Casino File: Penn Jillette talks Atlantic City as Penn & Teller return; Robert Irvine cooks at Live! Philly
The one-of-a-kind comedy-magic team Penn & Teller stands as the longest-running resident headliner act (as opposed to production show) in Las Vegas history: Twenty years and counting. But that formidable milestone may not have been reached had it not been for what took place some 35 years earlier on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
As the 66-year-old Penn Jillette recalled during a recent phone chat, by the mid-1980s, Penn & Teller’s then-decade-old partnership had achieved a level of success while neither courting nor aspiring to mainstream success. The erstwhile street performers had found a relatively small, but rabid, audience enchanted by and enthralled with their singular blend of cynical, wise-guy humor and often-cerebral magic tricks--some of which were accompanied by rivers of fake blood and fraught situations that appeared to put the towering, motormouthed Jillette and his much shorter, always-silent-onstage partner, the mono-monikered Philadelphia native Teller, in physical danger. It was a situation with which they were completely satisfied. But then an offer of work came from a most unexpected source: Joel Fischman, who at the time was director of entertainment at the now-demolished Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino.
For the most part, Fischman hewed to what was then standard operating procedure for those who ran gaming hall show biz operations by booking the likes of old-school comics Buddy Hackett and Alan King and such crooners as Engelbert Humperdinck and Jimmy Roselli—e.g. the types of acts that lured older, well-heeled gamblers.
“We were off-off-Broadway and we considered ourselves--and I say this with embarrassment--we considered ourselves, really hip and smart,” said Jillette, who, with his partner, performs Dec. 9 at Wind Creek Bethlehem and the next two days at Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City. “And Joel came to us and said, ‘I want to book you in Atlantic City.’ And we said, ‘Sorry, we would never play in Atlantic City for gamblers and casino people.’
“And he said, ‘Well, I'll make a deal with you: You come down and do the smartest stuff you can possibly do, and try to alienate the audience. And if you don't like it after three days, you can leave and I'll pay you for the whole week’—or whatever it was; it might have been five days. It really was a stupid offer.”
“So we went down and guess what? The audiences were exactly the same as in New York--in some cases, literally the same people. That was the big punchline, the joyous discovery that we liked being down there.”
While that first gig saw P&T open for The Temptations, they subsequently returned to the Plaza as headliners on a regular basis. A winter, 1987 Plaza run coincided with the filming of their sole cinematic effort to date, the ultra-black comedy Penn & Teller Get Killed, which was directed by the legendary Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde).
In the mid-‘90s, Fischman moved to Bally’s Las Vegas and, not surprisingly, took the team with him, thus introducing P&T to that city. In 2001, they moved to the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino where they remain to this day, performing some 40 weeks a year at the Penn & Teller Theater.
Even after they put down roots in the Nevada desert, P&T always made it a point to return to Atlantic City whenever their schedule permitted. They performed at the Claridge when it was a casino (it’s now a non-gambling hotel) and, more recently, at Casears Atlantic City and Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City. It was at the Claridge that the team first performed its bullet-catching bit in AyCee which, Jillette—who anticipates producing another season of the popular CW magic series, Penn & Teller: Fool Us-- proudly noted, was voted as the greatest stage trick of all time by their fellow magicians.
As happened to every performer regardless of genre, the first 15 or so months of the COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on gigging. But Jillette said that in at least one way, the virus-imposed hiatus proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“I think we wrote about 20, 25 new tricks,” he offered. “It's what we did during the lockdown. We'd go on Zoom and then we were in the same bubble, so we’d get together and it was really, I don't want to use any positive words because it was such a horrible thing for everyone, but there was a feeling of a gentle sweetness, because [in the early days of the act], we used to sit in the living room, just the two of us, and think about what ideas we wanted to do.
“And during the lockdown, it was again just the two of us sitting in the living room, going, ‘Wouldn't this be neat?’ and building stuff out of cardboard and gaffer’s tape.
“And there was one moment during the horrible shutdown where Teller looked at me and said, ‘You know, this is kind of nice.’”
For Hard Rock tickets, click here.
For Wind Creek tickets, click here.
Celebri-chef deals dinner in Philly
Irvine, whose resume includes stints on such Food Network programs as Worst Cooks in America, Next Iron Chef and, of course, Restaurant: Impossible and Dinner: Impossible (he also spent time as the executive chef at Resorts Atlantic City) will check into the South Philly gaming hall Dec. 18 and preside over an event that combines a cooking seminar with a three-course dinner prepared by Irvine in collaboration with the Live! culinary team.
For tickets and info, click here.
Livin’ the suite life at the Rock
Hard Rock Atlantic City has just made available a hotel deal that gives visitors a chance to live the high life for a couple nights.
The pop-music-themed adult playground is offering what’s been dubbed the Double Platinum Package. The plan, which costs $2,022 (get it?) is available through Feb. 28. It includes:
*A two-night stay in a suite.
*Two tickets to the show of your choice.
*A VIP Table for two at Lobby Bar.
*A $222 dining credit.
*A couples massage at Rock Spa & Salon.
*Two “swag bags.”
*An “ultra-exclusive” private memorabilia tour for two.