For Rivers Casino's GM Ed Fasulo, it's grand opening No. 3


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Ed Fasulo was nearing retirement, unsure what to do with himself following the death of his wife, when an old acquaintance, Detroit businessman Don Barden, posed the question: How would you like to run my casino in Pittsburgh?

The son of Boston, with nearly four decades of casino and hospitality experience under his suspenders, had recently exited the day-to-day casino business, working with a San Diego gaming consultant firm. He'd be 60 when the casino finally opened; at that age, would he be willing to endure the full-time rigors of opening a new casino in a new city?

He would.

Don Barden no longer is the majority owner of the North Shore casino, but even after Mr. Barden's Majestic Star gave way to The Rivers, and new ownership took control of the project, the new group kept Mr. Fasulo on board. And why not? Few casino-industry resumes can match Mr. Fasulo's: He'd put in time at the Atlantis in Atlantic City. He opened the former International Hotel in Las Vegas, the largest hotel in the world when it opened, hosting the likes of Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand in its first few months. He managed the Fiesta Casino and Four Queens Hotel Casino, both in Vegas, and the Ameristar Casino in Iowa. And most importantly, he had experience running brand-new properties -- he'd managed the grand openings of two casinos.

Make it three, after yesterday.

9 a.m.

Three hours until the ribbon cutting. Mr. Fasulo is meeting with his senior staff, about 20 men and women, in a second-floor conference room. On the agenda: logistics, scheduling, and nagging computer troubles.

"Is it us, or is it Konami?" he asks. At last week's test run, the casino's tech and finance teams discovered that some of the slot machines weren't properly recording the wagers. Thousands of dollars "disappear," meaning the money isn't showing up on slots machine audits.

Mr. Fasulo also relays a report that the nearby surface lots are starting to fill with tailgaters, waiting not for the 1:35 p.m. Pirates game, but for the casino's doors to open. He's still getting used to the sports fanatics in Pittsburgh.

"These guys just dream up reasons to tailgate, don't they?"

Over the next 30 minutes, he ticks through the rest of the to-do list, mainly focusing on crowd control, the various dignitaries and VIPs who will be in attendance, and the 15-minute ribbon-cutting ceremony at the casino's main entrance. The ceremony will be capped with a short burst of fireworks, "as soon as the scissors close."

Before leaving the room, he gives a quick pep talk and thank-you to his staff. "It's a hell of a property we have here. But it doesn't matter how nice they build it. Unless we put people in place who make it work, it's just glass and steel."

Radio in one hand, Blackberry in the other, Mr. Fasulo paces out of the conference room and down to the casino floor, greeting cocktail waitresses, security personnel and other staff. Then he heads to the front entrance, onto the valet portico where the ribbon-cutting will happen. The crowd waiting to get in already numbers in the hundreds, and given the steamy weather, they're starting to sweat.

10 a.m.

Mr. Fasulo fields a phone call from his daughter, Jennifer, who flew in from San Diego for opening day. His son, Todd, is also in town."/>

There's another quick meeting with his finance team, still trying to sort out the technical problems with the slot machines. The financial reports generated by Konami Casino Management System don't jibe with the reports compiled by the state's supervisory team, GTECH Corp., which threatens to throw the casino's books out of whack on opening day.

"Can we get a clean audit going forward?" Mr. Fasulo asks. He's told that GTECH, Konami and his own staff are trying to retrieve backup data from last week's test runs.

Despite the glitch, he says that this opening day is running about as smoothly as could be expected. "So far, this has been more trouble-free than some of the others."

Back outside again, he's reviewing the list of dignitaries with community relations director George Matta and discussing what should be done with them when they arrive:

Neil Bluhm, the Chicago billionaire who rescued the casino after Mr. Barden ran out of cash, will get a private table upstairs. Mr. Barden will be bringing a busload of about 40 friends and family; they'll be herded into the casino foyer. Smokey Robinson can't make it. Neither could Frank Sinatra Jr.

"He's a buddy of mine," Mr. Fasulo explains.

11 a.m.

After hugging his son, who has just arrived at the casino, Mr. Fasulo meets with Mr. Barden in the second-floor Grand View Buffet. "Mr. B and I go way back," he says to Mr. Barden's daughter, Alana."/>

Following a five-minute chat, Mr. Fasulo inspects the kitchen. His next meeting is with Walt Tirrell, head of casino security.

The front-portico crowd, he decides, isn't big enough. There are hundreds waiting out front, but there are hundreds more at various other entrances, including the bus drop-off lounge at the rear of the building.

"Geez, we're going to need more people than this." He instructs Mr. Tirrell to guide those lounging in the bus depot out to the front entrance.

Six Vegas showgirls, on loan from a talent agency, have arrived. Mr. Fasulo gets his picture taken with them, then discusses showgirl set-up -- two of them will be on stage for the ribbon-cutting, with the rest posing for photos elsewhere.

With just 30 minutes until the casino opens, he tracks down Mr. Bluhm, Walton Street Capital executive Greg Garlin, and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, all of them squeezed into the casino foyer. He ushers them outside, into their seats on the makeshift stage, and then he approaches the microphone at 11:45 a.m.

The crowd is hot and restless. Mr. Fasulo vows to keep it short:

"It's been a long couple of years," he says. But now the casino is built. "All we need to do to bring it to life is put some people in it." The crowd cheers.

Testing the crowd's patience, five more speeches follow. The gaming board then hands over the frame-bound casino license, officially allowing the doors to open.

One minute to go. The guests, along with Mr. Fasulo, grab onto a giant pair of novelty scissors. The ribbon is snipped; confetti is blasted into the air; fireworks crackle on cue.

With eager gamblers shuffling past him, Mr. Fasulo grabs the microphone one more time.

"Welcome to Rivers!" he shouts.


Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625. First Published August 10, 2009 4:00 AM


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