’ departure, Tropicana headed into an extended period of neglect and decay under a series of owners (including billionaire Carl Ichan). One proprietor, Columbia Essex, allowed things to deteriorate so much that in 2007, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission denied the company’s request to have its operating license renewed.
Bad luck struck the property again in April, 2008 when a malfunction sent a 12-passenger elevator with a reported 20 people aboard plummeting. Fortunately, the car’s emergency-braking system limited the damage to minor injuries sustained by four guests.
Unlike so many gambling dens that opened around the same time it did (e.g. the Brighton, later the Sands, Playboy, Claridge and Steve Wynn’s original Golden Nugget), the Trop managed to survive. It entered a new age in 2020 when Reno, Nev.-based Eldorado Resorts (which bought the casino in 2018) merged with Caesars Entertainment, thus making Tropicana part of the Caesars gaming empire.
So far, this latest move has yielded a few public-facing changes for the Trop, but it’s logical to assume that will change in the months and years ahead.
Spring fling for Sting
Tickets are now on sale for the May 13 and 14 performances by pop-and-rock deity (and tantric sex fan) Sting at Hard Rock.
Der Stingle’s gigs at the Rock are part of his My Songs global road trip that actually began two-and-a-half years ago (and which, of course, was shut down by the global pandemic). For tickets, click here.