But casino entertainment had stagnated by the 1980s, though few realized it. The standard performers were regulars: Sinatra and his crew, including Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, etc. Movie stars like Ann-Margret put together revues. Even the legendary Elvis Presley was considered staid and respectable.
So in 1983, when a fresh-faced Tom Cantone arrived at his new job at the Sands Casino Hotel in Atlantic City (he had previously worked at Hersheypark outside Harrisburg), few noticed. After all, booking casino entertainment wasn’t rocket science. You just did what had always been done.
Cantone had different ideas. A new generation of entertainers was creating lots of buzz—Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Steve Martin… The list was long, and growing longer. Cantone figured these acts would be perfect for Atlantic City, particularly for the upstart Sands and its intimate showroom, the Copa Room.
He had one problem.
“If I had a nickel for every time I heard an agent or manager say ‘He’ll never play a casino,’ I’d be a millionaire,” says Cantone.
It was especially true of young, up-and-coming stars. Eventually, Cantone broke down the agent for Eddie Murphy, at the time a big movie star and headliner on Saturday Night Live.
“He was the hottest entertainer on the planet at the time,” Cantone says. “And from that moment on, the walls came tumbling down.”
Murphy’s performance instantly transformed the Sands into the hottest place in Atlantic City, surpassing Caesars, Resorts and Steve Wynn’s Golden Nugget.
Like Cantone, the other executives at the Sands were also young and aggressive. It didn’t take much to convince them this was the way to go. “Bill Weidner, Brad Stone, Rob Goldstein… They allowed me to experiment and take risks,” says Cantone. “It was overwhelmingly received. Not always to everyone’s satisfaction, but it worked.” Soon other young stars were flocking to the Sands.
Cantone later joined the Trump organization as vice president of marketing for three Atlantic City properties. Larry King says hiring Cantone was Trump’s best decision in Atlantic City. Under his oversight, the Trump properties brought the newest and hottest acts to the 5,000-seat Mark Etess Arena.
Then it was time for a move. Foxwoods in Connecticut was looking for a way to establish itself as a major player in the market. Cantone provided that.
“Tom’s leadership, especially his ability to connect with people, our values, and culture as a tribe, helped bring the Foxwoods brand to the global stage,” says Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, the owners of Foxwoods.
Cantone’s success attracted the attention of the neighboring Mohegan tribe, which recruited him to book entertainment at Mohegan Sun, home of a 13,000-seat arena. Cantone has brought in some of the biggest names in the business, including Billy Joel, Taylor Swift and Ringo Starr.
He has one regret.
“I’ve tried to book Paul McCartney for years, so far without success,” he says. “But with our arena at Mohegan Sun, I’ll never give up.”
In 2015, Cantone wrote a memoir, Book ‘Em: From the Man Who Revolutionized Casino Entertainment. It’s a fascinating read, heavy with anecdotes about the amazing array of entertainers Cantone has booked over the years.
And in September, Cantone received the Lifetime Achievement honor at the Casino Entertainment Awards at G2E. Typically, he credits others.
“It’s a great honor, but it’s not mine alone,” he says. “I’ll accept it on behalf of all the people who helped me along the way. Without them, I would never have been able to achieve this recognition.”
Tom Cantone changed the dynamics of casino entertainment in Atlantic City in the 1980s, and he’s still doing it today at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.