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Telly Savalas and the VIP Factory
Who loves 25 percent-60 percent off meals, baby?
Throughout October, we’ll be posting reported features, essays, and lists around our monthly theme: The Regular.
One of the charms of the pre-digital world was watching TV commercials that were not made for you. Today, most of us spend our time hunched over phones, scrolling past targeted ads designed to appeal to each individual's secret desires-slash-insecurities.
But last century, as a nerdy teenager, I'd mindlessly channel surf, and there he'd be, Telly Savalas, the bald star of screens, big and small, smiling like a Cheshire Cat in a tuxedo. And, he was selling discounts to regular customers of America's gambling meccas — Vegas, Atlantic City, Lake Tahoe, even the Caribbean. All you had to do was join Player's Club International, and you could get 25 percent-60 percent off dinner, shows, and hotel rooms at your favorite casinos and resorts.
You'd even get a special gold card with your name printed on it. A literal golden ticket. Proof that you belonged to a special clique. Savalas would hold the glinting card up for the camera and grin right before a return to your regularly scheduled programs.
He was talking directly to Baby Boomers and their parents, inviting them to book a room at the Riviera for cheap. Savalas looked like he was having fun as he'd growl about the "excitement" and "action" of eating a few pounds of freshly carved prime rib before hitting the blackjack table. He was also talking to me, a child.
In these TV commercials, Telly Savalas would brag about getting the VIP treatment and living the good life, whatever that was. To thirteen-year-old me, the good life is Pizza Hut, video games, and no bedtime, but I wanted what Telly Savalas was selling. I wanted to be a Very Important Person. Specifically, I wanted to eat at restaurants more— a lot more.
I loved my mom's cooking, but I liked the excitement and action one could only find at the Pizza Hut salad bar, where endless bowls of iceberg lettuce and thick blue cheese dressing awaited.
There was a time when being a VIP meant something, specifically, that you had a lot of money and were willing to spend it at casinos and resorts. The Players Club International flattened the word and made it accessible to regular folks flipping channels from ESPN to TBS to A&E. It also created a pan loyalty program and mass marketing campaign for the then fractured world of casinos. The company was founded in 1984 by a pair of brothers, Edward and David Fishman, who wanted to show the good life to "middle-rollers" — casino patrons who weren't big spenders, gamblers who got perks because they always bet big and lost big.
These "middle-rollers" had money to spend, just not quite as much. Thanks to the savings Player's Club International gave their customers, Joe and Jane Six-Pack could visit Vegas, eat a steak at one resort, and see a floorshow at another for a decent markdown, all for a paltry $125 a year. Sure, it was a pay-to-play gimmick but Savalas emphasized the 'play' part with pizazz.
There was a time when being a VIP meant something, specifically, that you had a lot of money and were willing to spend it at casinos and resorts. The Players Club International flattened the word and made it accessible to regular folks flipping channels from ESPN to TBS to A&E.
Telly Savalas was Santa Claus-like to thirteen-year-old me, a magical, jolly, father figure who promised fun. A decade before Players Club International, Savalas had starred on TV as Kojak, a tough-as-nails cop who sucked lollipops instead of cigarettes. His catchphrase was, "Who loves ya, baby?" I had never seen the show, nor his movies, which included a creepy performance as a sexual predator and religious fanatic in the World War Two suicide squad classic 'The Dirty Dozen," nor his memorable turn as the iconic villain Blofeld in the thoughtful, and oft-forgotten, James Bond flick 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service,' starring smoldering hunk George Lazenby as 007, his only go-around. No. I knew only one Telly Savalas: a smooth-talking VIP The VIP-est.
He was a sex symbol, too, which may seem unlikely now. Back in the 70s, Americans liked their men quirky. Savalas oozed sleaze, but he was still improbably trustworthy. He was the perfect person to sell hope to the masses.
Savalas embodied a style of mid-century hipness that was fading by the 90s, but I was unaware of that. In his commercials, Savalas looked and acted like a member of legendary crooner Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack, a small clique of hard-drinking singers and actors who rubbed elbows with mafioso and practically lived in casinos. Telly wasn't technically part of The Rat Pack. but he acted like he was, and that was enough. He gave off that sort-of-mobbed-up celebrity hedonist vibe.
I watched Martin Scorsese's gritty revisionist gangster flick Goodfellas on VHS in the early 90s when Savalas was still hawking Player's Club International memberships before he died of cancer in 1994 at 72. The mobsters in Scorsese's bloody classic are all glamor pusses. Later, they turn on each other like the animals they are.
There's a famous scene where Ray Liotta's character Henry impresses his date, Lorraine Bracco's naive Karen, by escorting her through the backdoor of the popular Copacabana nightclub, where a sea of wannabe Sinatras quaffed champagne as comedians cracked wise and sad singers sang happy ditties. The camera floats behind the couple as security guards and waiters, and backstage denizens greet Henry by name and share laughs and pleasantries. Henry was a VIP A regular Frank Sinatra. A man in an expensive suit who knew people.
That was my ultimate VIP fantasy: me, in a tux, walking into my favorite joint and the manager saying, "John! Great to see you! One personal pan pizza with extra pepperoni coming up!"
Players Club International grew to 100,000 members by the early 90s, and profits also increased. But that didn't last long. When Players Club International was launched, there were only two states where you could legally go into debt gambling away your children's college fund, Nevada and New Jersey. But mid-decade, more states were allowing casinos to open up. The Fishman brothers soon got out of the discount business and tried their hands at running riverboat casinos, but no dice. By 2000, Player's Club International's remaining holdings were gobbled up by Harrah's Casino.
Telly Savalas sold cool to the uncool, and luckily, I was too young to sink my cash into what was an early version of a modern-day casino points program. I bought his oily charm anyway and daydreamed about life as a swaggering big shot. That was then. The image of the VIP has changed over the decades. The Internet has scaled and democratized good taste, our appetite for good food, hotels, and destinations has both broadened and become more specific, and the swagger of a used car salesman (baby!) isn’t quite as seductive or palatable as it once was. These days, the VIP title belongs to the loyal customer. The folks who are treated like royalty at the hottest restaurants in town don't wear penguin suits anymore or flash their credit cards, they're likely more — or seemingly more — down-to-earth and easygoing. Casual. Imagine Telly Savalas in a hoodie and downtown dirtbag fit, taking videos of shrimp cocktails for FoodTok with his iPhone 15.