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BRIAN MCKIM has performed standup comedy in all 50 states. He earned a B.A. in Magazine Journalism from Temple University. Any resemblance to a living person is purely coincidental.


Brian McKim
Editor In Chief

"Vegas of the East?"

ATLANTIC CITY--This is a very weird place. So is Vegas. But Vegas is a good weird. It cannot reasonably said that Atlantic City is a good weird. For the first time in a decade, there are two comedy clubs. The town has a rich entertainment tradition, stretching all the way back to before the days of Vaudeville. Prior to the war, and for a short time after, Atlantic City was a thriving city with a happening night life. Sinatra worked Atlantic City's 500 Club regularly. Mobsters, sports figures, movie stars--they all contributed to a rather spunky scene. According to legend, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin first worked together, formally as a team, at the 500 in the summer of 1946. "But one fact is irrefutable: Within days of Dean's opening at the 500, he and Jerry were the talk of Atlantic City," is how Martin's biographer, Nick Tosches put it in "Dino." Back then, being the talk of A.C. led to big things.

I remember the first time I ever visited there. My brother was about to get married and his in-laws were visiting from Michigan. Since they had never laid eyes on the Atlantic Ocean (or any ocean, for that matter), we took them down to A.C. to note the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between Lake Michigan and our Atlantic. I don't remember much. It was 1969. I recall someone in a Mr. Peanut outfit, complete with cane and tophat, exhorting the folks walking by on the boardwalk to buy nuts. I also remember people screaming. There was one of those parachute rides towering over one of the amusement piers. Every so often the wind would shift and you'd be able to clearly hear the screaming of the people on the parachute rides. I didn't know it at the time, but the town was in the throes of a 30-year decline that started just after World War II. It had enjoyed a good long run as the "The Playground of the World." For 65 years, it was the South Beach of the Eastern Seaboard.

The long, slow decline ended when the New Jersey legislature approved casino gambling in 1976 (or it was supposed to anyway). Things got off to a slow start, gambling-wise. The first order of business for many casino developers was to level the spectacular hotels that had dazzled visitors for the previous 75 years or so. The Traymore, the Shelburne, the Marlborough-Blenheim all were razed to make way for the construction of a handful of utterly unremarkable boxes that would soon host utterly unremarkable casinoes. The town, and its nightlife, and any charm, would be starting from scratch.

The first casino to open was Resorts-- some genius figured they would actually keep the building standing and put a casino inside of it! There followed Bally's, The Tropicana, The Sands-- all of them utterly lacking any of the mystique or the cool design of their Vegas counterparts.

In the first five years of the reborn resort, the usual assortment of Vegas types were coming to town: Frank (of course), Steve & Eydie (Trivia buffs: Steve Lawrence is the first person to place a bet in A.C.), Tom Jones, et al. Then, in 1983, Bob Kephart opened the first comedy club in town,The Comedy Stop, in a small room in the bottom of the Tropicana. The hallway just outside the club was used mainly by old people waiting for the bus. (A significant percentage of Atlantic City's patrons were/are old and arrived/arrive via bus.) By day, the room itself served as a temporary buffet for bus travellers. By night, with the odor of roast beef still in the air, the room was transformed into a comedy club. In the early days, the crowd skewed significantly older.

Twenty years later, the room does a brisk business, the crowds are decidedly younger and Kephart is rumored to be poised for a re-location into the Trop's $225 million expansion project, known as The Quarter. Scheduled for opening in March of next year, the word on the street is that the Stop will be among the "40 new dining, entertainment and retail experiences" in the hotel's new wing. Expect Kephart's room to be doing business for another 20 years.

In the last two decades, a couple of clubs have given it a go in A.C. The Eddie Murphy Comedy Club opened and quickly closed at the Sands back in the early 90s. It was doomed from the start-- the clink and buzz and whirr of the slots seeped into the lounge-type room just off the casino floor. Another room opened in the tiny Claridge Hotel-Casino in the late 80s. Inexplicably, the powers that be chose to tout the new club with billboards on the approach to town that bragged of "Comics straight from Florida!" (?!) In the mid- and late-80s, the occasional one-nighter would open and-- pretty quickly-- close, usually in one of the few non-casino venues.

When you consider that Vegas has, at any given moment, at least three clubs, and has had as many as five or six cooking at once, it's rather mysterious that Atlantic City hasn't been more than a one-club town. Sure, there are only 13 casinoes in town, but its location-- an hour from Philly, 90 minutes from Manhattan-- should make it a natural spot for at least two comedy clubs! Oh, I'm sure that there are certain hard and fast casino rules that I'm not aware of. And I'm sure that most of the entertainment directors in A.C. are making sound decisions based on their extensive demographic information. But one club for 20 years?

And then came the Borgata. The Borgata, which opened for business in July, is a mammoth tower in the Marina district, the first new casino to open in A.C. since Bush the Elder was president. It's so radically different from all the other dowdy casinoes in town that it will most assuredly influence all subsequent development here and it will force the existing casinoes to re-invent themselves or perish. It'll force upon A.C. the same kind of revolution that Steve Wynn's Mirage forced upon Vegas. (If you haven't been to Las Vegas since 1989, you won't recognize it; and catalyst is largely believed to have been the Mirage.)

There was a hint of things to come when the Borgata bought full-page ads trumpeting their summer 2003 series: each weekend, from July through September, a different headliner comic would appear in their 1,000-seat Music Box theater. Booking Dennis Miller, Kevin James, Jim Norton, etc.-- they were sending a definite message to the Boston to D.C. megalopolis: We want to be known as a home to standup (and, quite possibly, we want to cater to a younger demographic). The television commercials running locally for the Borgata feature a vast army of young gals and guys, with model-caliber good looks, arriving at the new casino aboard hundreds of Vespa motor scooters. It's all code for "You can keep all those fat guys with gold chains-- we want the youngsters...or at least those who think young." Apparently standup comedy fits into this Pepsi-generation marketing plan.

So it was no surprise when Resorts announced a partnership with Gerson "Budd" Friedman to open an Improv in a second-floor function room. We wangled an invite to their soft opening and dined in the redesigned Asian Spice restaurant next door amid press types and other industry types. The room itself is boxy, large and holds a whopping 288. The Improv's trademark faux brick wall is the only hint that this is a comedy club and one suspects that it's all tucked away during the day. Indeed, one suspects that it'll all be tucked away permanently-- the word on the street is that the agreement between Budd and Resorts is only for six weeks. Which doesn't bode well for long-term success. But does this mean that Kephart will once again stand alone? Not necessarily.

There are other A.C.-comedy-related rumors swirling around. The most believable one is that the Borgata (see above) will continue to identify itself with standup. One scenario has them booking standup, but not of the mega-headliner caliber like the comics that appeared this past summer. In other words, they'll most likely strike a deal with an east coast booker who will send comics down there on a weekly basis, maybe in shows utilizing the old three-comic format.

It's developments like these that might also force other entertainment directors to get their minds right and see the wisdom of booking comedy. Of course, it probably won't result in a comedy club in each casino, but it might mean there'll be more than one or two! I suspect that casinoes are a lot like television networks: "You take the 18-49's, we'll take the 35-55 and we'll let CBS have 49 to Dead." If this is the case, it may well be that at least a few A.C. casinoes will try to include standup in their marketing plan. We'll keep you posted.

Brian McKim writes (Jan. 10, 2004): And then there were three. The Borgata is running a seven-night comedy room in their Music Box theater. And they're continuing to book comedy headliners (most notably and most recently, Paul Rodriguez) for a night or two at a time. And the Comedy Stop's migration into the Tropicana's new Quarter, scheduled for March, may just be delayed by a accident in the parking structure that killed four people. The incident occurred Oct. 30, yet the Trop has only now filed a plan to clean up the mess. Look for bureaucratic delays to push that opening back to the summer or maybe even next fall. It is reasonable to expect that Kephart's migration (to a room that is rumored to hold 500) to be delayed as well). HOME Back to the Top