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Big money, big stars for opening of Greenbrier Resort's new casino

From left: Barbara Eden, Gov. Joe Manchin and wife Gayle, Greenbrier owner Jim Justice, Brooke Shields, Cathy Justice, Jessica Simpson and Debbie Reynolds cut the ribbon to open the Casino Club Friday. (Evan Agostini/AP)

The next time a celebrity whines about living in the spotlight, think of this weekend's grand opening of the Casino Club at the Greenbrier Resort.

A mix of sports icons and entertainment stars -- Jennifer Garner, Ben Affleck, Jessica Simpson, Brooke Shields, Lionel Richie, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal, Jane Seymour, Debbie Reynolds, Raquel Welch, Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus -- showed up Friday night at the luxury resort in West Virginia. In addition to being given a vacation with all the bells and whistles (food, drink, spa, golf, shooting, horseback riding), many of the stars were paid to show up -- one of the common but less-publicized perks of being famous.

The bigger names received "very nice" appearance fees of $100,000 or more, according to one of the celebrity wranglers at the party. (That's about three times the annual salary of the average West Virginian, for those of you counting pennies.) Stars were required to walk the red carpet, attend a black-tie dinner and cut the ribbon for the 100,000-square-foot casino described by its owner as "Monte Carlo meets 'Gone With the Wind'."

"I feel that I'm just going to bust with pride that my home state has something this beautiful to offer -- this elegant, classy and glamorous," said Garner, who's become the unofficial ambassador for West Virginia. "It's just a reminder that we are one of the top tourist destinations in the country. So many people don't know. I mean, have you ever been to anyplace more beautiful in your whole life?"

Garner on a West Virginia red carpet made perfect sense. And some of the celebrities had a passing relationship with the state. Reynolds recalled how she and Eddie Fisher honeymooned at the Greenbrier in 1955. Elliott Gould said he was made an honorary citizen of West Virginia in 1976 for his work with a camp for asthmatic children. "I haven't been here since," he told us.

But a lot of the stars were visiting for the first time. "I always wanted to come to this part of the country," said Welch, tucked into a low-cut, curvy black gown. "I'm a little partial, somewhere in my heart, to the South. I think there's something genteel . . . oh, I don't know, very red, white and blue about it."

Shaq and Brooke Shields in the Greenbrier foyer. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

And yes, they were in the South -- at least the Greenbrier version: sweeping staircases, flowered drapes, stripes and color everywhere.

The resort, about four hours from Washington, was founded in the 18th century for those who believed in the restorative powers of the sulfur spring. It evolved into West Virginia's leading luxury hotel and spa, and became a popular getaway for politicians -- and the site of a secret underground bunker (now open for tours) for members of Congress in case of attack during the Cold War.

But the economy tanked, and the grand resort filed for bankruptcy last year. Marriott was about to buy the property when Mountain State multi-millionaire Jim Justice slipped in and purchased it for the bargain price of $20 million. The next day, he announced he was restoring the Greenbrier to its previous glory and adding a casino to the grounds.

"The Greenbrier has its history, its great tradition -- all that's wonderful, there's no question, and we don't want change anything about its elegance at all," he said at Friday night's opening. "But it had to have energy. And in this economy, like it or not like it, what we're doing here is pounding a round peg in a square hole."

Full casino gambling -- slot machines and table games like blackjack and roulette -- has been proposed in West Virginia for a couple of decades, but failed to pass after a bribery scandal in the legislature 20 years ago. The Greenbrier and four racetracks in the state finally got the green light with provisions to protect locals and bring in tourists. Guests at the Greenbrier and those with expensive club memberships are the only ones allowed to gamble in the casino.

"The Greenbrier has always been our marquee resort," said West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. "It's a destination. It's not for the gaming of convenience, where you can just walk off the street. So most of it is tourism and tourism dollars that stay in West Virginia. It's very controlled."

Justice, who sold one of his coal businesses last year for more than $400 million, is a big, emotional guy who was clearly thrilled about trying to help his state. In addition to the casino, he snagged a PGA tournament (it debuts later this month) and plans to add a performing arts theater.

West Virginia, he said, is always ranked 48th or 50th in something, and he wanted better. "It means way more to me to do a great thing for our state and our nation than it does to do something for me."

Justice estimated he spent $2 million (or more) for the black-tie party -- not bad, considering all the advertising the boldface names generated. A charter jet flew in photographers and reporters from New York, and Howard Stern's very blond wife, Beth Ostrosky, interviewed the stars for "Extra."

Would-be celebrities, take note: It doesn't take much to impress the press or fans, and it doesn't take much to tick them off.

Barbara ("I Dream of Jeannie") Eden, browsing in the resort's shoe store a few hours before the party, smiled at the staffers and customers. The minute she walked out, they started gushing.

"She's so nice!" exclaimed one.

"And really well-preserved," agreed her colleague. "Not a wrinkle."

Unlike Affleck, who looked good but was not quite so nice, ignoring reporters and the resort guests stargazing before dinner. Ditto for Simpson, who dutifully posed for pictures but refused to answer any questions. She did, however, take the stage after the three-course dinner when Justice presented her with a huge cake to celebrate her 30th birthday on July 10.

Debbie Reynolds and Barbara Eden, who got memo to wear red. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)
"I didn't know about this!" she squealed.

"I know, baby," Justice told her. "Right now my heart's beating 60,000 times a minute."

Richie began an energetic hour-long concert of his greatest hits, and then it was finally time to officially open the casino.

Giant scissors in hand, Justice, Gov. Manchin and many of the stars cut the oversize green ribbon in front of the giant clamshell. (Yeah, we didn't get that, either.) Cocktail waitresses dressed as Scarlett O'Hara stood waiting with champagne. Then the 1,500 party guests (including Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, owner of the coal mine where 29 miners died earlier this year), who paid $850 to attend the opening-night festivities -- and that didn't include a room -- streamed in to try their luck at blackjack, roulette, craps, poker or slots.

But where were the celebrity gamblers?

"I'm not, really," admitted Welch earlier.

Shaq said he didn't gamble but was looking forward to the sushi restaurant in the casino. Garner had predicted hubby Affleck would beeline for the poker tables -- "I'm sure I'll have to drag him away at the end of the night" -- but he never showed.

"I am not a gambler, but I did gamble," Gould told us. What game? "Oh, my goodness. Life. Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . and balance."

And Shields admitted she wasn't much of a wagerer, either. "No. I like to stand behind and be like the gun moll," she said. "I usually get in, win a little, and get out. I don't sit at the table for a really long time."

The only real player of the night was Barkley. "Blackjack, roulette, craps -- I play it all." We spotted the basketball great in the high-roller section a little after 11 p.m., sitting next to Justice and Shields at a blackjack table with a rack of $50,000 in $500 chips in front of him.

Justice was casually tossing $100 chips in front of Shields. "I can't play," he said. "All I can do is help." He left shortly after, but Barkley wagered until about 2 a.m., rumored to have lost all the money -- if it was even his, or part of his appearance fee. Whatever.

Who else closed the casino down? The most powerful non-gambler in the room: Gov. Manchin, who skipped the celebrities and worked the room of local VIPs, shaking every single hand of every single gambler in the joint. Because in politics, some bets are surer than others.

Jennifer Garner, with Gov. Joe Manchin behind her, waving to fans as they arrived at the Greenbrier. (Jeff Gentner/AP)

By The Reliable Source  |  July 5, 2010; 1:01 AM ET
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Are these celebrities aware that Jim Justice amassed the financial resources to purchase the Greenbrier by selling his coal company (Bluestone Coal) to Russian coal giant Mechel Corp for a cool 436 million? Mechel is one of Russia's largest manufacturers of specialty steel. Bluestone Coal operates eight surface mines in WV using large amounts of diesel nitrate explosives to remove WV mountains in order to reach thin seams of coke coal that are shipped to Russian steel mills. Pristine mountains teeming with fresh water, mountain communities, and wildlife are turned into piles of rock and mud rubble. The carcass of the mountain is dumped into adjacent valleys, filling headwater sources streams with toxins and heavy metals. U.S. citizens living beneath these mountaintop removal operations are paying a heavy price with their health from these types of operations, while coal barons reap great financial benefit. While these celebrities partied and gambled at the Greenbrier opening, just down the road and a couple of mountains away many West Virginians living beneath MTR were being forced to leave their ancestral homes.
And now, thanks to the greed of this coal baron, a Russian company is plundering and destroying American mountains and terrifying U.S. citizens. Former Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev bragged that Russia would bury the United States from within. It looks like he wasn’t just talking. I urge these celebs to take me to task and research Bluestone Coal and mountaintop removal.

Posted by: webbbo1 | July 5, 2010 7:48 AM | Report abuse

Jim Justice paid for this casino with blood money.

I highly doubt that the stars who attended this event knew that Justice made his fortunes from mountaintop removal coal mining. To put it another way, he profited by poisoning people, destroying communities, burrying streams, and permanently annihilating Appalachian Cove Forests.

Posted by: woodb20 | July 5, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

"West Virginia, he [Jim Justice] said, is always ranked 48th or 50th in something, and he wanted better. "It means way more to me to do a great thing for our state and our nation than it does to do something for me."

How ironic that one of the men who helps KEEP West Virginia "48th or 50th in something" should bleat about lifting up our state.

Justice's mountaintop removal operations contribute significantly to increased health risks, earlier deaths, poisoned water, toxic waste contamination and myriad other horrors in all the communities where he operates.

No number of casinos or "Gone With the Wind" waitresses can make up for our mountains that are Gone With His Explosives.

Celebrities: please pay attention to the things your name is being used to implicitly endorse.

Posted by: BobKincaidHillbillyElitist | July 5, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

While we are carping (fairly gently and in good humor, I must admit) about the perks and payments of celebrities, I wonder whether it is fair to ask whether the Post’s reporters stayed at the Greenbrier for this gala event and, if so, on what terms. As we know, there is not much in the way of alternative accommodations in the vicinity of the Greenbrier. If the Post’s reporters were themselves feted by the Greenbrier, wouldn’t readers be entitled to know?

So, I ask: Did Ms. Argetsinger and/or Ms. Roberts stay at the Greenbrier and, if so, did the Post pay for the accommodations (including meals) or were they complimentary? Also, if either or both of them were “comped,” were they accompanied by a spouse or friend? Does the Post have a policy on the acceptance by a reporter of something of value (e.g., lodging, meals) from a facility that is the subject of a story (which facility may also, from time to time, be an advertiser)? Does any such policy differ for the Style Section as opposed to, say, national news coverage?

I am not saying that the acceptance of lodging necessarily would impair the “impartiality” of this particular type of story. In other contexts, though, it certainly would be a concern. Just the other day, Andrew Alexander made reference to “rules and guidelines” that “reside on The Post’s intranet but are well hidden.” What is the rule or guideline at to accommodations for a Post reporter?

P.S. I find it ironic that, in a Style Section that today is dominated by the story of the Greenbrier’s casino opening, the Homestead has what appears to be a paid ad!

Posted by: jacktall | July 5, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

You can buy some pretty classy friends for $100,00.00 each, but I bet if they knew where that money came from some of these celebrities would have stayed home. Shame!

Posted by: mikeroselle | July 5, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

I was at the Greenbrier for a few days in 2008. It was lovely but a little odd. It was difficult to get a reservation at the restaurants (and only the cafe allowed walk ins), but when you did succeed in getting dinner in a restaurant, the place had lots of empty tables. In the vast main dining room, diners were scattered among tables in one section while most of the place was empty. Meanwhile a violin and piano duo played away. As someone observed, it was like being in a resort reserved for the communist elite in the old Soviet Union.

The one cafe that allowed walk ins had limited hours -- pretty strange for a very large hotel on a huge campus.

Spots at the spa were also hard to come by, you had to reserve at least a day in advance, but there, too, the spa was half empty and under utilized.

In the end, I had the impression that the place was being run as much for the convenience of the staff as the comfort of the guests. I had a sense not of being graciously accommodated, but of being graciously managed and deflected. I've had better service for the same price at other resorts and hotels. Too bad they were intent on ducking the Marriott bid. Mr. Marriott's attention to hospitality might have transformed the place into something better.

All that aside, the place was worth a visit for its vast old-fashioned size and layout, the Dorothy Draper decor, the individually decorated public ladies rooms (make a tour of them, ladies!), the marvelous art deco indoor pool, the wooded grounds, and the opportunity to get a lot of walking in -- when I say vast hotel and grounds I mean a lot of walking. There is historic beauty to the place unlike a lot of sterile modern resorts.

I hope the casino and Mr. Justice can save the place and improve the hospitality of the Greenbrier. Giving guests full, convenient access to the dining rooms and spa would be a beginning. Making a subtle shift in the staff attitude would be another.

Posted by: cassandra9 | July 5, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

I am surprised at the harsh comments. I assume most are not from WV. I am sure the commenter's are likely from a city which took great resources to build. I also bet the commenter's can not live without there computers that were also created from resources. It's a fact we live the way we do. There have been great advances that make life wonderful. I disagree with comments like blood money. Justice is a great man. He invested his earnings back into the state that created it.

Posted by: travished24 | July 5, 2010 10:44 PM | Report abuse

I noticed on a celebrity website Jennifer Garner wearing a WVU hat while attending a parade in Pacific Palisades on Sunday. Contractual obligation? Or maybe she likes the colors. In any event, she obviously didn't stay at the Greenbriar thru the weekend.

Posted by: russkohr | July 6, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

I am a native West Virginian and a native Greenbrier Countian (home of The Greenbrier). I am not an employee of The Greenbrier or of Jim Justice.

I have visited and been a guest at The Greenbrier on many occasions, and I can assure everyone who ever visited The Greenbrier before Jim Justice purchased it that the changes he is making are extensive (far beyond building the casino) and first class in every respect. To cassandra9, I am familiar with the quirkiness of the place when it was still owned by CSX Transportation (the successor to the old C&O Railroad). And yes, the place was in fact run as much for the convenience of the executives of CSX as for the guests. All of that has now changed. Jim Justice did not become a billionaire by permitting his many businesses to be run into the ground by poor service. Among the many changes: two new restaurants have been opened in the main hotel building, with additional restaurants planned; extensive work has been done to the massive grounds; new executive staff have been installed in areas where service had been allowed to slip; new retail stores have been opened; new non-stop jet air service to the local airport has been set up from New York and Atlanta; and much general "sprucing up" of the hotel has taken place. If you make a visit to The Greenbrier now, I bet you will be pleasantly surprised at the changes.

To everyone, please come visit our beautiful state and enjoy our wonderful people. Greenbrier County has much to offer beyond just the charms of The Greenbrier. For example, the neighboring town of Lewisburg has been named one of the top small arts towns in America and is home to a year-round professional theater and a live music venue offering jazz, classical and traditional music. Great restaurants abound, and the walk along the Greenbrier River Trail (a re-purposed railroad bed) offers breataking views at every turn.

As for the agitators who want to use this forum to debate mountaintop coal mining practices: please just go away. To those of you who are unfamiliar, 95% of these people are non-West Virginians who know nothing about our State or about the coal industry beyond the simpleton view that surface mining is not attractive. Come and visit West Virginia, and I can show you dozens of mountaintop mining sites where mining has been completed and where you can hardly tell that anything ever happened there. In 50 years, when the trees mature, no one will even be able to spot the mining sites. The claims about degradation of water quality are, in a word, lies. They are lies manufactured by people who want to beat West Virginians back into the stone ages. Jim Justice is a genuinely good person who, in his spare time, donates his services as coach of the girl's basketball team at the local high school. We are proud of him and what he has accomplished.

Posted by: DaveInWVa | July 6, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

I find it highly ironic and unintentionally hilarious that they're celebrating the Old South (waitresses dressed as Scarlett O'Hara! Gone With the Wind-themed casino!) in a state whose origin directly derived from its repudiation of the principles of the Confederacy. Apparently Mr. Justice didn't accumulate any knowledge about history along with that fortune . . .

Posted by: 7900rmc | July 6, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for writing, jacktall. As is standard when Washington Post journalists travel for stories (in this case, Roxanne), the Post paid for all hotel and travel costs.

Posted by: amyargetsinger | July 6, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

To DaveinWV: Sorry but not all of them are from out of state. Especially 95%!! Please! That's just what you want others to think. There is a large number of native West Virginians that want to see the end to MTR. It DOES poison our streams and I can take you to several of them. Please show me the dozens of MTR sites to which you refer that have been reclaimed. Everyone else take a look at Google Earth for yourself. You'll see the thousands of acres of land destroyed by MTR and it will take HUNDREDS OF YEARS FOR ANY TREE TO GROW ON THESE SITES!!!!!

Posted by: LifelongWVian | July 6, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

I was not impressed with Ben Afflac or his new Wine Directory. He just walked by us and handed us a business card for the directory. He needs to wake up, we don't care about.

Posted by: psychikos | July 9, 2010 12:41 AM | Report abuse

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