Big money, big stars for opening of Greenbrier Resort's new casino
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."
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.
"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.
The Reliable Source
July 5, 2010; 1:01 AM ET
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