ATLANTIC CITY — When Donald Trump opened his colossal Taj Mahal casino in 1990, he displayed the kind of glitzy showmanship that would define his career, a sales job that got Atlantic City believing that it was back in business, home to the “eighth wonder of the world.”
Trump strode onto a stage as “Eye of the Tiger’’ blared on loudspeakers. He rubbed a giant replica of Aladdin’s lamp and a genie appeared on a large video screen, promising the young casino mogul, “Your dream is our command.” A puff of smoke heralded a frenzy of neon-green lasers and six minutes of thunderous fireworks along the boardwalk.
The next day, Michael Jackson arrived. The pop star and new casino boss whisked past doormen dressed in $1,500 turbans into a casino festooned with $14 million worth of Austrian chandeliers.
For a time, it felt like Trump really had made Atlantic City great again. But then, for some, his dream became more like a nightmare.
Just a year later, Trump filed for bankruptcy for the Taj Mahal, foreshadowing his boom-and-bust relationship with Atlantic City, where today he is remembered as a flamboyant savior who pumped up the local economy with a cluster of casinos and hotels, only to pull up stakes and leave when regional competition took the shine off his sprawling gambling business.
Trump’s dealings in Atlantic City have become more of an issue as he surges to the top of the polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. He boasts of his business acumen, but his opponents have pointed to the trail of bankruptcies by his casino operations as evidence of a less-than-stellar, if not reckless, track record.
There would be four bankruptcies in all relating to his casinos, and some of those who did business with Trump or invested in his Atlantic City empire got just pennies on the dollar of what they were owed.
“He’s the biggest [jerk] I’ve ever known. ... There’s nothing nice I can say about him. He hurt so many people,” said Phillip Sternberg, a former Trump investor who was part of a committee appointed by shareholders to negotiate with Trump during one of his bankruptcies. “He bankrupted families that were two- and three-generation electricians, plumbers.”
The Trump name still adorns the facade of the Taj Mahal, but the man himself never visits any more. Left behind are decidedly mixed memories of the entertainment executive who manufactured a wave of spectacular success for himself and Atlantic City that suddenly receded, its imprint hard to detect now amid the obvious economic hardship and the vacant boardwalks.
Some, nevertheless, still recall Trump’s glory days with fondness.
“Maybe someday he’ll see fit to return,’’ said Dan Geiger, president of a limousine company that did a lot of business with Trump. “He made things happen, and God knows Atlantic City needs someone who can make things happen.”
But others offer a caustic account.
Martin Wood, almost 80 years old and operator of a pawn shop his father founded in 1927 near the boardwalk, is among those with bitter feelings about Trump.
“He wasn’t a success in Atlantic City,” Wood said. “He tried, and he was not that successful.
“It’s a normal thing with a guy like him,” he added. “You come in, you’re all fluff. And all the sudden you disappear.”
Man on the move, with dad’s help
In the early 1980s, Trump was entering his mid-30s and was a man on the move. With the help of his father, and his father’s money, he had established himself as a prominent New York City developer, but was in search of more. He’d attempted to buy the New York Daily News, considered purchasing the Cleveland Indians, and settled for the New Jersey Generals, a football team in a short-lived league trying to compete with the NFL.
But New Jersey, which had legalized gambling in 1976, offered the lure of something really big. Trump began quietly amassing property in Atlantic City. By 1982, he appeared before the state gaming commission, told the panel Atlantic City “needs some pizazz,” and two hours later had a casino license written out to him personally.
He sought a partner, and the man who would later declare that he could convince Mexico to build, and pay for, a wall along the US border negotiated an incredible deal. Harrah’s agreed to foot the bill for the construction and, once the casino opened, indemnify Trump from any operating loses for five years.
When the 39-story Trump Plaza hotel opened in 1984, it was the city’s largest. Sammy Davis Jr. was the hotel’s “exclusive star.”
“It was like he runs everything else: glitzy and high class. It was good,” said Ken Gonsalves, a card dealer who was one of the early employees at the Trump Plaza in 1984. “He wasn’t afraid to spend money and treat the players well. . . And he was larger than life, even then.”
In a city that rewards standing out — where even the multitude of souvenir stores proclaim they are the “best” or the “biggest” — Trump towered above them all. He was a salesman with what he considered a perfect product: himself.
His name was everywhere. The glistening lights. The revolving doors, the banners inside, and the flags flapping in the entryway. The cocktail lounge, just off the gambling floor, was named “Trump’s.”
Trump. Trump. Trump.
“It was an exciting time. Everybody wanted to be next to him. Everybody wanted to be next to Donald Trump,” said Edward Kline, who was mayor of a neighboring city and was also the state legislator representing Atlantic City. “He built a lot of casinos, he put a lot of people to work. And people came.”
“The high rollers came,” he added. “Everything was first class. The marble, the gold door knobs, and all that.”
Trump would often, come June, host big birthday parties there for himself, bringing in Playboy playmates for events on the boardwalk. He would sit ringside at boxing and wrestling matches held in his hotels.
“Thank God, Donald Trump’s a Hulkamaniac!” wrestler Hulk Hogan, with muscles twitching, said in one television ad promoting an event.
After he opened the first casino, Trump quickly purchased another one at a nearby marina. He named it “Trump’s Castle.” Everyone knew he was in town when his 282-foot yacht — which he purchased from the sultan of Brunei and named Trump Princess — was docked out there. It was a sign of stature to be invited aboard, where Trump was sometimes seen in a purple sweater and white fedora — one of the few times he was spotted in anything but an impeccable suit.
With two casinos fully his, he set his sights on a third. This one he was going to build himself.
When the Taj opened, and Jackson came, one commentator compared it to the arrival of the Beatles in America for the first time. The casino was mobbed with a crowd of some 75,000.
“At the historic meeting of show biz and big biz, music’s magic man and the Midas mogul ran the media gantlet to open the world’s glitziest casino,” said Robin Leach, giddily covering the opening for his TV show, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
But economic trouble was already brewing. Atlantic City was awash with casinos, and legalized gambling was catching up in nearby states. Atlantic City, the model for the board game Monopoly, faced stiff competition.
“He opened it in what in retrospect was a cataclysmically bad time,” said Steven P. Perskie, who wrote the legislation legalizing gambling in Atlantic City, and later interacted with Trump as the governor’s chief of staff and then as chairman of the state’s Casino Control Commission. “Within months, if not weeks, he got hit with a national recession, which made the Taj Mahal economically inoperative.”
Appeal that survives bankruptcies
A little over a year after the Taj opened, Trump’s casino operation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, a provision that allows a company to reorganize without shutting down. Although it was a business bankruptcy, it took a personal toll.
In exchange for a lower interest rate on his debt and more time to make payments, Trump agreed to limits on his personal spending. He also sold the Trump Shuttle airline, as well as his yacht.
Trump filed for bankruptcy protection on his various casino enterprises three more times, in 1992, 2004, and 2009.
Yet Trump’s personal appeal was such that not everyone was angry, even some creditors. In a back office at Atlantic Limousine, which for some 15 years serviced Trump’s casinos and in 2009 was listed as a creditor that Trump owed $320,000, Dan Geiger remembers the man fondly.
“We were always paid our money,” said Geiger. “I have absolutely no resentment. I love the guy. I wish he were still here.’’
Trump plays down the fact that he resorted to bankruptcy, and instead points to another sign that he is a good businessman: He left, folding his cards when others might have lost it all. Trump resigned from the board of directors of his casino company in February 2009.
“I had the good sense to leave Atlantic City,” Trump said at the Fox News debate for GOP candidates in August. “I left Atlantic City before it totally cratered. And I made a lot of money in Atlantic City, and I’m very proud of it.”
Trump’s campaign did not respond to several requests for an interview about his record in Atlantic City.
Trump still has a 10 percent stake in the casino company, but most of the operations are overseen by billionaire investor Carl Icahn. The Trump Plaza shut down completely in September 2014; the building is now empty, and the only sign that Trump was once there is an etching of his name that’s visible from the boardwalk.
Icahn also controls the Taj Mahal, and is in a bitter battle with unions there as he demands concessions. Trump recently came to an agreement with Icahn to allow his name to remain on the hotel.
Meanwhile, Trump has started saying that Icahn would be the Treasury secretary in a Trump administration.
“You know what? Just relax,” Trump said last month while invoking Icahn’s qualifications during a press conference in Michigan. “Everything will work out fine. We’ll make great deals.”
Trouble where it all began
In Atlantic City, however, a drive down the city’s streets and a walk along the famed boardwalk show that everything did not work out fine here. Storefronts are boarded up, buildings large and small are vacant. Some city blocks have as many as three pawn shops.
“Trump bet bigger than almost anybody else. He was happy to be identified with Atlantic City,” said Bryant Simon, author of “Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.” “When the going got tough, he was out of here. He abandoned the city.”
As bankruptcies accumulated, some vendors began demanding cash upfront, Perskie said.
In the late 1990s, Perskie was working for a law firm that Trump had retained. He went to a top Trump aide and delivered the news: The firm would no longer represent Trump. They weren’t being paid, and had grown tired of it. Perskie returned all of Trump’s files.
“By the time he left, the image of him in Atlantic City had soured,” Perskie said. “He was stiff-arming everybody. So when he left, it was perceived by the local businesses as a matter of relief.”
There are others in Atlantic City who still admire Trump, and remember the casinos’ heyday with a nostalgic glow.
Sue Foula, a 78-year-old Greek immigrant, has for decades run a tiny diner in the shadows of the Taj’s hulking parking garage. She grows teary-eyed describing how hard the economy has hit.
When Trump was running the casino next door, her restaurant, Constantino’s, was typically packed. She used to serve dinner, but now closes by 2 p.m. She wants to sell her place but can’t find a buyer.
But for none of her woes does she blame Trump.
“I love him dearly,” she says, sitting in a corner with a cran-apple juice and a pack of Marlboro’s. “When Donald was here, it was better.”
She knows he’ll probably never come back to Atlantic City. But she does hope he becomes president.
Others don’t hold his companies’ serial bankruptcies against Trump.
“He knew when to get out of here,” says Mike Carmona, a 46-year-old who makes his living with a pushcart that takes people along the boardwalk. “He knew when to get out and get his billions. He’s a good investor.”
Trappings of glitz, little glamour
Left behind are monuments of Trump’s wealth.
High above the city, atop the Taj, Trump’s name is emblazoned six times. It is stamped on the letterhead for the hotel. In each room, the cradles that hold the remote control for televisions prominently say, “Trump.’’
But the hotel is a shell of its former self. One of the nicer rooms at the hotel can be had for $77 a night. Even then, it doesn’t have stationery or a pen. There are no bathrobes, no minibar. Cups are plastic and Styrofoam, not glass and porcelain. Getting a Q-tip requires purchasing a $1 vanity kit at the hotel’s newsstand (called “Trump Times”). The jeweler next to the casino floor is offering 80 percent off everything in the store.
On a recent weeknight, row upon row of slot machines sat empty. No one was sitting at the “Trump Treasury” slot machines, which offer gamblers a chance to “claim your share” of the billionaire’s riches with a bet of as little as 1 cent. There are long, wide hallways but no one in them. The trappings of glitz abound, but very little glamour.
Outside, most places along the boardwalk — the ice cream stands, the saltwater taffy stores, and the souvenir stores — are shuttered by 8 p.m.
The future seems bleak, though not so much, perhaps, to one who is paid to read it. Chanel Mitchell, a psychic who has been reading fortunes here for more than 40 years, was preparing to close for the night, but she agreed to consider one last request.
Just a few steps away from Trump’s former casino, she is asked, “Will Donald Trump be president?” She begins flipping through tarot cards, eventually reaching a verdict: Success will be Trump’s, she said, but as with his Atlantic City interlude, the glow won’t last..
“One hundred percent, he is meant to be president,” she said. “But he is very greedy. He is very selfish.”
“He will only be there for four years.”