Throughout his 75 years on this earth, the overwhelming majority spent in his hometown of Atlantic City, New Jersey, Paul D’Amato had a lot of nicknames. Some called him “Skinny” and others “Mr. Atlantic City.” New Jersey born friend and star entertainer Frank Sinatra affectionately called him “Uncle Paul.”
But no matter what the nickname, the owner and operator of the world famous 500 Club in Atlantic City, from the 1940s until it burned to the ground in 1973, D’Amato had ultimately become more of a night club owner, businessman and good friend to everyone from mobsters to Rat Packers like Sinatra, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, than he was a gambler.
However, since he reportedly grew up running dice games on the streets of Atlantic City, and he was the house in what was likely the first and easily the most popular illegal casino in the city’s long and storied history, D’Amato would also have to be considered one of Atlantic City’s Most Notorious Gamblers.
A born hustler
D’Amato always claimed he was born in 1908 on the same Atlantic City street where the 500 Club drew crowds for more than 30 years – Missouri Avenue. Legend has it he opened a cigar store at age 15 to help support his seven siblings after the death of his parents.
He dabbled in the nightclub and underground gambling hall business with a spot named Luigi’s at the height of the Prohibition era and the reign of Atlantic City political boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, who urged D’Amato, and other Atlantic City club, restaurant and hotel owners to thumb their noses at the federal prohibition on alcohol, and of course, gambling.
The 500 Club
D’Amato became a partner in the 500 Club in 1942, but rumor had it he was just a front for organized crime boss Marco “Small Man” Reginelli. The 500 Club thrived under D’Amato’s cool and calm management style and soon became the most popular nightclub on the East Coast, By 1949, D’Amato had bought out all partners and was the sole owner.
He always wore a tuxedo, ran the club with a certain class, and was as connected as they come, taking care of his family and the entire neighborhood around the club. The 500 club soon became famous for opening its doors at 5 p.m. and closing at 10 a.m. the next day.
The most popular names from the world of sports, politics, entertainment and the criminal underworld all mingled together at the 500 Club throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s. D’Amato had built a reputation as a tough as nails card player, but more importantly, as someone who kept quiet about the activities of the club’s guests and patrons as they meandered through a back room filled with craps tables, roulette wheels, baccarat and other high-stakes card games.
The top names in entertainment were regular fixtures at the club for more than twenty years. Among those who regularly performed there were Rat Pack members Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, alongside other legends like Eartha Kitt, Milton Berle, Nat King Cole, and Liberace.
In fact, Sinatra was such a regular performer, the 500 Club marquee simply read “He’s Back” whenever he would return.
The illegal casino was allegedly shut down in the early 1950s. And while several organized crime figures and politicians like Johnson ultimately spent time in jail for their ties to illegal casino operations in Atlantic City and other misgivings, D’Amato was never convicted of any crime.
The end of an era
The 500 Club burned down in June 1973 after an electrical fire. D’Amato reportedly had no insurance and lost millions in the fire. He vowed to rebuild, but several plans to do so never materialized.
His interests in a Nevada nightclub also fell apart after connections to organized crime forced the club to lose its licenses.
In the mid 1970s, D’Amato became a spokesperson for the legalized gambling movement in Atlantic City and appeared on the TV news program 60 Minutes.
He died of a heart attack in 1984 at age 75 and Sinatra served as a pallbearer at his funeral.
The Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino parking lot now sits where the 500 Club once proudly stood and an historical marker honoring D’Amato was erected near the site.
The landscape of Atlantic City has changed drastically over the years, but D’Amato will likely always be remembered as one of the city’s most famous nightclub owners, shrewd businessmen and most notorious gamblers
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