Remembering The Beverly, a mob-run playground in Jefferson Parish
When fire broke out in its attic around 10 a.m. on July 7, 1983, The Beverly’s days as one of the region’s most notorious, and swanky, illegal casinos had long been over. The old Metairie mansion at Labarre and River roads had become a well-respected dinner theater in 1972. But to this day, many locals remember it at least as much for its colorful previous life, which started in 1945, after New Orleans cracked down on illegal gambling under the administration of Mayor Chep Morrison. With Jefferson Parish, and specifically Sheriff Frank Clancy, taking a much more lenient view of gambling, The Beverly — run by figures connected to organized crime — operated on and off from 1945 to 1962 as a very elegant, very fashionable and very illegal casino.
The site on which The Beverly once stood is today a parking lot for Ochsner Hospital. Meanwhile, those hoping to try their luck at the tables no longer have to skirt the law, with the oil bust of the 1980s igniting interest among state leaders to legalize — and regulate — gambling in the state. Today, legal gambling takes place at racetracks, on riverboats, on Native American lands, at Harrah’s New Orleans Casino on Canal Street and through the state-run Louisiana Lottery.
- The building that housed The Beverly operated in the 1920s as the Suburban Gardens Roadhouse. In 1945, it became The Beverly Country Club, the brainchild of “Dandy” Phil Kastel, whose business partners included local underworld figure Carlos Marcello, famed New York mobster Frank Costello and Miami kingpin Meyer Lansky.
- The Beverly was by no means the only illegal casino operating in the area. (There was, the Southport Club, O’Dwyer’s and Club Forest, to name just a few.) But Kastel set out to make it the swankiest, with silk-covered walls, complimentary lipstick and perfume in the opulent ladies room, and a bandstand that transformed to a full-sized stage with the press of a button.
- Behind the scenes, security was tight. Generators were installed to guard against shenanigans during power failures. Floor-to-ceiling bars protected a storage room in the basement. Employees were frisked at the beginning and ends of their shift. A gun mount sat on the front lawn, hidden behind shrubs.
- The Beverly generated consistent outcry from disapproving nearby residents. On the rare occasion in which local authorities staged a raid, a loft in a detached building could hold gaming tables — removed just before cops arrived, naturally.
- In 1951, Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee brought his much-publicized Senate special committee on organized crime to New Orleans as part of its ongoing investigation. The Beverly was of particular interest, and Kastel was summoned to appear. He refused to answer, invoking his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination 56 times — prompting 56 charges of contempt of Congress.
- A subsequent crackdown on gambling saw The Beverly shut down. Kastel reopened it in again 1959, although his death in 1963 ended the building’s gambling era.
- The Beverly had its own chorus line, known as the Beverlettes, who over the years backed up such notable acts as Carmen Miranda, Rudy Vallee and Danny Thomas.
- In addition to those hired to perform, The Beverly was known to attract celebrities interested in a little less-than-legal gambling. After its conversion to a playhouse, its celebrity roster only grew. Among those appearing on-stage at The Beverly during its run as a theater were Lana Turner, Ann Miller, Jane Powell, Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour, Joan Fontaine, Cyd Charisse, June Allyson, Roddy McDowall, Cesar Romero, Jo Anne Worley, Gary Burghoff, Bob Crane, Fannie Flagg and Arte Johnson.
- When Storer Boone and his business partners toured the shuttered facility before transforming into a theater, they found relics of its shady past: roulette wheels were still reportedly in their places.
- The fire that burned the theater raged for five hours before firefighters brought it under control. It was determined to be caused by faulty wiring in the building’s air-conditioning system. The last performance was of the play “The Music Man.”
The Beverly’s story stands as one of the more colorful chapters in Louisiana’s long, storied history of gambling. In full swing more than a year before Bugsy Siegel built The Flamingo, and thus before Las Vegas was really Las Vegas as we know it, The Beverly was billed as “America’s Smartest Dinner and Supper Club” and was widely known as a place where vices could be indulged in luxury. While the headine-making casino that once called it home had been shuttered for two decades by the time the Beverly Playhouse burned, that 1983 fire was to many people more than a fire. It was a symbol that, for better or for worse, a memorable and lively era in New Orleans history had come to a close.