Casino Owner Gambles On Grit and Good Judgment
By Clare Kittredge
Completed in 1927 and patterned on old English ballrooms, the Club Casino was the first building on Hampton Beach (originally built in 1899). It housed a cavernous, 225-foot-long ballroom with 21-foot ceilings and "festival seating" (no tables or chairs). At one time, its patrons conformed to a Draconian dress code.
Then came the late '60s and early '70s when collective madness seemed to creep into teenage psyches. One summer night in 1971, Jethro Tull played for only one of two sold-out concerts. There was a riot, and the National Guard was called to Hampton Beach.
"It was the height of the anti-war years," says Club Casino general manager Bill Tebbetts. "Inside, it was a madhouse. It was total chaos on the beach."
He remembers being among the crowd of frenzied fans who tried to climb through the club's windows to glimpse the stars. Twelve arrests later, after a policeman was hospitalized for exhaustion and streets had been closed off, the riot was quelled -- but rock 'n roll was banned from the town of Hampton.
This created something of a problem for Jim Goodwin when he bought the club in the mid-70s and found that Hampton residents did not make a distinction between hard rock, soft rock and 'MOR.' or, middle-of-the-road. "The people on the beach were 'staid' in their view of entertainment, they didn't want to hear any musical notes wafting on the breeze -- they didn't want the Beach Boys, either."
Besides, Goodwin says as he sits on a brown velveteen swivel chair in an office plastered with glossy photos of acts he had since hosted, his problems were compounded by another difficulty: how to attract big-name talent to his club.
The music business, he explains, operates on three levels. Every act has a personal manager as well as an agency. All the clubs, promoters and places where singers perform contact agencies for bookings. Agencies plan tours with the approval of managers.
When Goodwin took over, he had the club redesigned to enhance its nostalgic, old world flavor. An interior decorator with offices in Quincy, Mass. and Los Angeles selected the Casino's colors -- red, blue and olive green. A Scottish company custom-made a paisley wool rug. "We introduced a Vegas-style showroom with cocktails, 1,600 chairs, tables, and a 144-foot bar. With special lights dripping over it, this," he says, "is the longest bar in New England." In the eyes of the agencies he called, however, none of this was enough.
"When I'd call agencies, they'd say 'who did you have last year?' and when I said I was a brand-new business, they said 'we'll get back to you.'" Leaning forward in his blue jeans and cowboy hat, Goodwin says, "If I'd sat waiting for the phone to ring, I'd have a beard down to the floor!"
As in all success stories, luck played its part. Overhearing him wonder how he could get Crystal Gayle to sing at the club, a waitress remarked: "Oh, I live with Crystal Gayle's husband's brother!" a week later, Goodwin's phone rang. It was Crystal Gayle's agency asking if he wanted show dates for July.
That happened during the summer of '78. "It was the first summer I didn't take a bath. The next year, when I called agencies and they asked me who I'd had last year, I said 'Crystal.' They said 'Who?' That started the ball rolling. Now agencies call me here and we have a more mutual arrangement."
Since then, the Club Casino has hosted some of the biggest names in show business, including Pat Benatar, the Motels, Roy Orbison, the Pointer Sisters, Jonathan Edwards, Tammy Wynette, Judy Collins, B.B. King, and Arlo Guthrie.
Although he wasn't owner at the time, Goodwin says he learned a lesson from the Jethro Tull debacle. "Two years ago, when the Rolling Stones played in that dive in Worcester, I was called by their agency -- they said they were giving the tickets away, but I said 'No, no, no! For the sake of having the Stones here, would I destroy the reputation I've built up?' You've got to use your head," he says, tapping his temple, "you can't get greedy. As Johnny Carson says -- 'What do you want, this place turned into a parking lot?' They would've torn the place down -- free tickets to the Stones?" he says, rolling his eyes to the ceiling. "Please! So I said no. They thought I was crazy."
This summer, Dave Mason, the Romantics, Ray Charles and Laura Branigan, among others, will perform in his ballroom. "I try to remember, if you only put on acts you like, you restrict your market. So you've got to add blues, jazz, R&B and MOR as well." This way, he says, he doesn't exhaust the financial resources of one market, like those of young people who can afford one concert a week, perhaps, but not one every night.
Pulling out the latest issue of Billboard, one of the trade magazines he reads to keep track of musicians and their movements, he explains another factor that determines who he can hire for a show. Billboard, he says, has a chart of the top 100 songs of the week. "This week, Cindy Lauper's new song "Time After Time" went from 27 to 14 on the Hot 100. At number 14, she's worth $7,500 to $10,000 a show. At number 27, she's worth only $5,000 to $7,500 -- that's the difference a week makes.
"In 1980, I had Pat Benatar on the first date of her first major tour after "Heartbreak" was released. I paid her $3,000. The next year, after two hits, the minimum she'd take would be $15,000, and depending on the records and the charts, she could command $30,000 to $35,000 a night." Now, I can't buy Pat Benatar because she's too much, I'd say around $50,000 a night."
In order to capitalize on rising ratings in the charts, managers of current popular groups won't book more than five weeks in advance, he says, which makes it hard for him to advertise a show and make plans. "On the other hand, a 'staid' act like the Righteous Brothers can book in advance because they have a current product."
Enter one more ingredient into the formula for booking acts: the more seats in a club, the higher the club's "GP" or gross potential and the more money an act can make. "Normally, an act makes a guaranteed, flat fee, plus 60 to 70 percent of the difference between my expenses for operating a show and the GP (seating ticket price). I have 1,600 seats. At $10 a ticket, that a GP of $16,000. But take the Cumberland Civic Center in Portland -- with 10,000 seats at $10 a ticket, it has a GP of $100,000." The amount of money an act can make there over its guaranteed flat fee is proportionally higher. "They can afford to pay more because their GP is higher. This puts me in a niche. It means there are only certain acts I can buy.
"I can pay an act up to $15,000 and still make money. I can get popular acts on their way up and on their way down." he says, leaning back in his chair with a twinkle in his eye, "but not at their zenith."
Zenith or not, Goodwin has gotten used to meeting these "stars" in their various ascending and descending positions. "In the beginning, I was awestruck by meeting all these famous people, but then again, the newness wears off." He makes a comparison of 'growing tired of a shiny new bicycle.' "They're just people like you and me, and they like to be treated that way."
Some, he says, are so uncomfortably aloof or surrounded with bodyguards that "you can't touch them." Others, like Harry Chapin, who died one night before two sellout concerts at the Club Casino, "you'd swear you'd known for years." When Chapin died, Goodwin says he closed down for the night. "He was a hell of a guy."
He judges stars the way he would judge anyone. It's sort of the way he reacted, he says, when he came out of a package store in Amherst, Mass., where he went to college, and bumped into Robert Frost. "He was a very, very interesting guy -- down to earth. But if he'd been aloof, I would've put him in another category."
Although Goodwin worked in bars on Cape Cod and at the Ashworth before owning the Club Casino, he had to learn the ropes. Problems always crop up, like parking, which is the reason he doesn't do two shows a night. Acts used to doing two shows a night consider a night's job at the Casino a "vacation," he says.
Profits have recently turned the Club Casino into "well over a million-dollar business."
"I turned the corner three years ago, and it took me four years to do it." An in-house, computerized ticketing system allows him to bypass Ticketron and distribute his own tickets. A staff of 110 waitpeople, bar, office, food and maintenance people works from Mid-May to Labor Day.
Goodwin's plans include getting into the promotion business himself during the slow season of the year, and renting other facilities to promote acts he doesn't have space for in Hampton.
"It's a new arm of the same business," he says. Like all his business ideas, he's asking luck to step in. In fact, it may already have. "John Denver's new manager happens to be a really good friend of mine I grew up with ...."This, he says, may open the door to "a myriad of things."