For the first time in its 33-year history of legalized gambling, Atlantic City has a permanent gay nightclub in one of its casinos.
Prohibition opened its doors Thursday at the Resorts Casino Hotel, marking the city's strongest bid yet in a yearslong effort to attract one of the tourism industry's most sought-after demographic groups.
"It's long overdue for Atlantic City to have a club like this," said Joel Ballesteros, the casino's new director of marketing for the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender communities. "It filled right up and people danced until 3 o'clock in the morning. With the rainbow flag flying outside and all the energy in here, it felt like a celebration."
Prohibition is housed in a 13th floor room that used to be a lounge for slots players. Its name is a play on the casino's new roaring '20s theme, inspired by the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" about Prohibition-era Atlantic City.
Friday afternoon, a few hours before the club would open for the night, the colored lights were flashing, four giant palm trees scraped the ceiling and Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy" played on a giant video screen.
"I think it's going to work," said Gary Hill, executive director of the Metropolitan Business & Citizens Association and a leader in the city's gay community.
"A lot of casinos have done things for the gay and lesbian community, but never to this level," he said. "They'd do a weekend or a night or hold a special event. But this is what this community wants and needs."
Atlantic City has long been popular with gays, dating back before New Jersey's first casino — Resorts — opened in 1978. John Schultz, a former city councilman and philanthropist, once owned nine gay clubs during the 1970s. Back then, he said, 250,000 gay visitors would come to Atlantic City on holiday weekends.
But when casino gambling arrived, land values soared and developers bought up — and knocked down — old hotels that contained many gay nightspots.
"Who could afford to open a gay bar anymore?" Schultz said.
He sold his last business, Studio Six, five years ago. But he and Hill, his longtime partner, helped talk new Resorts owner Dennis Gomes into opening a permanent gay bar in the casino.
"People think gays don't gamble," Schultz said. "That's not true. They gamble. They drink. They like to travel. And they have that extra income. Why do cruise lines have gay weeks? Because 2,000 to 3,000 gay people who can afford it go on their ships. It's a new world now."
The four Caesars Entertainment casinos in Atlantic City — Harrah's Resort Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City, Bally's Atlantic City and the Showboat Casino Hotel — have hosted "Out In Atlantic City" weekends in recent years, and the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort hosts "gay bingo" nights.
The city also hosts a drag queen spoof on the now-departed Miss America pageant, called "Miss'd America" that draws gay tourists from around the country.
In Las Vegas, the Krave nightclub at the Planet Hollywood casino is a full-time gay club. And many of the Vegas strip casinos host gay nights on Sundays, or pool parties at certain times.
Gomes chose Thursday night to open Prohibition without announcing it in advance, in part because the club just got its permits to open several hours before. But it also coincided with the debut of a drag show, "Believe — Divas In A Man's World," that the casino is presenting.
"I believe love is the most powerful force in the universe, and when you believe that, you have to welcome everyone," he said. "You can't say, 'You're not important enough to come to our facility during its peak periods.' I want to embrace this community because I love them. I really do."