Vanquishing Vegas!

The Jack Barnes School of Winning Blackjack has its own book full of stories (See “By Hooker by Crook”, “Qa-Qa-Qadafi!”,”Stossel vs Reasoner”) but its spinoffs have their own books as well. One of these is the story of CARMA.

Soon after I started the School of Winning Blackjack, in October of 1980, I received a call from a Jim Fischbach, who asked to meet to discuss a plan he had for training dealers to serve the new and growing casino industry of Atlantic City, New Jersey. In less than two years, starting with Resorts International, four casino hotels had opened in Atlantic City and two more were planned to open before the end of 1980. Jim pointed out that most of the dealers were having to go to Las Vegas for training and most of them were coming from the city. He felt that with my organized school, it would be easy to expand to a full-time training facility for dealers with the addition of a room for a craps table and a roulette wheel. Jim felt he had the contacts in Las Vegas to get support from experts.

He had been befriended by a lawyer in New York, Howard F. Cerny, who in turn had a long history of influence in the gaming community. Howard was close to Clifford A. Jones, a famed Las Vegas attorney and casino owner. Clifford, at 34, had been the youngest Lieutenant Governor in the history of the State of Nevada and was covered in many pages in the Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris 1964 Las Vegas expose, “The Green Felt Jungle”. Cliff had been popularly known as “The Big Juice” for his unequalled influence in the granting of gaming licenses by the Nevada State Gaming Commission. At one time, Cliff  had a piece of more casinos in the United States and worldwide than any other individual. At various times, he had interests in casinos including the El Cortez, the Algiers, The Dunes, Golden Nugget, Pioneer, The Thunderbird and The Westerner, plus international casino properties in France, Lebanon, Greece, Ecuador and the Havana Hilton in Cuba. However, when the government legislated that no one could own casinos in the United States if they had investments in casinos off America’s shore. Cliff opted to sell out his United States investments while keeping those in international markets.  Jim was sure that Cliff Jones and other friends/associates of Howard Cerny would help is get our Dealer’s School underway. Over a period of two weeks, Jim attended some of my classes and met with me afterwards to discuss the potential of his concept. I was not convinced of the feasibility of the concept. I felt that a school in Atlantic City would make a lot more sense. Even Philadelphia would be 50 miles closer to the casinos. I also did not feel confident in my own knowledge of dealers training, especially for the more complex game of craps or even roulette. But, as we talked, we began to discuss what were our own real skills and experience. I was considered one of the leading marketing and advertising men in America with especial strength in retail sales and creating consumer participation. Jim, it turns out, was a graduate of Marriott Hotel Management School and had a number of years experience in restaurant management.  Then, one day, I realized that it was not Atlantic City that needed help but the city that had held a national monopoly on Casino Gaming up until two years prior, Las Vegas. And, it was not dealer training that we should pursue but, with Jim’s powerful contacts in Las Vegas, we should bring a new marketing agency into the service of casinos there. The assumption was that Vegas casinos never had to employ much marketing strategy. They just had to provide slots and table games and a good location, build a body of perks for the higher rollers and stay open 24 hours a day and the rest would take care of itself. As long as they were the only city in America with gaming, marketing was a no brainer. But, Atlantic City was only the tip of the glacier of competition that was rising and would eventually be emerging from 30 different States of the Union. A new kind of strategic marketing and positioning would soon be required in Las Vegas to offset this looming threat. At the time, there were only two casino/hotels in Las Vegas that impressed me for the consistency of their image and the target marketing programs. The first was Caesar’s Palace in which every aspect of its presentation from its rooms, to restaurants like the Bacchanal, to the uniforms worn by every staff member, to its statues and shops was themed on Roman opulence and indulgence. Its clear marketing target was the high rollers and it attracted most of  them. The second was Circus Circus which was the only Strip Hotel targeting the lower and middle-income tourist travelling with family. It had a casino with real circus entertainment, including trapeze artists, IN the casino. And, it had a large trailer park for tourists who wanted to stay in their RV and spend their vacation money mostly on the slot machines and low-ticket table games. Both, were very successful and were positioned well should future competition come into play. Of course, as a card counter, especially during my training months, I had visited every shift in every casino in Las Vegas and Reno, so I had the opportunity to see what effort was being made by each one to present a unique marketing image. Save for the two mentioned, such an effort was virtually non-existent in 1979.  Jim and I discussed this option over a period of a week and then, at his request, we had a meeting with his friend and advisor, Howard F. Cerny, Esq. Howard’s office was at the top of the Pan Am building looking over a few miles of Park Avenue. It was unlike any other successful law firms office. There was no receptionist. There were no partners. There were a half-dozen juniors fresh out of, or still in, law school who provided research. Most of the research was conducted in Howard’s own Law Library on the premises which could compete with that of most Law Schools, save perhaps Harvard, Yale and Columbia. There were no file cabinets but rather some 1,000 file boxes and maroon expandable file folders on the floor of a vast room with a large desk and a conference  table able to seat twenty. There were phones everywhere. The premises comprised 10,000 square feet, 6,000 of which was this one office. Howard was organized in his head, more than any man I ever met.  He thrived on instant access to every record and did not need file cabinets to organize or sort out information. His phones had 100-foot extension wires so that he could walk to any file in the room, pick it up and place it on his desk or conference table while talking with his client. At the end of the conversation, he’d walk the file back and drop it in its place. Howard was a legend among lawyers. He had been attorney to Robert L.Vesco, the fugitive financier who funded the payments to the perpetrators of the Watergate break in. The funds reportedly passed through Cerny’s bank account. He was close to Richard Nixon and represented Nixon’s brother in certain matters. He was a trustee for The Center for the Study of the Presidency and later, in 1986, chaired the celebration for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. Howard had been an officer on the Intrepid aircraft carrier during the Second World War. More importantly, to us, in 1980, Howard F. Cerny had more Las Vegas connections than the Brotherhood of Teamsters. With the range of his “credentials” , I was expecting to meet an aggressive fast-talking New York attorney. Instead, when Jim introduced us, it was like meeting his older brother. Howard spoke softly as only a man carrying a big stick can. He called Jim, “Buddy”, and he was immediately responsive to our interests. He had heard about me, first from Jim, then from a few investigators or friends in the advertising business, so that he was well-informed of my reputation and skills. We explained to him our thoughts about abandoning Jim’s gambling school concept and replacing it with a marketing company targeted to the upcoming needs for Las Vegas casino/hotels facing national competition. He “got it” in minutes and immediately began to contribute information and opinions that supported our theories. He knew personally, management of the local Nevada advertising agencies and supported our theory that they were not composed of the kind of innovative geniuses that grew up on Madison Avenue. He had discussed with casino owners their growing concern that they might lose business to Atlantic City/  He had worked with Jim in the restaurant business and confirmed to me that young Jim was a new professional talent that had much creativity to contribute to the presentation and marketing of food. Before we were through with our first meeting, Howard had called Clifford A. Jones, Esq. in Las Vegas to introduce us and to lay the foundation of our exploring our concept with him.  Then, he advised us of a group, headed by his friend Bill Butters, that was in early stages of organizing a buy-out of a group of casinos, all of which would require re-positioning and new marketing. It was quite a meeting, akin to a gift from a gambler’s heaven. And, Jim and I were, above all, gamblers, and not only at blackjack.We followed the meeting with Howard with our own plans meeting. We decided we needed a name and stationery before we even went to Vegas to meet with Cliff and others. It did not take long to come up with Casino and Restaurant Management Associates. It took less time to shorten it to the prophetic name of CARMA.

Carma Logo inspiration. The Advertising Club’s Award of Excellence

Then, we decided CARMA was a creation of three people as we wanted to express our appreciation of Howard F. Cerny’s contribution. We were searching for a logo concept when our eyes fell upon a silver statuette I had among my various awards. It was a modern interpretation of a classic bust given by the Advertising Club as an Award of Excellence.  The head looked formidable and futuristic and we decided our logo should show this head 3 times.I worked often with an art director creative partner, Chuck Cassidy. As soon as I explained our thoughts, Chuck sketched the concept,  bringing out an even stronger image than we envisioned.Within a week CARMA not only had an organization plan and a marketing plan but it had cards, stationery and envelopes emblazoned with the new logo. (See cut)

The Logo that shook Las Vegas.

This card would provide a few stories worth telling all upon its own.

Three weeks later, Jim and I flew to Las Vegas. We were carrying a business plan and marketing strategy, the presentation of which included the new logo on every page. We were confident that, despite the fact that neither of us had ever worked for a casino, we were very on target with our analysis of the impending marketing war facing Las Vegas and our capabilities to create marketing strategies that would win those wars. But, deep down, in our hearts, where reality lies, we worried that somebody of real experience might laugh us out of the room.

Our first meeting was with somebody of real experience, Clifford A.Jones, Esq, “The Big Juice”, himself. We met in the very impressive offices of Jones, Jones Close and Brown, Nevada’s most powerful law firm. Up to the moment of the meeting, the only casino people I knew were pit bosses and floor managers who I had had to convince that I was just lucky, and not a card counter, so our relationships were muddied with artful illusions.

Cliff Jones interview by Gaming Business Magazine the month before we met him.

Jim was a very positive salesman. He jumped into the conversation with no humility, bragging, mostly, about the endless marketing awards earned by his partner. As he spoke, Cliff perused the written business plan with the speed reading skills of a man whose life had been spent absorbing information from legal briefs which were never never brief. Within 10 minutes, he was finished. He closed the document and interrupted Jim saying, “Mr. Fischbach and Mr. Byrne, this is a right fine document, filled with observations and projections that impress the hell out of me. Now, I don’t go around being impressed very often, most people come to me with casino ideas are full of bull droppings and waste my time. But, what you have here is the beginning of what could be a major change in Las Vegas thinking. And, if you would like it, I would be pleased to partner with you in this fine project.”

That was so far beyond what we had hoped that even Jim could not respond because his jaw wouldn’t close. I gathered my composure and said, “Mr. Jones, we would be honored by any involvement you might offer. We are just so relieved that you have taken us and our thoughts seriously. That you are willing to participate with us is incredible.”

By meetings end, we were “Cliff, Jack and Jim” and Cliff, because he had to avoid ownership of corporate bodies that might be involved in casino ownership, became Chairman of CARMA’s Advisory Board.  His name on our letterhead would be the key that could open every casino door in Nevada. He provided us with a few names which we might wish to include in the CARMA team. He suggested we might want to contact Roy Warren who, with 27 years of experience, had served as general manager of many casinos and happened to have the respect of the Gaming Commission and judges who frequently appointed Roy whenever they needed a temporary manager to take over casino operations while the casino was under Commission investigation. And, he told us we should recognize the importance of security to casino operations and recommended we talk with Allan P. Charak,  a former CIA undercover man with in-depth security experience who had just launched Allan P. Charak Investigations a company directed towards corporate investigations in the United States and a number of countries.

When we returned to Caesar’s Palace, Jim and I called and arranged meetings with these two men. The first was the next morning with Allan Charak., who brought along a good friend to his breakfast meeting with us, Johnny Moran, the Clark County Sheriff, another close friend of Cliff Jones. After the meeting, Allan said he would be much pleased to join our team and told us that Johnny Moran had said, speaking of me, “Just one of that fella’s thoughts could bust our heads wide open.” That pleased me. I wanted Las Vegas to think that way about the New York Madison Avenue man.  Twenty-one years later, another Clark Country sheriff would put out an international warrant for my arrest. But, that’s another story.   (See …) (Sunny Soatus) This story is that we had added another high-profile Las Vegas name to our letterhead. That night we met with Roy Warren with equal success. Suddenly, CARMA moved from an unknown company from New York to a company with a letterhead that could list three of Las Vegas best known experts in the casino industry. Jim would be their president and I their Chairman of the Board.

We decided not to return immediately to New York. Instead, two days later, convinced that an investment was now worth while,  we walked from Caesar’s Palace to the Jockey Club,  adjoining The Dunes, and signed a one-year lease for a 2-Bedroom Suite. We had decided that I would fund the residence and all of Jim’s out-of-pocket expenses and he would move for a year to Las Vegas. I was still working in advertising and marketing as Creative Penthouse in New York, consultant to Lee Myles Transmissions, Gimbel’s, Eyelab and others and managing my wife’s career as star of Christian and the Lions. Jim would be full-time CARMA.

When I returned to New York, I called Phil Dougherty, the advertising columnist of The New York Times, and told him of my new venture, CARMA.

Phil Dougherty’s New York Times February 10,1981 announcement of the launch of CARMA.

He gave us very good coverage in a feature story which also presented our logo. It proved to be a major promotional asset as we developed the company. Phil and I had been close over the years and he even attended my wedding to Christian Cooper nine years earlier. His enthusiasm was much appreciated. The New York Times is respected everywhere, and this much space opened the eyes of many to “Jack Byrne’s power” including Howard Cerny and Cliff Jones. I couldn’t be more pleased than when I opened my NY Times on February 18th, 1980.

A few weeks later, through Howard Cerny, Jim met in Las Vegas with Bill Butters and Jerry Hyams, founders of the newly established International Leisure and Casino (ILC). Bill was a native of Las Vegas but a very active film producer (some of which it turns out were highly profitable adult films). Jerry Hyams was a former top executive with Screen Gems/Columbia Pictures. He was also now living in Las Vegas. Bill and Jerry had put together an investment group which looked to make a serious investment in Las Vegas properties. They had identified the four properties owned by the recently deceased, Major Riddle, a high-profile midwestern trucking magnate and reported associate of Al Capone,  who had earlier divested his Dunes ownership leaving his estate to dispose of four: The Silverbird (formerly, the Thunderbird) and the Lotus Club on the Strip (where ILC had set up offices), and in North Las Vegas, The Silver Nugget and the Downtown Holiday Inn (now The Main Street Station).

Jim’s meeting with Bill and Jerry went very well. Both had heard of CARMA from Howard Cerny and Cliff Jones. Both were impressed with our casino and security associates and both were anxious to meet me as a New York “idea” man who could revolutionize marketing thinking in Las Vegas. They requested a meeting with me. In early March, I flew to Las Vegas and, with Jim, met with Bill and Jerry at the Hyams luxurious Las Vegas home. We talked of how I had approached marketing solutions for projects as wide-ranged as the upgrading of Barney’s Men’s Clothing Store, the recovering of Cotton as America’s leading fiber, and the positioning of AT&T as world leader in data communications. They were also impressed that I led a second life devoted to beating the casinos as head of the Jack Barnes School of Winning Blackjack. And, though I worried that such activity might alienate casino owners, it did nothing but impress the potential casino owners.

They agreed to employ CARMA that night with a strong commitment to a retainer after they obtained the rights to the casinos of Major Riddle. They wanted to reposition, rename and re-market all of the properties and we agreed to prepare a contract and assured them we would commence our “idea” process right away (meaning before pay).

I decided to stay in Las Vegas with Jim at the Jockey Club for a few days while we exchanged ideas for positioning the properties targeted by International Leisure and Casino. I learned very early about the power of imaging in Las Vegas. When our daily business was done, I spent my nights at my other work, counting cards at Blackjack at casinos we had no business interest in. When you play black ($100 chips) and are unknown, you attract the interest of the pit’s floor manager who informs the casino manager. There are two reasons for this interest, first, you may be a counter in which case they would like to dump you in the desert but, usually, they would just take your picture and ask you to leave the premises and not come back. The second reason is you may be a legitimate high-roller and loser and they want to do all they can to keep you at their casino which includes comping you for room, food and beverage, providing you with tickets for the Show, etc. However, the one thing they don’t want to do is imply they are challenging an insider, somebody who may have serious connections to the powers behind Las Vegas, people from Kansas City or Chicago or from the Teamsters or other insiders. Now, that I had the CARMA card listing me as Chairman, I had the perfect response to the inquiry, “Hi, I’m Gino, the manager here. Welcome. Do you have a card so I can arrange for anything you need.” “My card? Well, OK.” CARMA card handed. Eyes Pop! “Gulp! “Of course, Mr. Byrne. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. If there is ANYTHING you would like help on: rooms, shows, transportation, please just ask. Thank you. Thank you.” I would smile with a certain indication that I felt he damn well better do anything I want and then stand up and shake his hand and ask for his card for my records. I tell you, the feeling of power was delightful. All from a name and a well-designed card. The staff level people of the casinos do not live on the inside with the power people. They just hope they can spot them and be careful not to offend them. CARMA fed off that insecurity.

The best example of the Card Power we carried happened on February 10th, 1981 a little after 8pm. Jim and I had just rented a brand new red Corvette in order to drive out to Sam’s Place at the edge of the desert. We headed out-of-town, feeling anticipation of a few hours of gaming at this historic casino, but when we were within a few miles of Sam’s Place, the music  on the car radio was interrupted with a breaking news announcement. The breaking news was that there was a major fire at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel. Six months before,  there had been a fire at the MGM that had taken 85 lives so we realized this could be a very serious event. We felt we should be there, not necessarily to help, but just to say later we had been there. Jim turned the car around and started the twenty-mile drive. By the time we were within three miles of the Hilton, there were helicopters over head and a very strong police presence on the road. At two miles, there was a barricade, manned by Las Vegas police. Jim pulled up to the barricade. I was disappointed, we had hoped to get close to the hotel. A gendarme stuck his head in the driver’s window, he said, “Turn around you can’t go further. There’s a big fire.” I had an inspiration. I pulled out my CARMA card and showed it to him and said, “CARMA, we’re going in.” The response was immediate. He said, “Yes, sir!” and took a step to the barricade, pulling it out of our way so that we could pass. “Holy Shit!, said Jim, “Let’s see how far this can get us!” We went through two more police guarded barricades with identical results and, suddenly, we were pulling up to the entrance of the Hilton, flames and smoke above us, helicopters landing and taking off from the rooftop, forty stories up. Jim parked and said “Want to go in?” “What the hell, let’s try it”, I replied. We got out and rushed to the entrance guarded by a half-dozen men and women in uniform. I held up the card, “CARMA. We’re going in!” This time we failed. “Sorry, sir, the General Manager just told us nobody can come in without him and he’s on the 8th floor, another fire has burst out.” Jim turned to me and asked, “Should we wait?” I said, “No let’s go back to the office, we’ll proceed from there.” The police once more apologized but we said, “Not necessary, you’re doing your job and you’re doing it well.” And left.

The fire proved to be serious but with a 1/10th of the deaths of the 85 that had died at the MGM fire just 90 days before. Eight people passed in the Hilton fire. The fires were set by a deranged bellhop named, Phillip Cline, who was committed to 8 life sentences for his 8 murders.

But, every dark cloud has a silver lining. The event gave us the ultimate test of how powerful our imaging program was. We were sure we could do the same when marketing the properties of  International Leisure and Casino. We drove back to the Jockey Club, toasted each other in the lounge. Later, I found that Juliet Prowse was dancing in the Hilton night club and had to leave with her audience of 900 when the first alarm sounded. It gave me a sense of connection as in 1970, I had stayed a month at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Bungalow 14 while Jack Byrne Advertising was producing commercials for Bonus Gifts Coupons (See “The Greatest Little Coupon in the World” ). Bungalow 14 had been Juliet’s residence for a year, immediately before I moved in.

Later that week, Jim and I visited the properties which we hoped to market. The largest, and of greatest interest to us, was the Downtown Holiday Inn International which was in North (Downtown) Las Vegas and located on Main Street and outside the bustling casino row of Fremont Street where popular casinos lined up like row houses including such famed emporiums as The Golden Nugget, The Four Queens, The Golden Gate, The Fremont, Binion’s and, finally, The Plaza which stood on Main Street facing the end of Fremont. You had to walk to the Plaza and turn right and walk one block past its parking lot to find the Downtown Holiday International.  We knew this would be the casino/hotel requiring the best strategic marketing plan. We had to make it a destination resort.

The second casino/hotel of interest was the Silverbird, formerly the Thunderbird. The Silverbird was on the Strip but not in the center of the more southern portion where Caesar’s and The Desert Inn and other prestigious hotels were located. The Silverbird spread out over a large footprint but was only a few stories high. Our clients planned to add floors and change the concept to reflect a more modern property.

Within a few weeks we locked in our marketing solutions for these two, complete with sketches and initial contacts and preliminary approvals by those who would have to give rights for our use of the concepts.

Our proposal for the Silverbird was to capitalize upon its small size by turning it into a casino hotel for the privileged who one would usually meet on a yacht moored in the harbor of Monaco during the Formula 1 Grande Prix. In 1981, Caesar’s Palace was going to introduce the first Las Vegas Grand Prix and that plan fed our creative juices. Auto racing was America’s biggest attraction but the world’s most prestigious Grand Prix events were held in Europe. We theorized that this new Grand Prix presence in Las Vegas would heighten visibility and the appeal of any casino/hotel themed on racing for the really rich. Jim was from Detroit and a fan (or fanatic) for racing and especially for the most respected name in Formula 1, Ferrari. He wondered if we could tie in with Ferrari. Coincidentally, I had a good relationship with Egon Von Furstenberg and, indeed, had obtained a designer license from him for a line of men’s eyewear frames for EYELAB, the world’s first eyewear department store, that I had helped found in August of 1980. Egon was not only a Prince but the nephew of Gianni Agnelli, founder of Fiat, which held controlling interest in Ferrari and Lancia. Jim and I had decided that the name CARMA went very well with Ferrari if we could get the rights to the name Ferrari. CARMA-Ferrari sounded to the ear and looked to the eye to invoke an image of the rich and privileged who sparkled in Monaco. We visualized a Gran Prix/Monaco themed property complete with Ferraris available for driving “whales” and other special guests, rooms and restaurants peppered with art, photos and videos of Formula 1 and its fans.

I called Egon and told him of our dream and explained he would be given some participation if he could get his Uncle Gianni to grant us license to use the name with the understanding that our commitment was to present it only in the most sophisticated Italian/European manner. It didn’t take long. Egan called back the next day and his uncle had said, “Yes”, with the condition that Prince Egon have a right to oversee or even participate in the design program. CARMA-Ferrari was born and we had a wrap on our proposal for the Silverbird.

Jim steps out of Carma’s Corvette as we begin inspection of the Holiday Inn International.

The next target, the Downtown Holiday Inn, was exactly the opposite in our analysis of problems and opportunities and our objectives for its image and its audience. Its location at the tail end of North Las Vegas gaming, literally out of sight from Fremont Street, meant people would have to seek it out and for something more than a low price because room price competition was increasingly being won by the scores of low-end, no-frills motels sprinkled over the growing gaming area of Las Vegas. Our task would be to make a “destination property” a place which would offer some attraction so singular that some select group of the population would seek it out. We were convinced we had to appeal to “locals” as well as to tourists from North Nevada and nearby states, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Northern California, etc. We profiled these people as “country people” with a taste for cowboys and horses and…and… and … western music! That is when the concept came to us simultaneously. We should focus on western music and thus heroes of western music and as the idea expanded, we decided our entire casino would have giant photographs and/or statues of western music heroes, our restaurants would be chuck wagons, and most importantly we would establish a country music TV station which would broadcast country music from the casino/hotel itself. We wanted to make a miniature Nashville and Grand Ole Opry,  dedicated to cowboy and western music.

Jim looks up at the soon-to-change entrance to the Holiday Inn International.

Then, we had the positioning idea to nail it down. If we could get his approval and participation from the famed Texan, we would rename our property “Kenny Rogers Music Hall Casino and Hotel”. We knew we now had the makings of a true destination resort where instead of elaborate Big Shows, our entertainment would be seats surrounding the TV studio broadcasting music of and interviews with country-western heroes. Kenny was our dream image. Just two years before, he had released his rendition of “The Gambler” which had become a number one hit and perhaps the most popular country-western song ever.

We dreamed of the day this tired casino would be themed upon cowboys and western music as part of Kenny Rogers Music Hall and Casino Hotel.

What musical theme could be better for a casino hotel. We were not able to reach Kenny right away but contacts indicated they thought he could be interested. We completed our presentation of the concept figuring even the great Kenny Rogers would have a hard time turning down being a major presence in Las Vegas.

We were working “on the come”, if ILC got its license approved and the purchase of the properties completed then we would get paid. We decided to present only these two positionings to our clients with the others to be developed after the deal was complete. Within a week, I had the full-bore presentation packaged and ready to go, again with the help of my artist/designer associate, Chuck Cassidy. We made an appointment to present to Bill Butters and Jerry Hyams the following Saturday. The meeting would be at Bill’s condominium apartment at The Desert Inn. The Desert Inn was Jim’s Las Vegas Mecca, much as Caesar’s Palace was mine. We were impressed that Bill lived there with his lovely South American wife.

We were sure of the impact our positioning would have on the partners. With that in mind, we included a fee structure in our proposed budget that was somewhat above our wildest dreams. We proposed that the CARMA principals would receive a monthly fee, over and above all expenses, of $300,000. This would not include salaries for Roy Warren who was to be included in the Casino Operations budget or Allan Charak whose fees would be in the Security budget. However, the CARMA fee would be split evenly between Jim and I and Cliff Jones. We knew for a fact that money to Cliff Jones would be well spent. We also were prepared to negotiate if this fee was felt by Bill and Jerry to be over the top.

Their reaction at the presentation far exceeded our expectations. They said the “destination concept” in Kenny Rogers Music Hall and Casino Hotel was “the most brilliant positioning ever to hit Las Vegas”. They were almost equally impressed with CARMA-Ferrari, perhaps mostly because we had Prince Egon clear it with Gianni Agnelli. They were somewhat surprised by the fee but not in the way we expected – they thought it very, very fair, meaning to us that we had set our sights too low. Later, we realized our money concepts came from a place not nearly so cash productive as the Nevada casino industry.   (NOTE: Cliff’s wife 40 years his junior, green-eyed actress Christie Wagner. She-Devils on Wheels. In 1981 she would have been 28 or so. See Gambling Times coverage of killing of intruder, hah!) (( NOTES Main Street Station Hotel Casino & Brewery 200 Main Street at East Ogden – 1 block from Fremont, 17 stories about, say 20).

The hearing with the Gaming Commission was not to be until early June which was nearly three months after this presentation. Jim kept busy in Vegas and I did the same in New York. Jim visited various casino managers to make the city aware of CARMA and found that within a few weeks, even pit bosses recognized the card. More than that some confusion occurred that made us more mysterious and intimidating. Another group had come to Vegas with interest in buying a casino or two and were shopping the market. They were Canadian Agricultural and Mining Associates and their acronym was ……… CARMA, of course. No wonder, the casino managers were intimidated. Two CARMAs had moved into Sin City, and in Las Vegas society, what you don’t know may hurt you. One thing they did not know was that Jim, like Jack Barnes, was a CARMA-card carrying card counter. It upgraded his effectiveness at the tables. He also expanded his relationships in the underground of blackjack. Kenny Uston, the world’s most famous card counter, also lived at the Jockey Club. The Jockey Club had a popular lounge. The Lounge had a piano. Kenny loved to play the piano. Jim had a guitar left over from his rock band days. They hooked up in the lounge a few evenings each week and entertained the tourists for free. Through Kenny, Jim met the leader of best blackjack team in Las Vegas, located in a second floor office on East Sahara Avenue. Jim improved his skills by studying with the group and often joined them on their working junkets around Nevada.

In New York, I was concentrating mostly on my advertising projects for Eyelab the world’s first eyewear department store, which introduced “glasses in an hour” and was later copied in-depth by what became Lens Crafters. I also was producing commercials for Lee Myles Transmission and other clients served by my one-man Creative Penthouse service.

One day, I received a call from a Diahn McGrath, a former nationally known entertainer. She was now retired and interested in investing in a business. She had been approached in that regard by an Ed Doyle, an industrialist,  who was partnering with an Albert ? , a native contractor in Saint Maarten, in an attempt to open a casino at the prestigious Cupecoy Beach condominium resort complex. Cupecoy was just completing its 120th condominium residence which was an essential requirement for opening a casino on the island. They had the political clout and the financial means but, she admitted, they knew nothing about building and operating a casino. She had seen the article about me and my CARMA in The New York Times back in February, clipped it and saved it and was now requesting a meeting to determine if we had mutual interest. Diahn lived at 2 Sutton Place, just 3 blocks from my home,  so we agreed I would simply walk over for an exploratory meeting.

Before leaving, I wrote a brief letter of “agreement to explore” this partnership, more to be able to hand her our new letterhead than for business reasons. The letterhead listed our Board of Directors with me, as Chairman, and Jim Fischbach but, more importantly,  Clifford A. Jones, Roy Warren, Allan P. Charak and Howard F. Cerny as members of the Board. I wanted her to see these names and then let me explain what they comprised as the foundations of CARMA.

Our meeting went as I would have expected. As a New Yorker, she had known of some of my advertising work which, with the Times article, had led to her calling. But, she had not known that we had the most experienced men in the industry on our board. We talked at length about how we might help her group in their quest to get the rights to open a casino and then,  about how we could partner with them and operate their casino.  The casino was to be associated with the top resort residences on the island and she agreed with my premise that we should position it as the most prestigious casino in the islands and name it “CARMA-Ferrari/Cupecoy”. (NOTES: later Stuart and Clifford Perleman build Treasure Island Casino there it may now be Atlantis World (perhaps bought by Sun City))

Then, we agreed that her people would provide me with airfare and a three-day stay in one of the condominium Cupecoy residences to explore further the project.

The next week, I arrived for my investigation of the property and the situation.

Some of the Cupecoy beachfront condominiums

I was put up in a 2-bedroom, 2-tiered condominium on the beachfront. The property extended for more than half a mile on famed Cupecoy beach and, being condominiums, no two residences were identical as each interior was designed to suit the investor/owner’s taste.

These properties were to be used by their owners for up to one month each year but were mostly for income production by the owner who would rent his property 11 months of the year as part of a vacation resort.

The “Wet” Bar at the Cupecoy Condominiums pool.

On the site, were a fine quality restaurant, two fast food bars, and two drinking bars, one enclosed with formal lounge, the other jutting into the pool.

It was obvious that the quality of the site could fit nicely with a CARMA-Ferrari casino. It was also obvious that the resort rental program would be deeply enhanced by the presence an adjacent casino.At the time, the main casino on the island, at Mullet Bay, was barely a mile down the oceanfront, also on the Dutch side of the island. I felt this to be positive as it is known that casino gamers like to try more than one location, or to put it another way, if they are losing, they like to move on to a more “lucky” place. Since most gamers lose most of the time, it would benefit us to be near to the casino that attracted the largest population of gamers.I met with Albert who drove me around the Dutch side of the island where the casinos and best beaches were. He also took me to see the best house he had ever built. It was on top of a small mountain and surrounded by a moat. It was not the house of a local prince or mafia boss but of Stew Leonard, famed owner of The World’s Largest Dairy Store,  in Norwalk, Connecticut. I never found out why a dairy man felt he needed a moat, but I did know his retailing history defied all logic and was extremely successful. Go figure. I was, however, impressed  with Albert’s construction and detailing of one man’s castle in the sky. As he knew it would, it gave me confidence in him as the construction provider of the upcoming CARMA/Ferrari/Cupecoy.The next day we spent studying a variety of potential locations on the Cupecoy Beach property in which to construct the casino. We finally decided on a spot on a large limestone up-cropping near the north end which would partially overlook the ocean and partially the condos stretched along the beach front below. I was visualizing a round casino with a skylight in its hemisphere roof which was partially inspired by the casino at the El Conquistador on the cliffs of Las Croabas overseeing the convergence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea in Puerto Rico. I had been a guest there in the period before its official opening day in 1973 and played while the dealers were being trained. Unfortunately, I had not yet become a counter so my blackjack gaming helped pay for their training salaries.I spent a good part of three evenings in the Cupecoy Bar & Lounge where I had the opportunity to meet some of the owners of the new condominiums. One prestigious looking gray-haired gentlemen impressed me the most about his knowledge of investing and the politics of the island in its being split between two protecting countries, France and the Netherlands. He was president of a substantial bank in Chicago. Two nights after he and I had an extended exchange of our histories and interests, I happened to be talking with a lady at the same bar who had his same last name. When I gave her my name, she said, “You’re Jack Byrne?” I answered, “Yes.” She replied, “You are who my husband wants to be when he grows up!”I realized, in the heart of every achiever is a gambler struggling to bust out.While I was having what I felt to be a very successful trip to Cupecoy, Jim Fischbach, was busying himself on a separate CARMA project which focused on the R in the name, restaurants. Jim believed that Las Vegas was the dining capital of the world, or at least should establish itself as such. He had an idea that would reinforce that idea while making CARMA considerable money and, at the same time, providing added recognition to our group. Jim realized that chefs were celebrities, long before television picked up the idea and created scores of competitions like Iron Chef and hundred of “cooking” shows. He also recognized they had no OSCARs for chefs and no Grand Prix competitions. He thought, what better place to change all that than Las Vegas and what better company to arrange it than CARMA?On his own, Jim contacted the heads of prestigious schools  and chefs and enlisted the cooperation of Ferdinand Metz, the new president of The Culinary institute of America as well as famed New York restaurant consultant and owner of Cafe Des Artistes, George Lang, as well as those chefs he most respected in Las Vegas. He proposed to them an annual chef’s conference which would host guest speakers, and run a competition resulting in Grand Prix awards to Chefs by category of specialty. George offered to partner with us in putting the program together and selecting speakers and judges. The response was extremely positive and led to Jim enjoying a number of free gourmet meals at the behest of Las Vegas’ kings of the kitchen. As his list of commitments for participating guest speakers and judges grew, Jim set tentative dates and spoke with Caesar’s Palace providing the hosting location. By the time he was through, CARMA had committed for four days in October for the event and booked 360 rooms at Caesar’s at $150/night per room. CARMA was to be repaid $50/night per guest or a projected $72,000 for its share. In addition, CARMA would retain $250 of each attendees $750 fee leaving $500 per to pay for the costs of promotion, prizes and meeting rooms. CARMA’s net would be $90,000 plus $72,000 or $162,000. but, more importantly to Jim, was that we would have established an annual event, a strong presence in Las Vegas and an opportunity to eat virtually free year ’round in the best restaurants in Las Vegas and New York City. Jim and I were beginning to believe that we were soon to become “Lords of Las Vegas” and forces within the casino industry. In April, 1981, as we were pursuing the servicing of International Leisure’s five properties and Cupecoy and The Chef’s Grand Prix and smiling a lot, I received a call at Jack Barnes School of Winning Blackjack from John Stossel, WCBS-TV investigative reporter, who wanted to come to the School with television coverage and be taught how to beat the dealer. It was part of week-long series he was doing on gambling. (See “Stossel, Reasoner and a pair of Jacks”). Although this was a secret operation, not known by our CARMA prospects, it added to our feelings of confidence in our abilities to grow in the industry we planned to penetrate. (TO BE CONTINUED).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *