ATLANTIC CITY - You can hear Don Marrandino singing backup vocals on one of Donny and Marie Osmond's newly released songs, "I Just Want to Thank You."
His circle of close friends also includes country superstar Toby Keith and rock legends Sammy Hagar and Nils Lofgren.
And then there's Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton.
"Wayne's a wonderful guy. He's the nicest person," Marrandino said, recalling a Christmas he spent with Newton and his family at their Vegas estate.
Hanging out with the stars is pretty cool stuff for a guy who was born in Atlantic City and began his casino career at Bally's 28 years ago making $5 an hour as a hotel reservations clerk.
"After I graduated from West Chester University, one day I realized, 'Man, I need a job,'" Marrandino comically explained of how he got into the casino industry.
The latest twist in his meteoric career from hotel clerk to casino CEO brings him back to Atlantic City after spending the past 20 years in the Nevada gambling business. Moving from property to property on the Las Vegas Strip, he spent time as a senior executive at the Rio, at Station Casinos, at the Hard Rock, at Wynn Las Vegas and then overseeing five gaming halls for Harrah's Entertainment Inc.
Now Harrah's has named him president of its Eastern Division, a position that puts him in charge of the company's Harrah's Resort, Bally's, Caesars and Showboat casinos in Atlantic City and a racetrack slots parlor in Chester, Pa.
The Harrah's empire controls about
40 percent of the casino revenue and hotel rooms in Atlantic City, making it the dominant player in town - and making the 50-year-old Marrandino, arguably, the most powerful gaming executive.
But Marrandino said he hesitated when offered the Atlantic City job. He was reluctant to ditch the Las Vegas weather, the gourmet restaurants and an entertainment scene that brought him together with top celebrities.
Before accepting the job, he spent three days walking around a city that had changed dramatically from when he left 20 years ago. The beach, ocean and Boardwalk beckoned as usual, but new additions included high-end retail shops, restaurants and nightclubs that gave Atlantic City more of a Las Vegas feel, Marrandino said. He was also reunited with his parents and other family members who live in Brigantine.
"I loved Las Vegas," he said. "I had a great life there. But the more I thought about it, I thought I could be part of another good story, a big turnaround in Atlantic City."
Marrandino returns to Atlantic City while it is mired in a three-year slump caused by the recession and fierce competition from slot parlors in Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware. Like every other casino in town, the four Harrah's properties have suffered a drop in revenue this year and are fighting to keep their customers from fleeing to other gaming markets.
"I think there are a lot of really good things here," Marrandino said. "I don't think people say enough about the great things."
To rejuvenate itself, Marrandino believes Atlantic City must become more of an everything-for-everybody tourist destination anchored by gambling but enhanced by nongaming amenities. More Las Vegas-style entertainment should be a major part of the strategy, he said.
The Harrah's casinos aren't planning any major expansion projects, but will be refurbishing their hotel rooms, freshening up the convention facilities and adding entertainment spots under Marrandino's leadership.
In Nevada, Marrandino built a reputation as an entertainment innovator, signing big-name acts and developing an exciting nightlife atmosphere at his casinos.
He was credited with helping to revive Donny and Marie Osmonds' music careers by reuniting them as Las Vegas headliners last year at the Flamingo, one of the Harrah's casinos he formerly headed.
While he was president at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, he acquired the nickname the "Rock and Roll Don." Not only does Marrandino like booking entertainers, he enjoys performing with them, including the Osmonds. He's also a rock guitarist known for getting on stage with different bands.
Sammy Hagar, the famed "Red Rocker" who had a turn as Van Halen's lead singer, was one of the hard-rock performers recruited by Marrandino for casino shows.
"He's a new age casino guy," Hagar said. "When I was growing up, if you went to Vegas, you were down. But Don is part of a new group of people who turned Vegas around. The guy has got a magic touch. He knows what is cool and what people want to do."
Hagar and his new group Chickenfoot were in Atlantic City in August for a concert at Showboat's House of Blues. Hagar noted Atlantic City will continue to be one of his concert stops because of Marrandino.
"As long as Don is there, you're going to continue to see people like me," he said.
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