Club Casino lures crowds to Hampton Beach with 'a little bit of everything'
It took five years before Jim Goodwin finally broke even. Now club's an attraction
By Rae Francoeur
New Hampshire Business Review, July 16-31, 1986, Vol. 8, No. 20
A tale of three crowds
It's 82 degrees and sunny at Hampton Beach. Idling cars choke streets and testy drivers race engines, while chains of barefoot, nearly nude pedestrians pick their way across Ocean Boulevard — a living chain squeezing traffic flow to a hopeless trickle.
On this day, several things seem to happen, almost at once, on the boulevard in front of Club Casino: a child drops and retrieves a plastic shovel; an elderly couple double-parks and abandons their car to visit the Chamber of Commerce offices; on the other side of the one-way road, a large Ryder truck double-parks and big black speakers are unloaded at the front steps of the Club Casino; a group of teenagers idly conducts a reunion in the street; youngsters toddle from one curb to the other, licking cones. Vehicular traffic slides into this human noose and oozes out beyond North Beach.
Looking down on all of this is Jim Goodwin, owner of the Club Casino. From a rounded porch overhanging the boulevard and overlooking the Chamber, the beach, the traffic, the people, he says, "We've got a crazy day going on here."
Forty-one-year old Goodwin has been at this for nine years now. Looking young and robust in T-shirt and jeans, his graying hair looks premature on him. He owns the club, supervises the sound and lights, books the entertainment, and works from 9 a.m. until 1 a.m., seven days a week.
"I can't see myself doing this forever," Goodwin says, smiling from an office whose walls are covered from top to bottom with 8-by-10 glossy photographs of entertainers.
He continues to comment on the beach, its noises no longer audible in this office People come to Club Casino to be at the Casino, not at the beach without windows. "It's not a problem to be on the beach. It's a benefit. People come here to the Club Casino, they see the beach, and they go nuts."
But the point is, people come to the Club Casino to be at the Casino, not to be at the beach.
"The beach has three crowds," says Goodwin. "There's the beach crowd. They're here from 9 to 3, and they patronize the stores along the boulevard. Two, there's the overnight crowd. We draw maybe 10 percent from them. Three, there's the people who come for one night only and go home the same night. That's 90 percent of our business and it comes from within a 50-to 60-mile radius. That's the farthest a person will drive without staying overnight."
According to a recently completed marketing survey, most of the audience comes from the area 20 miles to the north and south of Interstate 495. The major market is northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire — "smack dab up the Merrimack Valley," says advertising director Bob Houle. "The club is not supported by tourists," says Houle. "The club itself is the attraction."
The Casino complex was built in 1937, according to Houle. It was owned by the Dineen family, and included nearly two blocks, including the Water Slide, the land the McDonald's restaurant leases, and the block on which the Casino complex is situated. Besides Club Casino, there are arcades, shops, restaurants and a large, privately owned parking lot out back. Goodwin says the ballroom in the Club Casino is a half-acre.
Inside the Casino, there are three bars and a light lunch and snack food restaurant called Toody. To get inside Club Casino, you enter from the hooded sidewalk in front of the Casino complex. You must climb several wide, carpeted, slightly frayed stairs to reach the ballroom. At the top of the stairs is the huge ballroom, packed with tables and 1,600 chairs. To the left is a long bar with small white lights twinkling overhead. To the right is the elevated stage.
For a $100 surcharge, you can buy tickets for four shows and be seated near the stage for a better view. This reserved seating, called Club Card, sells out before the season even starts.
Above the bar, midway down the long ballroom, stage lights hang from a third-story balcony. Soon, this balcony will be rebuilt into 10 private boxes, seating 12 people each. These special boxes will be sold to businesses, with one or two reserved for the Casino's special guests.
Goodwin owns the Club, but now leases the property. Originally, he and several partners, including Norm and Paul Grandmaison, Fred Schaake, Sam Waterhouse and James Goodwin Sr., bought the property from the Dineen family, and they attempted to operate the Club Casino as a team.
When it came to doing the booking, says Goodwin, things got complicated. "Six people trying to book an act is hard. I was 31 at the time, the youngest, with the next youngest in the group 48 or 49. That first year, we didn't do too well. I thought I could see that the thing could make money. This was all I had. I sold everything for this, while the other five had other businesses. All I had was this, and it was seasonal. I wrestled with an idea and decided, 'Here we go.' "
Goodwin sold back his interest in the property to the group and bought the Club Casino business, but not the property — "in order to run it with his vision." says Houle.
"People see this place and they think, "Hey, he's got lots of money. I'm not a wealthy man by any stretch of the imagination. I'd like to take a salary on the interest paid out last year on loans."
The biggest disadvantage to being on the beach, says Goodwin, is the liquor tax levied by the Hampton Beach Improvement Co., which imposed the surcharge in 1971, when Hampton Beach became a "wet" town. "For a $3 drink, I pay 7 percent to the state, 10 percent to the improvement company. So I pay 51 cents out on a $3 drink," says Goodwin. "That's the worst part."
The Casino books acts for the better part of June, July and August, and part of September. It employs 150 people, mostly college students, to wait tables and mix drinks. The snack bar is self-serve.
When Goodwin assesses the clientele, he doesn't forget to assess their tastes in music. Booking the right acts is critical to the success of the club.
"There's one thing we learned over the years," adds Houle, "and that's who's playing. If there's not a show of some prominence, people aren't coming. The room doesn't sell, the act sells. I can remember in the past when people in Manchester, say, would all get in their cars to go to the Casino to hear big band music. It's not like that anymore. They don't just come because the Casino is here."
Goodwin says he plans the entertainment so that he doesn't drain a particular market. "You've got to mix it up. Old rock 'n' roll, new rock 'n' roll, comedy, jazz. Spread 'em out. Ideally, one a week. A little bit of everything. "
While you can't characterize an area by its taste, he says, the most popular acts around here seem to be rock 'n' roll, old and new.
"With Roy Orbison, I worked seven or eight years to develop a clientele," he says. "Now, he only works 10 dates in the whole country, and three are here."
The point is, he says, you have to be thinking about the future all the time. "You can't do business on a one-shot deal."
"The Stompers are a classic example. They are playing four times this year and they headline. I used to use them to front different bands, like Pat Benatar, who played here on her first stop on her first tour. It was a sellout. They've opened for Tina Turner and Huey Lewis. Now, crowds associate The Stompers with big names and they can headline themselves and sell out."
Goodwin and Houle say they have an advantage because they book the acts that perform at their club. "A lot of venues are not their own promoters," says Goodwin.
Because they book acts that perform at their club, "we can keep a relationship with the act and with the agency," says Goodwin. "We take care of Roy Orbison and make him want to come back," he says. "Everything is just so in the dressing room...flowers, limo service at the airport, the little extra things. Entertainers are a funny lot. They appreciate those little things like the right kind of tea, the hot towels."
Goodwin passes his expertise on to his two sons, ages 15 and 16. "One of my sons is very interested in the business. No, I really don't want to do this thing for the rest of my life. I have other interests -- my dogs, my real estate holdings...all kinds of other things." He also has a business called Casino Concerts, which books acts for other venues.
Says Houle, "The real story behind the Club Casino is Jim Goodwin. He's the one who's making this all happen."