When you attend Thursday’s opening of Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino you can hit 2,100 slot machines and 120 gaming tables, dine at its 20 restaurants, or ogle “Creed II” star Michael B. Jordan on the red carpet.
Eventually, you’ll find a sterling array of championship boxing matches, mixed martial arts matches, and theatrical productions in the Hard Rock’s hot spots. But, mostly what this Hard Rock — built on the bones of the one-time Trump Taj Mahal — is all about nonstop music, a thoroughly curated array of sights (their museum-like dedication to memorabilia), and eclectic sounds (recorded, live) that smack you in the face from check-in to check-out.
If you’re not busy seeing or listening, hotel habitués can take in Hard Rock’s “Sound of Your Stay” program where guests check out Fender guitars or vinyl record turntables and a selection of albums. “From the 50 music zones throughout the property where we curate every single song and monitor their tone and volume, to our “365 Live” aspect of musicians playing somewhere — everywhere — when you walk into Hard Rock, it’s an immersive experience,” said Adam Zenegl, the hotel’s locally-born “Vibe Manager.”
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Hard Rock International CEO Jim Allen and President of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City Matt Harkness — Jersey boys, both — are familiar with this city’s reputation for being an entertainment mecca, long before casinos came to town in 1978.
From Skinny D’Amato’s 500 Club where Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra packed the house, to Steel Pier concerts with The Beatles and Chuck Berry, AC has always been live and alive.
“Unlike casino companies known first for their gaming, we’re known as a café, entertainment, hotel and casino company which attracts the gamers, of course, but mostly those consumers that aren’t necessarily casino customers,” said Harkness (as an example, their focus on NJ’s new sports gambling allowance will come after they get open, up and running, as opposed to other gambling-focused facilities). “That’s why we pursue incredible lineups of live, eclectic entertainment every day — from Pitbull to Il Divo,” said Harkness. “We are music.”
Throw a rock at Hard Rock and you’re bound to hit a rocker — or musician taking part in the operation’s live blues and jazz series, to say nothing of karaoke events and DJ parties. This is what assists Hard Rock in maintaining its edge without losing its family feel.
One glitch could’ve been the inclusion of Scores, which will operate one of its strip-clubs there, after a lawsuit by Hard Rock was dismissed in federal court (Scores was a leasee at the old Trump Taj). Turning lemons into lemonade, however, was Harkness, who stated, “We have many great tenants we look forward to working with.”
Harkness is used to such diplomacy as he’s been part of casino in Atlantic City from its 1978 start, with 15 of those years as the man behind the table games at Trump Taj Mahal. “I opened the Taj in 1990,“ he said. “This building not only had great bones, but its two towers — from hotel rooms to the way the arena’s front opens onto the casino floor — was extraordinarily designed; a truly contemporary feel, even now.”
Hard Rock purchased Trump Taj in March 2017 and needed TLC to the tune of $500 million. After that, Hard Rock’s brain trust — guided by memorabilia master/historian Jeff Nolen — began the process of acquisition for the casino (e.g., Elvis Presley’s gold Rolls Royce, Michael Jackson’s white glove), along with putting its Vibe Managers through rigorous training. “We’re looking to catapult this property to rock museum level,” said Harkness.
From there, Vibe Manager Adam Zenegl (whose first concert as a kid was LeAnn Rimes in the Taj’s arena) takes over with a job description that finds him interacting with every element of music. “The Sound of Your Stay’ is me choosing albums and acquiring guitars. Every song within the 50 zones — restaurants, pool areas — I’ve curated. The non-ticketed “vibe stages” for our 365 live experience — a massive undertaking — is me bringing in everyone for “American Idol” winners to blues greats.” Zengel even works to interconnect Hard Rock’s international memorabilia with items specific to New Jersey artists such as Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston and totems from the Steel Pier. “That’s Atlantic City, New Jersey history,” said Zengel proudly. “This Hard Rock might be about the future of where this town is going, but we’re not forgetting the past of where we come.
Grabbing the Gambler's Favorites
When Hard Rock AC was putting together an aggressive live slate, two local legends had to be its most attractive “gets,” whether they’ll admit it or not. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons have long been an area sensation, the original “Jersey Boys” whose allure comes from the wise guys and gamblers around at the Seasons’ start.
Forever at the Borgata, Valli and the Four Seasons will now be a part of the Hard Rock’s live schedule. “It’s part of our eclectic make-up when it comes to demographics,” said Harkness. “We want young audiences, and older casino regulars.
Then there is Valli’s old pal, Philadelphia DJ legend Jerry Blavat, whose long association with the Golden Nugget AC ended in May, with Blavat starting a new gig at the Hard Rock on June 28.
“I opened up the Golden Nugget with a live broadcast from their Rush Lounge every Thursday during the summers, but I also worked for Jim Allen at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida with my Philly-Jersey reunion parties,” said Blavat. “I have great respect for Jim and Bernie Dillon, two Jersey guys at Seminole, now focusing on AC. They wanted me to do more than what I do at Golden Nugget for the new Hard Rock — two live broadcasts a week and book shows the likes of which I do at the Kimmel Center, and my Malt Shop Memories Cruise.” With Blavat’s Golden Nugget contract up, The Geator is Hard Rock bound, starting June 28. “They’re a brand. I am a brand, Together we combine the brands for some great music.”
The initial schedule for Hard Rock’s Etess Arena is out, and it’s a dynamic, diverse host of shows, some of which are already sold out.
June 29 – Carrie Underwood: From “American Idol” to country superstar, she makes an impressive opener in which to debut the new Etess.
June 30 – Pitbull: If you don’t feel like wading through the crowds of Philly’s Welcome America July 4 bash at Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the mainstream Latin hip-hop MC appears here first.
July 15 – Maroon 5: “The Voice” judge Adam Levine and his soul-pop band appeals to kids and adults alike.
Aug. 1 – Bush, The Cult & Stone Temple Pilots: Three of the ’90s burliest, muskiest alternative rock acts join forces.
Aug.11 – Tropicaliente: Hector Acosta, Olga Tanon and some of the Latin music continuums finest acts ban together for fun and frolic.
Aug. 18 – Blake Shelton: Another judge from “The Voice,” only this one’s more focused on country music. I’m sensing a pattern.
Sept. 1 – Amy Schumer: Rude, crude comedian/actress Schumer appears on the big stage.
Sept. 28 - Christina Aguilera: Sure, she’s the height of modern R&B. She also happens to be a judge on, you guessed it, “The Voice.”