I had come to the conclusion that Dania Jai-Alai had lost its golden luster for Boyd Gaming. The top Boyd executives had not visited the property in over a year. The Dania Beach city commissioners were growing impatient that the casino expansion plans were still on hold. But no information was coming from Las Vegas. The economy seemed to have bottomed out in 2010, yet Boyd seemed hesitant about investing the projected $200 million to build a brand-new Jai-Alai/ casino. The project was either on a lengthy hold or dead.
I noticed Dave Winslow, past HR administrator, now “operations manager,” showing people around the building. Rumors were about where Boyd was exploring using the existing building for the slots expansion. This would still require a massive renovation (that included a new roof due to the numerous leaks).
Also, there was some talk that Boyd Gaming might “cut their losses” and sell the place, thinking that the political climate in Florida was not what they had envisioned for casino gambling. The proposed slot tax rate was still the highest in the country and it was doubtful that the state politicians were going to lower it in the near future.
Meanwhile, I continued to watch Winslow and Boyd Executive Jack Bernsmeier drift farther and farther away from our major offerings, Jai-Alai, poker, and simulcasting of horse and dog racing. That was our bread and butter. Even with vastly reduced attendance, those three products were our major sources of revenue.
At our department head meetings, Dave would relay that Jack wanted to market Dania Jai-Alai as an event venue, even a club destination. He thought we could compete with South Beach or the ever-popular Lauderdale club scene. I would just stare at him, wondering what planet they were on.
Winslow suggested we convert our “Smoke Shop”, an area completely enclosed near the player’s quarters door, into a new, trendy nightclub. He said we could hire local entertainment and try to attract some younger customers to our facility. Of course, a limited amount of funds would be available to do this. He suggested some temporary paneling, a few tables, and chairs, that should do it. Again, I just stared, glassy eyed.
This enclosed space reeked of smoke and old cigarettes. It had the ambiance of a waiting room for emphysema patients. Maybe booking the Beatles there would bring in a crowd. But the Beatles no longer existed. This was doomed for failure and I was looking for an escape route. Luckily, Benny Bueno and Lou Berdellans were at the meeting.
Benny, past Miami star and Player Manager in waiting, was one of Dave’s favorites. He was a total optimist, still believing that Jai-Alai would make a comeback and would do anything he could to help. Believing this club could work had to be a stretch, even for Benny. But he quickly chimed in that he knew some musicians that we could hire for some small gigs.
Then, there was Lou. Lou Berdellans was, also, a past Jai-Alai pro, having played in Newport, Rhode Island. Lou was the consummate promoter. He had his own sports memorabilia business and ran a monthly card show. We began letting Lou use our facility monthly for his show.
I was impressed by Lou’s energy, hustle, and myriad of ideas. Some were off the wall, but he was always thinking. Lou was always “on the edge” but I really thought he could help in many areas, including Jai-Alai, poker, and other things. I convinced Winslow to give Lou the chance as our special event coordinator and PR Assistant. Dave agreed to give him a part-time trial period. So, Lou and Benny jumped at the chance to make this new “night club” a success, naming it Club Jai.
I kept my pessimism to myself. Maybe I was too old for this. Maybe I was frustrated that my passion for the sport of Jai-Alai, the business that I knew and loved, was no longer relevant to Bernsmeier and Winslow. Actually, it never was. Plus, I knew that even if Club Jai (I still laugh when I even say it) drew in 20 or 30 extra people for a drink, this was not going to erase our millions of dollars in losses annually.
I was directed to focus all our advertising on promoting Club Jai. I still remember calling Marc Hochman at 790 The Ticket telling him that he and Dan LeBatard needed to talk up the newest spot in the Ft. Lauderdale club scene, Club Jai. Hoch asked me where it was located. When I told him in the Smoke Shop, but being converted on the weekends to Club Jai, he couldn’t stop laughing. As we tried to write the live spot for him and Dan, we both were hysterical. But we did it, and spent thousands on the radio ads promoting the new, chic, Club Jai.
With some fake temporary panels on the walls and some recycled tables and chairs, Club Jai opened on a Saturday night. Mostly family and friends attended the “Grand Opening.” Perhaps, a few vagrants off Dania Beach Boulevard wandered in. A handful of new customers came to check it out. Club Jai lasted about six weekends before Winslow and Bernsmeier finally pulled the proverbial plug. Alas, Club Jai was not destined to be Studio 54.
Club Jai will go down in history as just another failed promotional gimmick for Dania Jai-Alai. But it signaled a certainty that it was time for me to say, “Bye Bye to Jai-Alai.”
Footnote: This article is dedicated to my close friend Richard Berenson, past owner of Miami Jai-Alai, who laughed harder than Hochman and LeBatard, when I told him about Club Jai.