The Casino File: A Rolling Stone threatened to stab Donald Trump – remembering Trump Plaza as demolition nears
Bettors insider's casino reporter offers some favorite memories of, and stories about, what was once known as “Atlantic City’s Centerpiece”
If all goes according to plan, next Wednesday will see the bringing down of what has been, since the latter part of 2014, Atlantic City’s most prominent and infamous eyesore, Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino.
Located on the Boardwalk at Missouri Avenue just a couple blocks from the southern terminus of the Atlantic City Expressway, the Plaza opened its doors on May 15, 1984. On that day, the glittering gambling den was called Harrah’s at Trump Plaza as it was jointly owned by Donald Trump and Harrah’s Inc., which at the time was not the Caesars Entertainment brand it is today, but a separate entity that already operated the popular bayside casino-hotel of the same name. It closed for good on Sept. 16, 2014, a victim of the expansion of legal casino gaming in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, as well as neglect on the part of its final (and current) owner, billionaire businessman Carl Icahn.
As the casino columnist for the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill, N.J. and a half-dozen other daily papers in Jersey and New York state, I spent a good deal of time at the Plaza during its 1980s-and-‘90s heyday. Below are some recollections of the doomed property.
No sympathy for ‘The Donald’
In December, 1989, The Rolling Stones ended their Steel Wheels tour—the band’s first U.S. road trip in eight years--with three Trump Plaza-sponsored performances at what was then called Atlantic City Convention Hall (now Jim Whelen Boardwalk Hall), which is right next door.
The second of the three gigs (Dec. 18-20) was broadcast globally as a pay-per-view event. It also, so the story goes, inspired guitarist Keith Richards to contemplate introducing a future (now-former) President of the United States to the blade of his knife.
According to the tour’s producer, Michael Cohl, the contract with the Plaza specifically prohibited Donald Trump from any direct involvement with the broadcast save for interviews with Atlantic City-based media.
A CBS News segment on the concert had been set for 6:40 p.m. that evening, at which time a live feed would be broadcast. But less than an hour prior to that, Cohl was apprised that Trump was holding a general press conference in the same auditorium location from which the Stones’ CBS spot was to emanate.
Cohl rushed from the Plaza and put an end to the Q-and-A session, then returned to the hotel—where he was told that Trump was again taking questions from the media. At that point, Cohl has maintained, Richards pulled out the knife he always carried and announced that if Cohl didn’t muzzle Trump, he would.
Cohl returned to Convention Hall only to be met by three Trump security officers whom he has described as having a threatening demeanor. But the promoter wasn’t alone; accompanying him were several members of the Stones’ road crew each of whom carried a tire iron or similar makeshift weapon.
And thus Donald Trump was, for one of the few times in his life, silenced.
Fun fact 1: The three-show stand’s finale was the last North American gig original Stones bassist Bill Wyman ever did with the band.
Fun fact 2: Among those at Trump’s presser was one person who certainly didn’t appear to belong there. She was a youngish, quite attractive blonde who clearly was not a media type (one giveaway: she wasn’t wearing any press credentials).
The party of the century
In boxing circles, June 27, 1988 will always be remembered as the night Mike Tyson knocked out Michael Spinks in the first round of their bout at Convention Hall, thus beginning his domination of the sport. But I’ll always remember it for the pre-fight soiree that arguably stands as the most star-studded gathering of AyCee’s legal-casino era.
Held in the Plaza’s main ballroom, the list of attendees was nothing less than astonishing — and, clearly, a testament to Donald Trump’s celebrity status at that time.
Among the numerous bold-face revelers were comics Billy Crystal, Jackie Mason, and Milton Berle. The Hollywood contingent included director Rob Reiner, Jack Nicholson, and Warren Beatty, as well as Robin Givens, then a TV sitcom star, who was also known at that point as Mrs. Mike Tyson. The recently deceased talk show host Larry King—then a mass-media titan--was there, as were horrormeister Stephen King and pop-music giant Paul Simon.
About half-way through the bash, newlyweds Sean Penn and Madonna entered the room, which sent the paparazzi in attendance into a feeding frenzy. Perhaps my most vivid memory of the evening is of the couple —who it was later learned, had no idea the media was invited — never breaking stride as they made their way along the room’s right-side wall and disappeared into the kitchen in order to effect their exit through a side door.
But Penn and Madonna were ultimately upstaged. A few minutes after they departed, an even-more-powerful power couple (at least for the evening) showed up: Rev. Jesse Jackson, then campaigning for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, arrived accompanied by network TV crews, a Secret Service detail and Oprah Winfrey.
Truly, a night for the ages.
Pomposity with a side of condescension
The Plaza boasted two of my all-time favorite casino gourmet rooms, the Italian-centric Roberto’s and Max’s Steak House. The kitchen, service and ambiance were consistently top-shelf at both, and I always welcomed an excuse to chow down at either of them. The Plaza’s other gourmet room, not so much.
That would be Ivana’s, which, obviously, was named for Trump’s above-mentioned ex-wife. I can say with confidence the number of times I ate there was far less than the number of times I turned down invitations to eat there. Why? Funny you should ask.
First of all, the room, whose fare was continental haute cuisine, was meant to be a reflection of the elegant lifestyle Mr. and (first) Mrs. Trump tried so hard to symbolize. But Ivana’s was so self-consciously “elegant” that it was just ridiculously stuffy; imagine eating dinner in a museum dedicated to Victorian interior design.
Then there was the food, which, decades later, I still recall as mediocre at best.
But most of all, I preferred to avoid Ivana’s because of its maitre d’ (who shall remain nameless), whose vaguely European accent, over-the-top pomposity and offciousness and refusal to conceal his contempt for those he deemed not worthy of his respect (or obsequiousness) was laughable: He was a caricature of the snooty headwaiter (I had never experienced the act of someone “looking down his nose” at me until I ate there). His whole demeanor led me to believe (only half-jokingly) that in the 1930s and ‘40s, the guy was Heinrich Himmler’s valet.
The cradle of a superstar career
It’s not well-known, but Trump Plaza was the launching pad for the rocket the one-of-a-kind comedy/magic duo, Penn & Teller, rode to superstardom.
While the team had achieved a relative degree of success by the late 1980s, they were still more of a “cult” act and mostly unknown to mainstream audiences. That began to change when Joel Fischman, at the time the Plaza’s entertainment director, took a chance and booked them into the casino’s showroom. This was at a time when the most popular Atlantic City casino headliners were the likes of Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme, Buddy Hackett, Alan King and, of course, Frank Sinatra.
Penn & Teller's first engagement was so successful that they became Plaza regulars, which led to casino bookings beyond AyCee. And in the early 1990s, when Fischman moved to Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, he established their first-ever gaming hall residency. In January, 2001, the team began its run at Vegas’ Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino, where they still perform (or did until the COVID-19 pandemic exploded—and, presumably, will again post-outbreak), making theirs the longest-running such program in the history of the desert Babylon.
Fun fact: During their St. Valentine’s Day weekend 1987 Plaza engagement, Penn & Teller filmed some scenes there—including one in the casino--for their first (and only) movie, Penn & Teller Get Killed, which was directed by Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde).
A star is born
Penn & Teller weren’t the only ones for whom the Plaza was a career springboard. Steve McCoy likewise owes something to the casino. His story is one of the greatest “How I Got Into Show Business” tales of all time:
Back in the day, the Plaza’s summer headliner schedule was such that an act would perform nightly Tuesday through Sunday. Also at that time, every summer, top-rated Philadelphia morning radio host John DeBella would broadcast a week’s worth of shows from the Plaza’s theater.
In August of 1989, Tom Jones was the headliner the week DeBella set up shop there. That inspired the disc jockey to stage—for laughs, of course--a Jones-impersonation contest during one of his broadcasts.
At the time, McCoy was a South Jersey landscaper whose performing experience was limited to entertaining his buddies with his surprisingly accurate Jones imitation. When they learned of DeBella’s competition, they convinced McCoy to enter.
The contest, which he won, happened to be covered by a local Philly TV newscast. Among those who saw the segment was veteran producer Greg Thompson, who was in the area staging a celebrity-impersonation revue at the hotel/entertainment complex that today is Valley Forge Casino Resort. Thompson tracked down McCoy and offered him a spot in the show.
That offer put McCoy in show biz and led him to a decades-long run performing as Jones in the globally celebrated mimic-fest, Legends in Concert. That gig ultimately saw him recognized as the world’s leading Jones impersonator — a title that has been endorsed by Jones himself.