As the limousine pulled up to the gates of the Miami MetroZoo, I realized that this might have been the first time I had ever actually ridden in a limo. Sue and I had been invited by CEO, and now owner of the World Jai-Alai frontons, Bennett Collett to attend the annual “Feast with the Beasts.” Also, in the limo… Bennett’s “consultant” (girlfriend) Linda.
Over the past few months, I had been completing the marketing and advertising plan for the launch of our new Crystal Card Room at Miami Jai-Alai. We were about to unveil the first poker room television commercial. Prior to actual running it in the media, we had arranged for it to be shown on a large viewing screen. All the prominent guests attending would see for the first time. The primary viewer would be Bennett, who had never seen it.
I was nervous. We had been told it was to be shown at approximately 7:45 pm. The four of us departed Miami Jai-Alai about fifteen minutes later than I had hoped. Bennett had been on some last-minute calls. Of course, I was flattered that he had invited us to be his personal guests in the limo. For some reason, he seemed to like me. Or, maybe Linda did. But, for whatever reason, Sue and I were certainly enjoying the luxury of a limo.
Dan Licciardi, now Benny Jr.’s confidante, had a close relationship with the Miami zoo. He had made sure Miami Jai-Alai was always a major supporter. Dan was able to arrange for the showing of our commercial at the prestigious event. This was great exposure for our upcoming planned grand opening. But Bennett HAD to like it.
As the driver opened the door for us, we exited the limo and made the long walk to the party area. I could see the screen in the distance and told Bennett and Linda that at any moment our new commercial would be featured there. They were currently running beautiful videos of animals and other short features.
Dan walked up and started introducing Bennett to some of the guests. Meanwhile, Bennett was drinking and talking, with his back to the screen. Suddenly I noticed the television spot was being shown. I quickly interrupted him and told him to look up. He only saw the last 20 seconds. I waited for his response. “Marty, that looked pretty good. Now, let’s get the heck outta here and go eat.”
I realized all the stress and worry was for nothing. He was ready to leave this magnificent setting, serving great food, for a visit to their favorite restaurant in Coral Gables. I’m not sure how much he even cared about the commercial.
I was getting more insight into our new CEO. Over the months, I had found that Bennett Collett was all about trying to raise the Florida Gaming stock price and continuing to please his minority investors. Roland Howell was one of them.
This guy was a character. His name always reminded me of Thurston B. Howell, the millionaire from Gilligan’s Island. Roland was an elderly man in his late 80s that made his money owning some small hotels on Miami Beach. Somehow, he became a major investor in Bennett’s enterprises, which was now basically Jai-Alai. I got to see close up how Bennett would continue to charm Howell and try to suck more money out of him.
The construction of Tampa Jai-Alai’s Poker Room finished first. My brother, the architect for the project, had turned a small area on the north side of the entrance into a jewel. We flew to Tampa for the grand opening.
The Tampa Poker Room was classy, but cozy. It was not like the stodgy, ballroom feel very comfortable for the poker players.
Tampa Jai-Alai would be our first poker room to open. Sue and I attended the opening party as did Bennett, Linda, and the Howells. After an hour of two of festivities, Bennett was ready to leave. He invited us to Donatello’s Restaurant with the Roland Howell and his wife. That’s where I saw the romance of a shareholder.
Bennett turned on the charm and opened his wallet. Of course, it was not his money, it was all charged to the company. Expensive bottles of wine, the best items on the menu, anything Roland wanted. Sue and I had no problem with that, we just smiled, drank, and ate. But I would hear Bennett tell Roland how much money he was going to make, how successful poker would be, expansion to new areas. But Florida Gaming might float some preferred stock that he could get in on the ground floor. Bennett was like “Wolf of Wabash,” pump and dump. I heard that Roland, later, made another substantial investment with Florida Gaming.
Now it’s December of 1997. We always took our kids, Shawna and Jason, to visit Sue’s parents in Venice, Florida, for the Christmas holidays. Two days before Christmas, the phone rings. Sue’s father tells me it’s for me. On the other end is Bennett Collett. I was very surprised hearing his voice, wondering how he got my in-laws home phone number.
“Marty, you know we’re having problems in Tampa,” he told me. “You’re from there, know everyone in town,” he went on. My heart begins to race. What is he leading up to? “Marty, you’re the man for the job… we want you to be the new Tampa Jai-Alai General Manager.”
I could hardly speak. These are the words I’d been hoping to hear since that day I had sat across the desk from Tampa’s GM Ernie Larsen in 1971. Ernie said I could be general manager there some day. That day never came. It was my hope, it was my dream. Now, Bennett was offering me the job. But why did I feel so hollow, so confused?
“Bennett, I appreciate all the wonderful things you are saying,” I told him. “But I have a family, two kids in school. Also, what about the rumors we are about to close and sell Tampa Jai-Alai,” I said.
“Can you meet Benny and me in Tampa tomorrow?” he asked me. “We’ll talk about it then. You’re the man for the job, don’t let me down, Marty,” he said and hung up.
Then… I still get tears in my eyes as I remember this. I slowly walked out of the room and into the living room. Sue could see I was somewhat stunned. I asked her and the kids to come out to the screened in porch, I needed to talk to them.
As they all stared at me, I said, “How would you like to move back to Tampa, they offered me the job as General Manager.” Shawna burst out crying, my younger son Jason soon followed her lead.
“What about my friends, don’t make me leave Miami,” Shawna pleaded between sobs. She was in high school, Jason in middle school. Can a father rip his beloved children away from their friends, uproot them while they are in the middle of the most important years of their lives? Of course, Sue calmed them down and told them we would all do “whatever Dad needs us to do.”
But I was shaken, torn. I had to give serious thought to the entire situation. This WAS my dream. But Tampa Jai-Alai was nothing like it was. Business was awful. The fronton was losing a significant amount of money since the strike in 1988. Not me, no one could change the course of decline. Plus, there were strong rumors that the Collett’s already had a deal to sell the land to a developer. If that happens, what becomes of my job? Do we, then, return to Miami?
Sue and I talked it over. We talked for hours. She said that they would support me no matter my decision. She assured me the kids would get over it. Would they?
Tomorrow, I will drive to Tampa. I will listen to Bennett’s proposal. During the drive, all I could think about was having to say, “Merry Christmas, kids, we’re moving back to Tampa.”