Credit: Charles BaumI didn't think there was anything strange, really, about sitting around in the Superstar Theater dressing room in Atlantic City, New Jersey, eating from Rip Taylor's pupu platter. The Ripper, as my father and all the other Resorts International Casino stagehands called the comedian, had put on his shaggy blond stage wig and was munching egg rolls, sent down as part of a preposterously overloaded catering spread from a low-end eatery at the resort called Café Casino.
"Take something," he said to me, gesturing to the plate of spareribs.
I looked at them pensively. "They do look good," I said and shrugged. "And they're free."
"You're LEARNing!" he yelled, reverting to his queeny, outsize stage manner. I took a sparerib. Then I took two more and wrapped them up in a cocktail napkin, for later.
I didn't know the Ripper well, though I had seen his act something like 50 times. This was 1989, and in the 11 years since my dad had started working at the casino, I had spent thousands of lonely hours in the light booth or at the back of the house, watching the likes of Buddy Hackett, Lola Falana, and the Ripper do their thing. On this night, though, I was there only to borrow $40 from my father; I had a big date and didn't want to be caught short. It was to be one of the first happy experiences I'd had since moving to Atlantic City. I took the girl to Angelo's Fairmount Tavern for veal and homemade red wine and then pushed her around in a shopping cart in the lot of ShopRite before taking her back home and losing my virginity. I was 20.
Rip Taylor was the last thing on my mind that night, but I knew his act, one of the great ones, down to the last piece of thrown confetti. His best joke, told about two minutes in, was delivered in what sounded like a single breath:
"I went down to Café Casino and ordered a hamburger and a hot dog, and the waitress came back with a hamburger under her arm, and I said, 'What's that hamburger doing under your arm,' and she said, 'I'm defrosting it.' And I said, 'CANCEL the HOT DOG!'"
This was during Merv Griffin's brief ownership of Resorts International—Merv being the only casino owner in the history of Atlantic City who was more interested in the talent than in the gaming. For my family, the casino was salvation. We had moved to Atlantic City in 1979 from Miami, where my mother had worked in a Coral Gables boutique and my father, a struggling abstract expressionist painter, earned a living in his family's hardware store; when it closed, my uncle got Dad a job as a stage technician in Atlantic City's first casino, which had opened the year before. It wasn't an easy transition. Mom, Dad, and I were exiles in a strange world, a semi-abandoned city by the sea that had lost its luster and was hoping to gain it back with old celebrities and new slot machines.