Rich Helfant, executive director of the Save Lucy Committee, has one of the more unique jobs in the region: operating the world’s largest artificial elephant. But the Margate native’s roots in the tourism and entertainment industries date to the beginning of legal gambling in Atlantic City in 1978, and several years ago he co-founded the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance to promote gay tourism.
Q: Talk a little about Lucy’s history and how you first got involved in Save Lucy.
A: I’ve actually been involved with Lucy practically my whole life. As a little kid growing up in Margate, I remember my mother bringing me here in the very early ’60s, when she (Lucy) was on her last legs of being allowed to be open before the city condemned it in 1962. And then I used to break into it with my friends after that, in the mid ’60s, because that was the thing to do. There wasn’t that much else to do in Margate, you know.
Fast-forward to the late ’90s. I was very friendly with Josephine Harron, who was the president and co-founder of the Save Lucy Committee. Jo lived on the same street where I grew up here in Margate, and I got involved trying to help here with the restoration of the monument because at that time I was working for the city of Margate. It was just easy for me to sort of cut through red tape for her. A lot of things were going on with Lucy.
So I got more and more involved, and eventually became the board vice president of the nonprofit board that runs Lucy. Then, in 1999, 1998, the state came in and said, “If you’re going to continue to ask us for money, you really need to grow this organization and make it more professional, not just a mom-and-pop organization,” which it really was for all those years.
So Dec. 1, 2000, I became Lucy’s first executive director. When I took over here, Lucy was doing probably about $3,000 to $4,000 a season in sales in the gift shop and maybe a thousand people a summer who’d take the tour. I’d be happy to tell you that in the 12 years I’ve been here, we’ve raised $5 million for Lucy and we welcome about 100,000 visitors a year.
Q: How did Lucy hold up during the hurricane?
A: By the grace of God, Lucy came through Hurricane Sandy pretty much unaffected. The damage to the monument was limited to the area inside the buildings. At the ground level, we got 3 to 4 feet of water there. The floors inside her feet have to be replaced. ... The gift shop building had no water and no damage. We didn’t even lose the shingles off the roof. But the Beach Grille saw significant damage to the exterior of the building. The decks washed all the way across the road. It may cost $50,000 to $60,000 to rebuild the decks.
But at the end of the day, what matters is Lucy, and Lucy came through unscathed. A hundred and thirty-one years, and everything Mother Nature threw at her, she still survived. ... We designed a fundraising T-shirt, and we decided that in addition to funds benefiting Lucy, the Save Lucy Committee will donate a portion of the funds to the American Red Cross. The front has a picture of Lucy with waves crashing over her, and it says, “I’m still standing.” The back says, “I survived Hurricane Sandy, Oct. 29, 2012.”
Q: What are some of the things that you and Save Lucy have done to market Lucy in a competitive tourism environment?
A: We’re very aggressive in the way we market Lucy today. We have a very aggressive marketing campaign, that being print, radio and the Internet. The Internet is extraordinary. We do social media through Facebook and Twitter now — Lucy has her own Twitter account; she tweets. We do selective radio, selective print, we’ve dabbled with billboards, we’ve tried the banner planes that fly over the beach.
First of all, we have to identify our market and go after that segment through the media. We target toward baby boomers, toward parents who came here as kids, and we target grandparents, who are still bringing their kids and their grandkids.
But the other side of the coin is that as more and more nongaming things go online in Atlantic City, there’s less and less of a reason to leave Atlantic City. We’re obviously a “drive-to” (attraction), you’re not just going to stumble upon Lucy as you’re walking the Boardwalk. So we have to be that much more aggressive in getting the message out to the people that come to Atlantic City, and to Ocean City and Wildwood and Cape May, that “Hey, she’s here, and she’s definitely worthwhile seeing.”
Q: Talk about some of the different events and special things that you’ve done and some of the creative ways that you’ve tried to draw people to Lucy and to Margate.
A: We try to think outside the box with fundraising and special events. Back in 2003, we put on a concert at Boardwalk Hall. ... It didn’t turn out financially the way we had hoped because the artist we had originally booked bailed on us at the eleventh hour. We went with another group of artists that just didn’t sell, didn’t have the box office appeal we hoped they would. But nonetheless, we tried it, and we got enormous marketing exposure from that event.
In 2002, a husband and wife approached us to rent the monument to do a 40th anniversary dinner and sleepover. That got us world press — AP picked it up, and we were getting phone calls from radio stations as far away as Los Angeles wanting to talk to us about the couple that slept inside the elephant.
Two years ago, because we have this food and beverage talent on our board, we did a Valentine’s dinner inside the elephant, and that was a complete sellout. We did two seatings, 20 couples each, and the entire menu was created by our board vice president and the general manager of the Beach Grille, Jason Tell. Everything on the menu was an aphrodisiac. It received rave reviews; it was a huge success.
The following year, we had planned to do it but weather prevented us from doing it. But I feel we may do it again this year.
Q: How has the economic downturn affected contributions? For example, contributions dropped from around $85,000 in 2007 to $57,000 in 2008, hitting around $49,000 or so in 2009 before ticking up in 2010. What happened there, what’s happening now and what effect has this all had on any historical landmark or attraction such as this?
A: The economic downturn hasn’t really hurt Lucy as much as it’s hurt other entities. Some of the numbers you mentioned about those large donations, they were specific bequests that were left to Lucy throughout the years. Just last year, we had a lady who passed away who was never a volunteer here but had a very strong fondness for the elephant as a child. When she passed away, she left us close to $40,000.
So that’s not the norm. What we have seen is while outright donations to the monument have decreased, sales in the gift shop and people taking tours have increased. So I think that because the economy is what it is, and gas is so expensive, more people stay closer to home. And Lucy is still a great value. A family of four can take a tour of Lucy for under $30. You can’t go to the movies for that. She’s still unique in that she has that attraction to people coming to the shore.
Q: Also, in terms of operating expenses and revenue, deficits and surpluses also sort of fluctuated, even as the revenue itself has increased over the years. There was a deficit of about $48,000 in 2007, then about $7,000 in 2008, then it went up to an $18,000 surplus in 2009, then the last numbers we have for 2010, there was a deficit of about $86,000. So what is Save Lucy doing to equalize expenses and revenue?
A: Some of the deficits you refer to were created by natural disasters we’ve had over the years. In 2007, I believe, Lucy was hit by lightning. That necessitated us removing the howdah off of her back and rebuilding it. While insurance covered the damage that was directly related to the lightning, it didn’t cover the damage that was uncovered to the structure just through weather and age.
Those kinds of expenses that we can’t forecast, we can’t plan, are what caused those deficits. Then in 2009, a windstorm came out of nowhere. We had a tent sitting on the grounds right outside Lucy, and it lifted the tent with such force that it broke her tail. That was a $60,000 repair. Our deductible for insurance is $25,000. So these monumental — or mammoth, if you’ll pardon the pun — kinds of things that we’ve been hit with. ... Last year, we were hit by lightning again. So anyone tells you that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same spot? They lie.
Then we were getting a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission for years and years and years, and the state cut that out. So that was a $35,000-a-year hit to us.
Q: Going back to 2006 or so, things sort of became heated with the city. There were questions about insurance, who owns Lucy, as opposed to the land it’s on. There was even talk for a while of Lucy possibly leaving the city. So what essentially happened, and where do things stand now with the city of Margate?
A: The relationship between the Save Lucy Committee and the city of Margate is much better than it was back then.
The question of ownership ... is still out there. We firmly believe that the Save Lucy Committee owns the three structures. The city believes that they have claim to the three structures. I don’t know if that’s going to be resolved tomorrow, but we’re working together for the common goal of promoting, preserving and interpreting Lucy for generations to come. Lucy is such a valuable asset to Margate, and I believe that the city government today recognizes that, and we’re hopeful that our negotiations ... will be fruitful and we can move forward. I don’t know if the ownership question will be answered, but we still believe we own it.
Q: Switching from Lucy to some of your other involvements, you were one of the co-founders of the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance. What led you to want to start that, and where do you think the gay community — and the marketing to the gay community — stands right now for the Atlantic City area?
A: Larry Sieg, who is the vice president of the ACCVA (Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority), and I co-founded the A.C. GLBT Alliance. We did it for a number of reasons. Thirty million visitors come to Atlantic City every year. If you believe the stat, 10 percent are gay. I think it’s more, but if you say 10 percent, that’s 3 million people coming to Atlantic City without a place to go or a thing to do.
The disposable income that the gay (community) has is estimated in the double-digit billions of dollars every year. ... Atlantic City needs to welcome every cross-section of the traveling person, no matter who they are, no matter where they come from, they should all be welcome in Atlantic City. And making Atlantic City a gay-friendly destination is important for the region to be competitive as we go forward.
Aside from that, 300,000 people, plus or minus, live and work in South Jersey. Thirty thousand are gay, if you believe the stat. Where do they go? What do they do? How do they meet people? How do they socialize? Where is the sense of community for the gay community that lives and works down here? It doesn’t exist.
I think that the alliance has made some great strides. I think there’s still a great deal of work to be done. ... What Dennis Gomes did — may he rest in peace — at Resorts, is phenomenal. For the man to take a stand like that, and probably take some flak from his colleagues? But he believed in the gay community and believed in being welcoming to the gay community. He was probably the first casino operator on Earth to fly the gay flag on his hotel. And he opened up the (Prohibition) Bar, and the diva show, and all the things that Resorts does.
But it’s not enough. It’s one or two or three nights a week. Atlantic City has so much to offer, and yet for the gay traveler, it doesn’t yet.
Q: Talk about the resurrection, if you will, of Miss’d America.
A: I worked with Miss’d America from day one, back in the Studio Six days when John Schultz and Gary Hill first came up with the idea. I worked in the stage crew with them, and it was very modest when it first opened. The first Miss’d America crown was a Burger King crown. It grew faster than anyone thought it would.
The Miss’d America Pageant became a thing that everyone had to go to — and there were more straight people in the audience than gay people. (Then) when Miss America left Atlantic City — and I’ll leave it at that — there was really no reason to continue Miss’d America.
Fast-forward to when we formed the alliance three years ago. We wanted to come up with a signature event. ... I suggested that (since) I have a great relationship with John and Gary, I worked on it forever and know it, and enough time has passed since Miss America left, the wounds have healed somewhat. I think it would be a good thing to bring it back. But we have to do it in a big way.
We can’t do it on the deck of Studio Six, because it didn’t exist anymore. You can’t do it in a hotel because it wouldn’t get community-wide support. Let’s do it at Boardwalk Hall, where Miss America’s home was.
So it was phenomenal. And last year, it was even better.
Where it’s going to go this year? I’m not sure. Because budgets are what they are, and putting on events at Boardwalk Hall has become very expensive. And without the sponsorship dollars to support it, I don’t know where it’s going to go next year.
Q: In the late ’70s, a span of a couple years saw the murder of your father (Judge Edwin Helfant, killed by convicted mobster Nicholas Virgilio in 1978) and then your being hired by Resorts while essentially visiting. Talk about that period of your life, and what it meant to get in on the ground floor of the casinos like that.
A: Going back to 1978 is a difficult thing to do because it’s the year my father was murdered. That summer, I wound up working for McDonald’s. ... One of the things I was supposed to do in my job is I would go out to Resorts, and Resorts was brand new.
I happened to be there in March of 1979, getting tickets for Steve Martin’s first appearance. (The box office manager) handed me an interoffice memo she wanted me to read that (they) had just signed (Frank) Sinatra to play in the Superstar Theater. And he was to open on my birthday, which was April 12. And she said, “Will you please come and work for me?” And I said, “Where do I sign?” It was because they had signed Sinatra.
Within nine months, I worked my way up to be assistant VP of entertainment. And for almost four years, I wined and dined and took care of American royalty. Every celebrity from Sinatra to (Luciano) Pavarotti to (Barry) Manilow to Diana Ross, Johnny Mathis, Liberace, everybody. They were in my charge.
It was the most incredible four years of my life, to be able to get close to these people that were so beyond anyone’s dream that you would ever get to work with.
It was an incredible, incredible time. Atlantic City was a different place then. The energy level, the excitement level, the passion of the people that ran the hotels. The hotels were run by real hotel people then, not accountants and money people. They were run by showmen.
Tom Cantone (of Sands, whom Helfant later worked for), another visionary. ... It’s a great time for Atlantic City now that Cantone is coming back. He’s with Mohegan Sun, and now that they’re involved with Resorts, everything goes full circle. He’s coming back, and he’ll make another impact and another imprint on Resorts and on Atlantic City. He’s that good.
Q: I’m glad you mentioned Mohegan Sun. Looking forward, where do you see Atlantic City right now, and what about going into the future?
A: I have great hopes for Atlantic City’s future. I think that the gaming experiment should be much farther along than it is. Not sure whose fault that is, if it’s Atlantic City government, if it’s Trenton, if it’s a combination of both.
The fact that Mohegan Sun is investing in Atlantic City is a great sign. The fact that Tom Cantone is coming back to Atlantic City is a tremendous thing because his talent will trickle way beyond the walls of Resorts.
I’m really hopeful that Revel will find their way and start to turn a profit. I think so much hinges on Revel’s success. And (CEO) Kevin DeSanctis has invested his life into that building, and it deserves to succeed. And people that have a stake in Atlantic City need to make sure of that.
I would love to be able to sit down with Kevin. I have some marketing ideas — I mean, look what I did with a silly little elephant.
You’ve got to remember, we’re still a tankful of gas away from a quarter of this country, yet so many people haven’t yet been here. I think that it’s time they came and checked it out. And while they’re coming to Do AC, they should come down and go nuts at Lucy.
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