When Paul Newman went searching for an authentically shabby setting for his 1972 film The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, he settled on Bridgeport, Conn. As producer and director of the saga of an uptight mother in a rundown town, he went even further—too far, in fact—in defending the artistic merit of his selection. " Bridgeport," Newman is supposed to have said, "is the armpit of Connecticut."
"Oh yeah," says Leonard Meyers, a proud resident of the area who has waited these four long years for a snappy comeback. "Oh yeah," he repeats, grandly gesturing at the busy activity around him, "well, this is our Right Guard."
Meyers has every reason to get in his retaliatory digs. The revitalizing agent he refers to is the city's new $16 million jai alai fronton, of which he is vice-president. The pari-mutuel gamble so far has proved a very real safeguard against the further economic decline of the old industrial sprawl on Long Island Sound. And the scene that Meyers sweepingly offers as proof is the crowd besieging the box office while an attendant announces through a bull horn that, although the fronton's 5,539 reserved seats are sold out, there is still ample general admission available.
That is right, jai alai, the high-speed, three-wall Basque game that has heretofore flourished in the U.S. only within the perimeters of Florida, has ricocheted all the way to Connecticut. And like the pelota itself—the compressed rubber ball that is covered with goatskin and propelled at speeds in excess of 150 mph—the sport promises to rebound every which way in the interest of generating tax revenues. A number of states have introduced legislation to legalize gambling on jai alai and are watching to see how the Connecticut venture fares. The Bridgeport fronton, which opened on June 1, and another in Hartford that made its debut two weeks earlier, already indicate an answer: smashingly well, thank you.
Last Friday night, in fact, rain did not deter 8,192 enthusiasts from turning up to wager $486,366, a record handle in the state, which has only let its citizens gamble recently. Some of the high rollers were undoubtedly inspired by the good fortune of Rudy Penn, a Lincoln-Mercury dealer from Rye, N.Y., who two nights earlier bet on the license numbers of a new car he was delivering: 574WWW—"I figured the Ws meant win, win, win," he said—and won a $3 trifecta worth $9,277.50, another record.
Like Penn, fully 30% or more of the bettors invading Bridgeport are from across the New York state line. Taking note, fronton P.R. man Bob Beslove was moved to make light of yet another slur on his hometown, which for abuse has traditionally ranked just a snigger behind Philadelphia. Recalling George M. Cohan's line, "When you leave New York everything looks like Bridgeport," Beslove gleefully says, "Now Bridgeport looks like New York."
The Penn payoff, which appeared in newspapers all the way back to New York City, 50 miles away, made everybody at the fronton happy. Most of the publicity received in pre-opening days had been bad. Very bad.
Despite the usual pietistic warnings about the "unsavory element" that would be attracted by gambling, the Connecticut legislature authorized pari-mutuel betting in the hope of raising revenue to alleviate the state's fiscal plight. On March 29, 1974, the Gaming Commission granted a license to Connecticut Sports Enterprises, Inc., a group of investors headed by a Floridian named David Friend, and including the NFL's Larry Csonka, to operate a jai alai fronton in Bridgeport.
Shortly thereafter, aware that the slightest taint would jeopardize bringing gambling to the Nutmeg State—offtrack betting parlors, flat, harness and dog-racing tracks as well as two other frontons were under consideration—the commission learned that the major money in the Friend deal was to come from a Teamsters' union pension fund, whose overseers are reputed to have strong underworld ties. The commission became a little more leery when state police ascertained that Lidizio Renzulli, a Fairfield, Conn. builder and vice-president of the Friend group, was meeting with known underworld figures.
Three investigators were sent south to look further into Friend, a druggist, jai alai buff and banker from Hollywood, Fla. They turned up far more than they had bargained for. One evening, after a day of pursuing dead ends, the trio went to supper at a Hollywood restaurant that is an alleged hangout for organized crime figures. Friend was not only there, he joined them. "He seemed to want to impress us," recalls an investigator. And he did. Though Friend had apparently been drinking, there was no accounting, then or now, for the story he told—that he had "bought" his jai alai license and the influence of John Bailey, the former Democratic National Committee Chairman under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, for more than $200,000. Rambling on, Friend not only implicated Bailey, who had served as the longtime head of the Connecticut Democratic Party, but Murray Chotiner, the former chief political strategist for Richard Nixon. The problem with this revelation, if that is what it was, was that both men had died only months earlier.