By Steve “Straymar” Martin
I recently had the opportunity to reach out to a Jai-alai acquaintance from the past, Art Silvester Jr, on Tuesday morning on the 4th of August. Art Jr. was General Manager of Palm Beach Jai-Alai from the 1980’s until closing in 1994 and was also involved in the family’s Newport Jai-Alai as General Manager and Executive VP.
I had not yet met Art Jr. when I graduated college with a BSME degree and accepted a job at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft in West Palm Beach in June of 1978. I was able to attend the original Palm Beach fronton about a half dozen times during the fall before the old fronton building burned down in December 1978. The building was rebuilt and opened again in January 1981. I was living in Lakeland, Florida at that time working as a project engineer in the Florida phosphate industry (at one of those many giant chemical complexes with the mountains of gypsum), but was able to visit the new Palm Beach fronton on a few occasions in the first few years after re-opening. I met Art Jr. for the first time in the mid-1980’s after the Florida phosphate industry downturn when I had returned to work again at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft in West Palm Beach. I attended the Palm Beach fronton every chance I could after after moving back to the area and was a “systems player” mostly focused on trifectas and also on superfecta wagers when those began a few years later.
I had previously mailed Art Jr. a list of my questions and he was most gracious in calling me to set up a phone interview and agreed to answer my questions. My wife and I have both been very interested in the restaurant at Palm Beach Jai-Alai, having dined there dozens of times. It was our favorite restaurant in town and we especially loved the Teriyaki Marinated Chicken Breast and the Key Lime Ice Cream Pie and still talk about it to this day. We always made sure to take any family members there for dinner when they visited from out-of-town.
Art Jr. was an exceptional host and one of my favorite memories was when Palm Beach had opened for Sunday matinees and offered a Sunday Brunch in the restaurant. Art Jr. had stopped by our table and asked me if I had ever had eggs Benedict. I said no, and he then offered to have his chef make one up special for me. Ever since that Sunday brunch, I always think of Art Jr. when I hear mention of eggs Benedict. The restaurant at Palm Beach was fine dining for sure and Art’s answers to my questions will shed some more light on that topic among others related to the fronton, its history and operation.
Art’s early adulthood:
Art Jr. was born in 1946 and is currently 74 years old. Many people probably don’t know this, but Art Jr. was in the service from age 19 to 23 and was stationed in Okinawa during the Vietnam War. Okinawa was a vital island for the Pentagon to support US forces in the Vietnam War. While in the service for four years, he served in the Air Force and the Armed Force Police and left the service in December 1969.
Here are the Questions and Answers from the phone interview:
Q: Can you tell me how you learned the trade and perhaps some history on that?
A: I worked in all areas of the fronton operation, doing everything except in the foodservice area. That work even included security and maintenance.
Q: Who were some of the famous visitors to the Palm Beach and Newport frontons?
A: In the early days, in the 1960’s, the King of England and his wife visited the Palm Beach fronton. There were so many, Errol Flynn, Joe DiMaggio to name a few. Betty Hutton worked as a greeter for us at Newport. She was a 1940’s and 50’s star and appeared in The Greatest Show on Earth and Annie Get Your Gun.
Q: What was the largest attendance you remember?
A: It was the last day of the 86/87 season when there was a million dollar Pick 6 jackpot mandatory payout on a Saturday night. Palm Beach had seating for 6,000. The following Monday when attendance figures were tallied, there were 10,000 people. The place was packed. The computer system even failed that night.
Note: for comparison purposes, Newport had seating for 3,200.
Q: I remember you for being such a great Jai-Alai host, standing inside the doors and greeting customers as they entered, being all around the building, very involved in ensuring the place ran like a “well-oiled machine.” It looked like you loved your job. Can you expand on that and what did you like the most about your job?
A: I always had good managers which was a big help. I felt I needed to spend at least half the night at the front door greeting customers and buying regulars a drink at the bar. I enjoyed talking to the customers.
Q: I know managing a business like Palm Beach Jai-Alai had to be difficult as it was such a complex business with all the regulations, the restaurant/food options/bars, mutuel clerks, money room, security, players, union, support staff, and much more. Roughly how many people were on the payroll at the height of the business?
A: Before the recession and the player strike we had around 800 employees. Two thirds of those were part time or seasonal and the other one third traveled back and forth between Newport and Palm Beach, supporting both operations.
Note that when the word “strike” came up, Art Jr. was quick to mention that they did not have the police support at Newport like they did at Palm Beach. He mentioned how some striking players at Newport were pounding on the cars crossing the picket lines and that shouldn’t have happened. Art said the police in Newport should’ve been impartial. “We didn’t have that problem at Palm Beach,” Art said.
Q: I’ve always been fascinated with the restaurant at Palm Beach. I always got the impression you were quite the restaurateur and highly involved in running it. How were you able to operate such a successful restaurant? Great managers, chefs? Did you have a favorite chef?
A: The first restaurant opened in 1971, the “Sala-del-Toro” restaurant which was located in the basement of the old fronton. We found it best to go back at least 20-years on references with people that we hired, we wanted highly experienced chefs.
We picked up a lot of restaurant ideas when traveling. There was a famous high-end restaurant in Tampa where we got the idea for shrimp on ice and we began offering that on the menu. We had two kinds of sauce with our shrimp cocktail; the traditional cocktail sauce and a mustard sauce which was very popular. In 1977-78 during the shrimp shortage, most restaurants cut back on the number of shrimp offered, but we kept ours at six.
One of my favorite chefs was Roger Brown who started in 1977-78 and worked at both Palm Beach and Newport. Art did say the restaurant at Newport was a different type of restaurant but used the same head chef.
Q: What are you doing these days to keep occupied? Has the covid situation been a big impact to your retired lifestyle?
A: A little golf, stay around the house, and doctor visits…… Art mentioned it’s pretty shocking when you hear the doctor say the “cancer” word. Art has been struggling with leukemia which is a form of cancer.
I appreciated this unique opportunity to visit with Art Jr. over the phone. I had last spoken with him about 20-years ago when our paths crossed at the University of Arizona’s Global Race Track Industry Symposium held at the Rio in Las Vegas. That was probably the only year that annual convention wasn’t held in Tucson.
Art Jr. still lives in Florida, but not in the Palm Beach area, and I wish him the best in his retirement and health struggles.