When Paul Sandler, the general manager of The Palm, works at his Atlantic City restaurant, he doesn't just hear questions about specials for the night and wait times. Visitors mostly want to know "How do I get on the wall?"
Besides its reputation as a fine dining establishment, The Palm brand is known for its signature caricatures of world-famous and local celebrities and everyday people who turn into known regulars over the years. A spot on the wall at The Palm can be as exclusive a piece of real estate as a beachfront home in Avalon, Longport or Long Beach Island.
"What does it take to get up on the wall?" asked Sandler rhetorically. "It's one word 'relationship.' What do you mean to the restaurant? There are people who are always in here getting a cocktail... I want the wall to be an allure, a destination."
The Palm is located at 2801 Pacific Ave. at The Quarter in the Tropicana Casino and Resort. The tradition of caricatures of regulars and celebrities started with the first Palm in the 1920s on Second Avenue in New York and has continued with the new locations. The Atlantic City location started doing business when The Quarter opened in 2005.
As the general manager, Sandler decides who makes it onto one of the restaurant's walls, but receives a great deal of feedback from his management team.
People receive a wall caricature usually one of two ways. They become a known entity in the restaurant, or Sandler deems the person is important to the southern New Jersey community and deserves to be immortalized on the wall.
Whatever way people make it onto one of the walls, it is typically a thrill for them once they are up.
Alisa Cooper grew up in a house at Stenton Place and Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City where The Palm currently sits. Cooper has been a patron of The Palm during her previous careers in the music and entertainment business and as a member of the Atlantic County Board of Freeholders. She continues to frequent the restaurant now that she is a Casino Control Commissioner.
Cooper's caricature was revealed to her on June 5 - her birthday. Her portrait is next to one of her late mother, state assemblywoman Dolores Cooper.
"He (Sandler) said, 'I have a surprise for you.' I'm thinking, 'I love surprises. Who doesn't? We were right where the maitre'd area is, and he said, 'Lisa, step back,'" said Cooper, 61, a Linwood resident. "I saw the paper was covering it, and I looked at him and said, 'Oh.'" He unveiled it. I started to cry for myself and also for my late mother because it was a double honor. If my mother were alive, I'm sure she would have been as equally excited as I was for her and myself."
Cooper was one of the most recent additions to the wall along with Mike Richman and Diane Mitchell, commonly known as just Mike and Diane of the WAYV-FM 95.1 morning show. Their caricatures were unveiled Thursday.
"Mike and I are thrilled to be recognized as members of the Atlantic City community in this visual and permanent way," said Mitchell in a written statement.
Fran Coppola said she was flipping out when Sandler told her she and her husband, Tony, would have their pictures added to a wall. The couple, along with Laura and Charles Bushar, are co-owners of Historic Smithville.
"Now, I love to go (to The Palm) and sit under (the picture)," Coppola said. "I always, always, always wanted my picture up on that wall. I don't even know why."
Sandler acquired a picture of Fran and Tony Coppola from their children. The children surprised their parents with a card that had a photo of their picture on a wall of The Palm on July 13, 2012, which was their 49th wedding anniversary.
"Of course, when I opened it said, 'What the heck is this?' and then it dawned on me. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry again. It's so cool," Coppola said.
Attorney Stephen Hankin, who practices in Atlantic City, once dined at The Palm in East Hampton, N.Y., before The Palm in Atlantic City opened in 2005.
Hankin visited the local restaurant when it first opened.
"It was very collegiate and a local watering hole with phenomenal food," said Hankin, 69. "The Palm has a very collegiate, club-type atmosphere, which is very warm and very charming. Even though it has become a very local place, it still has an atmosphere, which attracts vacationers."
Hankin said Sandler, who has been there all eight years, greatly adds to the warmth of the place.
"He's a main draw of the restaurant. He knows names, where they live, what they like to eat, what they like to drink and that is a very unusual attribute and to his credit, he's still there. The Palm should be very grateful to have him. They should be very proud to have a man of his caliber," said Hankin, who added The Palm makes him feel like they are very appreciative of his business.
Hankin said his caricature might have been one of the first one to make it onto the wall because he invited himself there frequently when it opened.
"I'm not pretty and neither is the picture," said Hankin laughingly. "Fortunately, however, my wife's (Patti of 29 years) picture hangs by it, which is the only reason I really look at it. She has gotten better looking over the years."
A caricature of historian Vicki Gold Levi made it onto the wall because of her longtime advocacy of Atlantic City.
"Maybe it's because I spent a good portion of my life watching Louie Levine do portraits on Steel Pier and other people do caricatures on the Boardwalk. Having my caricature in The Palm is like having it on the wall in Sardi's," said Levi, about the famous Manhattan-theater district restaurant known for its hundreds of caricatures of show business celebrities on its walls. "It's such a thrill. I'm always bringing people in and saying, 'Look, I'm on the same wall as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.'"
Sandler said a person cannot buy their way onto the wall.
One of the few exceptions to this is when he donates a space on the wall to be auctioned off for charity. He has done this for Gilda's Club South Jersey over the years and will do it again Sept. 10 when the ninth annual "Movers, Shakers, Difference Makers" luncheon will be held at The Palm to raise funds for Gilda's Club, a cancer-support organization.
The late Dennis Gomes, the creator of The Quarter, had his caricature in The Palm from the beginning, but his wife, Barbara, was not there initially. Gomes finished with the winning bid at a live auction for Gilda's Club at The Palm to add his wife's portrait next to his.
"It was great. I was up on the wall right by him, so it was good," said Barbara Gomes of Margate.
Rich Helfant, Lucy the Elephant's executive director, may have broken the mold with his caricature because it features him and a likeness of the 65-foot-tall Margate tourist attraction, which is the world's largest artificial elephant.
While the restaurant normally does not feature landmarks on its wall, Jim Haney, the first general manager of the Atlantic City restaurant, wanted Lucy on the wall" as part of the drawing, said Helfant, 56, of Egg Harbor Township.
Lucy the Elephant's presence on a Palm wall inspired Jean Muchanic, executive director of the Absecon Lighthouse, to inquire about her Atlantic City landmark.
"I said, 'Paul, if Lucy is going to be on the wall, we have to make room for the Lighthouse.' I actually proposed where this nice, tall, blank, narrow space was, and then, he agreed that the Absecon Lighthouse should definitely be on it, and said, 'But, I want you on it too.'"
Muchanic, 55, of Egg Harbor Township, would have been happy just having the Absecon Lighthouse on the wall, but Sandler insisted her likeness accompany it. Muchanic can be seen perched near the top of the Lighthouse flexing an arm muscle as its protector. The image of Muchanic and the Lighthouse was drawn by Atlantic City artist Linda Wexler. Most of the caricatures are created by Bronwyn Bird of the West Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.
"It was exciting. I felt like, 'Wow, the lighthouse has arrived,'" Muchanic said.
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