New York Times Correspondent Makes News! Read All About It!

For about ten years I covered Atlantic City and New Jersey for the New York Times. The gig didn’t pay well, and it frequently drove me crazy, as when, hours after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center Towers and the Washington, D.C. Pentagon building, an editor wanted me to go to a quiet predominantly Muslim community in South Jersey, bang on doors and ask for comments.

I turned that assignment down.

My editors said working for the Times would lead to something. When the New Jersey section was eliminated, and I was not offered any similar or subsequent place for my reporting within the newspaper, I felt let down. The only thing the gig led to was the privilege of saying I used to do something.
Of course, the essence of experience is that it is not fixed: the more we think about what we’ve done, the more we savor (or wallow) in memory, the more notional truths await our discovery.

As many writers have learned, even if you feel you don’t “know” anything, writing about what you know (that is, what you have experienced, or something so fixed in your soul that revealing it is an act of honesty) feels stronger, more reliable, more powerful and (we hope) less likely to be contradicted, than the stuff we wish we knew.

Journalism was valuable for me because I had to gather enough information, understand it and structure it in a way that made sense, before I could write about it. For me, research was like eating: I had to keep doing it until I felt “full.” That’s one reason my fictional output is slow: you’re never sure how much you need to know about a story whose major truth is that you invented it.

Writing for the Times opened doors (temporarily), inspired sources to return phone calls, made fellow journalists who previously ignored me ask me how they could get jobs, and transformed the little mistakes that slipped by me that, at any other newspaper, would die quietly (not in the dark crypt the Washington Post recently reserved for democracy, but in the pale gray of insignificant neglect), into news.
A major philosophical ideal at the Times is that the newspaper reports the news, it does not make it. Of course, the Times makes news all the time, be it an article from confidential sources revealing some inner nastiness in Washington, to the kind of critical theater reviews that can close a Broadway show.
At one, and only one time in my tenure with the Times did I use my power to make the news.

Every time I go to the Atlantic City Boardwalk I walk past the flamboyant facade of the Warner Theater. The theater itself used to be a wonderfully gaudy showplace, one of several in the city, but it was torn down and replaced by a parking garage. The facade remained as a retail store for a while. At one time, hot dogs and pork roll sandwiches were sold out of so much sadly decaying Spanish Mediterranean glitz.

For me, the Warner Theater was a truth that had not yet become ironic: a piece of the “old” Atlantic City whose decor achieved what Boardwalk architecture had always done: make people want to spend money. And yet, it was charming reminder of an earlier era, at a time when the rapacious, new-but-not-much-improved, rapacious, cynical and outrageously ugly casino-fueled city was demanding attention.

Then ITT, which owned Caesars back then, bought the entire block of Boardwalk frontage that included the Warner Theater. They were going to tear everything down, and build new casino frontage that would connect their Roman-style gambling complex with the adjacent Bally’s “Wild West” casino, which they also owned.

I dug up Florence Miller, whom we journos used to call “feisty.” Ms. Miller was the head of the Atlantic City Arts Commission, which built a small museum devoted to New Jersey artists and Atlantic City artifacts at Garden Pier. Miller’s real clout was in approving works of art that, by zoning decree, the casinos had to pay for and install before they could complete expansions. When Miller decided that the decoration inside one casino did not qualify as art, the casino mogul in charge exploded that the “entire damned building is art.” Miller held her ground and a statue was erected near the entrance of the gambling pit.
Ms. Miller told me that she could do nothing about the Warner Theater. She said she’d asked Al Cade to save it–no, she pleaded with him, but the facade wasn’t on the National Register of Historic Places, and, even if it was, a property owner can modify and tear down a registered site. I replied that this wasn’t what I expected from a person who had fought so hard for art and artifacts that represented the city’s heritage. She said you had to pick your battles and the Warner Theater wasn’t worth fighting for.
I disagreed. I liked looking at the thing. Other casinos had “preserved” bits of the city’s past and the results had been hideous (Resorts International’s awful orange, red and brass lobby) to pitiful (before tearing down the Blenheim Hotel, Bally’s Park Place preserved one of the gargoyles that once adorned it near the casino’s convention ballroom). I dug up the city’s official historian, a Philadelphia architect specializing in incorporating existing structures into new ones, and one of the theater’s former owner’s, George Hamid, a marvelously colorful character who also owned Steel Pier.

Then I called up Caesars and found out that they didn’t care about the facade one way or another, and that if Florence Miller and the city wanted it so badly, Caesars would let them peel the facade away and take it to Garden Pier–if the City Arts Commission would pay for the removal. I was told, off the record, that the Commission either didn’t have the funds, or the desire, to save the facade, but that I shouldn’t go to the Commission to get confirmation about that because that might make the Commission want to hold up the expansion project in some other way.

I wrote an article about the theater.

The president of ITT lived in New Jersey then, and nobody at Caesars told him about the theater when he had gone over the expansion plans. He read my article in the Sunday Times. The next week Caesars made some public noises about being good neighbors, and the facade was incorporated into the expansion, where it remains to this day.

My original New York Times article is here:

ATLANTIC CITY: Fighting Off the Final Curtain

By Bill Kent

THE Warner Theater may be most famous for the singer who didn’t play there.

“I got a call from the William Morris Agency around February of 1957,” recalled George Hamid, who owned the Steel Pier and several theaters in Atlantic City. “They said, ‘We have an act so big we can’t put it on Steel Pier.’ I laughed and said, ‘There’s no such act.’ “

Mr. Hamid refused the offer. “I said, ‘We’d go for a Perry, a Pat or a Frank, but who’s going to go for a guy with a crazy name like Elvis?’ “

And so Elvis Presley never played Atlantic City.

“But next year,” Mr. Hamid added, “when they called me about Ricky Nelson, I said yes.”

It’s been a long time since Ricky Nelson, Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme performed at the Warner Theater. Today the Warner is a forlorn reminder of better times. Its last tenants, who moved out last month, were a Boardwalk fast-food restaurant and karaoke bar.

And now Caesars Atlantic City, a subsidiary of the ITT Corporation, wants to remove what is left and build a 620-room hotel tower, with restaurants and a 20,000-square-foot convention ballroom. Whether the once-splendid Spanish Mediterranean facade can be salvaged will depend on the efforts of preservationists and the willingness of Caesars to help.

Built in 1929 at the then-extravagant cost of $2.7 million, the 4,300-seat Warner was Atlantic City’s grandest movie palace and most romantic showroom. In 1958 it was sold to Mr. Hamid, who had been booking concerts and stage shows there. As a condition of the sale, he had to drop the Warner name, and he called the theater the Warren because that was the least expensive way of changing the marquee.

Mr. Hamid later transformed the theater into the Boardwalk Bowl. “Snooks Pearlstein and all the old-time pros used to play pool there,” recalled a local historian, Sidney Trusty, who staged bowling competitions there.

Mr. Hamid sold the Boardwalk Bowl to the Howard Johnson’s Boardwalk Regency Hotel, a block away, in 1970. The property was later acquired by Caesars when the casino company bought the hotel in 1977. Now Caesars has received preliminary approval to build the tower, and no provisions have been made for what is left of the theater.

“Nobody expected it to go away, so nobody did anything about it,” said Anthony Kutschera, a founder of the Atlantic City Historical Society. “This is all that’s left from the time when going to a theater was an experience.”

When Florence Miller, the feisty executive director of the Atlantic City Art Center, heard that the Warner might be demolished, she called Caesars executives and pleaded for a stay of execution. On Jan. 8, which happened to be her 79th birthday, Al Cade, a Caesars vice president, told her, in her words, that “whatever could be done to save it will be done.”

Mrs. Miller took this to mean that Caesars would either incorporate the Warner into its expansion plans or donate the facade to the Atlantic City Historical Museum. But through Valarie McGonigal, the Caesars spokeswoman, Mr. Cade said the company had not determined the facade’s fate and would not for several weeks.

Because the theater is not on the National Register of Historic Places, and therefore not subject to Federal restrictions that protect structures of historic value, no plans were made to save its auditorium, which Caesars demolished to build a parking garage.

Another friend of the Warner, Steven Izenour, an partner in the Philadelphia architectural firm Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, says Caesars should be thanked for saving the facade as long as it did. A co-author of “Learning From Las Vegas” (M.I.T. Press, 1972), Mr. Izenour researched Boardwalk architecture.

“Everything on the Boardwalk was considered disposable and replaceable when it was originally constructed,” he said in an interview. “Survival is worth something. Something is gained by the fact that these few pieces are all that’s left. The Warner Theater’s is such a beautiful, handsome facade that even as run-down as it is, you can’t help thinking that famous people played there.”



Murphy’s Luck

I play entirely too much Solitaire. Sometimes, when I’m in a long run of games that end abruptly with too many cards unturned, I imagine one of my fictional characters is looking over my shoulder, giving me advice.

His name is Osiris Jonathan Murphy, and he also plays too much solitaire, though, for him, the game is a way of keeping away from his greater addiction: poker.

Murphy is a supremely good poker player, but he doesn’t look the part. He’s big, bulky, somewhat old, with the face of a former brawler and a limp of someone who has survived more than one donnybrook. He dresses so plain that you wouldn’t remember him, so that when he sits down to a game in an Atlantic City poker pit, you end up ignoring him and focusing instead on the guys with the white shoes, red bowties and Poker World Series hats, who end up leaving the table with a lot less than they had when they came in. Murphy? He leaves with a little more, but not so much more that you would suspect him of controlling the game.

He is the son of an Egyptian-born mother and an American soldier who married her when he was stationed in the Middle East. The soldier came home to find out that no one was interested in honoring him for service to his country, so he became a plumbing and heating contractor in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill, a rather wealthy enclave settled by people who must be able to say they live within the city limits, but would rather pretend they’re on the Main Line.

Murphy’s mother told fortunes with for the Chestnut Hill ladies who lunch. Their only child had an uncanny brilliance at math–he could do complicated calculations in his head and, in middle school, finished and handed in all the math homework sets for Algebra One and Two, Geometry and Calculus, in two weeks.

He was an indifferent student in high school and spent most of his time supplementing his family’s income by raking the pocket money from frat boys at Drexel and Penn, where he learned the hard way you can only take so much out of a game, without the other players trying to kill you. To escape a leg-breaker hired by one of the frat boy’s parents, he hid out across the river in Princeton, where he played the game with some of the math geniuses at the Institute for Advanced Study. After helping out one of these geniuses hold on to her property during a nasty divorce (by showing how her soon-to-be ex husband was stealing from a political action committee fund),  he was referred to the New Jersey Division of Special Investigations, where they called him Santa Claus, because could glance at a balance sheet, financial disclosure form or a 250 page tax return and know who was naughty or nice.

He became a consulting forensic accountant, a specialist in following the money no matter how deeply the bad guys try to bury it. He finds himself spending too much time in Atlantic City poker dens and gets a job with a local accounting firm that contract work for the casinos. Here Murphy makes two big mistakes: he discovers that the owner of the firm is colluding with a casino owner to hide assets in preparation for a bankruptcy filing and leaks that fact to his old boss at the State DIS, and he falls in love with the firm’s other forensic, Tucson “Tookie” Caynute, who is almost as good at poker as he is.

Or maybe better. The DIS fails to indict Murphy’s firm. Murphy is fired, and sued. The lawsuit is dropped when Tookie starts spending too many nights in the casino tower apartment of Gary Sligo, proud of owner of the suddenly bankrupt Silver City Casino Hotel.

Like many brilliant people who are hit with things they can’t understand, Murphy goes down. He drinks too much and then makes a third mistake in beating a mob-run underground game. But no matter how far down he spirals, he can’t escape his gift: he can spot the cheaters, he can identify the gaffed game, he knows who is naughty or nice. Sometimes, when the casinos have cheat working and their own people can’t figure out the scam, they bring in Murphy, and Murphy finds it, without fail.

When he doesn’t have a casino “consult,” he haunts the city’s poker dens, making just enough cash to live simply. He doesn’t have a cell phone. He doesn’t have credit cards. He spends most of his time with the Atlantic City Patience Society,  a room carved out of an old hotel lobby, where people of all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds, play numerous and various solitaire games, on computers and with “analog” cards, for fun, but no profit (solitaire is not a legal gambling game in Atlantic City).

Until…guess who walks in off the street?

I introduced Murphy in one of my published novels and wanted to write more about him.  But, like Murphy himself, agents and editors played me false. I had the best intentions–I wanted to write great stories about people we wish we could meet, who are faced with amazing challenges and–because I like happy endings–meet those challenges head on and triumph.

For every story you hear about dedicated agents and editors bringing a great story to into the bookstores, there are far more about how these very same people screw up, turn their backs or simply fail to do what they should.

I don’t blame them anymore. People you depend on screwing up, failing you, being merely incompetent, or naughty when it is so much easier to be nice–are part of life. We have to face these things, clean up the mess and, somehow, continue.

My wife loves Murphy as a character (she’s read some of the drafts in which he appears) and insists that his adventures find themselves in print.

Osiris J. Murphy still lives in my head, telling me that my solitaire game has “good depth” (that means I’ve turned over more than a few cards before I go through the pile), I should feel good that I got my “ace’s out” (the four aces are above the line, so I can start “building up” suits), and that the “field” has “nice color”–I have a few good, long piles of contrasting a red and black cards. He encourages me I should always play the game out to the end, especially when I think I know how it will end. “Because you can’t see everything in the game when you’re playing it, and what you think is there, isn’t always.” He concludes with gentle advice: “if you’re going to get anything out of all the time you put into this, if it you’re want to keep believing that miracles can happen and nothing we do is ever wasted, never forget why they call it ‘patience.'”

I forget far more often than I wish. But when I remember, I smile.