The Casino File: Remembering the Sands, Atlantic City’s coolest ‘old school’ casino; new Pittsburgh gaming hall names opening date

It was small and, by the time of its demise, run-down and dated. But the Sands was always a first-rate operation, especially when it came to entertainment.
Live! Casino Pittsburgh finishing up construction on it's facade on October 8, 2020.
Live! Casino Pittsburgh finishing up construction on it's facade on October 8, 2020.@livecasinoPGH on Twitter

The primary responsibility of this weekly exercise is to keep those who are interested in such matters up-to-date on the fun and games in Atlantic City and Pennsylvania casinos. As such, we beg your indulgence as this installment of The Casino File instead turns its gaze to the past.

Thirteen years ago this month, the first (and still-only demolition of an AyCee casino-hotel took place as, in a mere 20 seconds, the Sands Hotel & Casino crumbled to the ground amidst a sound-and-light extravaganza designed to rev up excitement for what was supposed to replace it: A $2 billion, ocean-and-beach themed mega-resort to be built by Las Vegas-based Pinnacle Entertainment.

The planned pleasure dome never materialized—a victim of the Great Recession of the late-2000s—and the midtown site on which sat the Sands remains a vacant lot. Fittingly, like the Sands itself, Pinnacle years ago ceased to exist (it was absorbed by Penn National Gaming).

But the memories of the property, which opened in August, 1980 as the Brighton (it became the Sands in May, 1981) and closed in November, 2006, remain among the most treasured of this long-time casino observer.

To be sure, the Sands always had its issues: It was small (the hotel tower was never more than a handful of units over the state-mandated 500-room minimum) and it was the only non-Marina-District property that didn’t open directly onto the Boardwalk, as it was set back a city block because the land between it and the Great Wood Way had a different owner for most of the casino’s existence. But that didn’t keep the Sands from being an industry leader, particularly in the realm of entertainment.

The Sands’ performance space was the 850-seat Copa Room—which was also the name of the legendary show biz venue at the Las Vegas Sands (the casino licensed its name, and that of the Copa Room, from the Vegas original). It was the quintessential old-school gaming hall showroom, a carpeted, upholstered and tiered nightclub that had long, rectangular tables as well as several rows of plush, horseshoe-shaped booths for the biggest of big players and other VIPs.

Both the sightlines and acoustics were wonderful—arguably the town’s gold standards. And the ambiance was second to none; the Copa screamed “Rat Pack!”

Initially, the Sands hewed to a standard casino-entertainment strategy, booking headliners (e.g. Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme, Don Rickles) preferred by middle-aged and older gamblers. But in the mid-1980s, a young talent booker named Tom Cantone was hired away from Hershey Park to run the entertainment department. It was a most significant hiring.

Cantone, who today serves as vice-president of sports & entertainment for the ever-expanding Mohegan Sun gaming empire, booked his share of traditional gaming hall attractions. But in 1985, he bucked prevailing wisdom and signed Eddie Murphy, who had risen to mega-stardom on Saturday Night Live and was just beginning his run as a movie-and-standup giant.

That a casino would showcase an act whose primary audience was not the gambling crowd was unheard of, and the industry’s old guard was skeptical (if not derisive) of the booking. But Cantone (as well as the sold-out Copa Room crowds) had the last laugh, and a new era in casino entertainment was launched.

From there, the Sands time and again pulled ahead of the curve by booking, among others, Robin Williams; Jerry Seinfeld (pre-Seinfeld); Linda Ronstadt; the trio formerly known as the Dixie Chicks (now just The Chicks); The Pretenders and even Bob Dylan, whose ostensibly incongruous performance of “Masters of War,” one of his most strident protest songs, at the Copa is indelibly stored in my memory.

The Copa Room was also where Cher became the first-ever AyCee headliner to command $200 for a ticket (in August, 1989; when I asked her if she thought she was worth it, she replied she didn’t think any performer was). And it was the last local venue to have hosted Frank Sinatra (his final gig there was November 20, 1994).

When, in 1990, Cantone left to run the show business operations at the three casinos then owned by Donald Trump (he subsequently returned for a second stint), his successor, Jim Wise (now vice-president of marketing at FireKeepers Casino Hotel in Battle Creek, Mich.), continued the adventurous booking strategy.

At the risk of sounding like the nostalgia-wallowing old geezer that I am, I would give anything to see just one more show at the Copa Room. And I’m sure anyone who was fortunate enough to have also attended a performance there would happily join me.

In Pennsylvania

Live! Pittsburg sets opening date

Pennsylvania’s newest casino will open for business at the Westmoreland Mall in suburban Greensburg, Pa at 10 a.m. on Nov. 24 pending the (expected) “okey-dokey” from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

The bi-level Live! Casino Pittsburgh, whose “mini-casino” license limits its 100,000 square feet to 750 state-of-the-art slot machines and some 30 live-action table games, boasts the FanDuel-branded sports-betting parlor housed inside the two-floor Sports & Social Steel City, an adults-only facility that offers guests a 45-foot LED video screen on which as many as 16 games can be screened simultaneously.

The space includes full dining and beverage service and a number of interactive activities including bowling, simulated golf and ping pong.

While the first floor is, of course, restricted to folks on the far side of 21, the upper level is an all-ages complex featuring entertainment and food options including Guy Fieri's American Kitchen + Bar.

Live! Pittsburgh is a project of Cordish Gaming, which is planning to open Live! Casino & Hotel Philadelphia adjacent to Citizens Bank Park, most likely in the first quarter of 2021.

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