ATLANTIC CITY — An enormous, vibrant-colored banner for the Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo stands out against the pastel exterior of Chester’s Plants & Flowers at Iowa and Arctic avenues.
Inside, store owner Janet Markowitz wears blue cowboy boots as she takes flower orders over the phone.
The sign and the boots are part of what Markowitz calls a “hobby” she picked up about a year ago: being the driving force behind one of the city’s three largest sporting events, the rodeo, which returns to Boardwalk Hall for a second year from March 30-April 1.
The 59-year-old Margate resident is the event’s chairwoman, a city-appointed volunteer position. She spends several hours each day preparing for the rodeo. She doesn’t get paid, nor does her business really benefit from the event. She does it for the gratification of helping the city she loves.
“The bottom line is, I love this place,” Markowitz said this week, “and I’m just thrilled to see something that I’m involved in just take off the way it has.”
The rodeo drew more than 17,000 spectators in three days last year. This year, ticket sales are well ahead of that pace: Before the marketing campaign began in earnest Thursday, more than 4,000 tickets had been sold. Boardwalk Hall’s capacity for the rodeo is 10,000 each night. Over the next four weeks, there will be billboards, radio ads and television commercials from New York to western Pennsylvania to Maryland to Delaware.
“I truly believe we’re going to sell out Saturday night,” Markowitz said.
She’s doing everything she can to make that happen.
Markowitz stops by Boardwalk Hall nearly every day on rodeo-related business. She makes radio and television appearances. She’s been around South Jersey looking at potential dirt for the rodeo surface. She’s constantly on the phone, with recent business including a rodeo day camp, a golf outing and a mechanical bull for spectators at the Hall.
On Friday morning, she took part in a rodeo-themed Read Across America event at the Texas Avenue School in the city.
Markowitz’s domestic and business partner, Chris Tortu, has driven up and down the Black Horse and White Horse pikes to put posters in supermarkets, restaurants and liquor stores. Last year, Tortu, who turned 52 on Saturday, shuttled competitors and staffers to and from Philadelphia International Airport in his Corvette and Chester’s van.
“I’m Janet’s man, ‘Friday,’” Tortu said, referencing to the loyal character in “Robinson Crusoe.” “I’m the hired hand. I do whatever she wants.”
When he runs errands, Tortu is decked out in his cowboy hat, boots and Boardwalk Rodeo belt buckle.
“You get, ‘Hey, Tex!’ and, ‘Hey, Cowboy!’ That kind of stuff,” he said. “But you’d be surprised how many rodeo people and how many closet cowboys there are. They see the cowboy hat and people start talking funny and everybody becomes a cowboy.”
A former concert promoter in Cherry Hill and Philadelphia, Tortu also offers his advice on marketing and advertising — whatever he can do for Markowitz, with whom he has had a relationship for 22 years.
“The good thing about Chris is I can say to him, ‘Would you just go do this for me?’” Markowitz said. “And he gives me this look, and then he just goes and does it. Like, ‘You’re out of your mind, but I’m going to just go and do this.’ And he does. He’s great.”
Tortu said he appreciates her passion.
“She loves the excitement, and she loves the challenge,” he said.
Everything is run from Chester’s, where Markowitz recently installed a large filing cabinet for all her rodeo materials.
The shop’s employees are into it, too.
“We’d better be!” said Chrissy Lynch, of Vineland, with a laugh.
But there was a somber feeling at Chester’s this week. As Markowitz spoke about the rodeo, her employees arranged flowers for the funeral of the man whose idea it was to bring the event to Atlantic City.
Dennis C. Gomes, co-owner and chief executive officer of Resorts Casino Hotel, died Feb. 24, at 68.
Markowitz said she had known Gomes for 20 years and considered him family.
“I just spoke with him (days before he died),” she said. “When I told him about the day camps, he was really excited about that. He was really excited about the mechanical bull, just everything.”
Gomes’ 3-year-old grandson, Jake Chapman — “the light of his life,” Markowitz said — will be the grand marshal on opening night of this year’s rodeo.
“For me, the pressure was always on because of the pressure that Dennis put on me, and a lot of pressure that I put on myself,” Markowitz said. “Now, I just feel like — for Dennis — it just has to go on forever. I just can’t imagine it not.”
The way the ticket sales are going, the rodeo appears to be here to stay.
Markowitz got choked up when she watched the doors open and people flow in on the first night of the rodeo last year. She talks easily about bigger numbers this year, but picturing those doors opening for even more people is another thing entirely.
“I can’t even imagine,” she said. “I’m just so excited.”
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