Penn Jillette talks Atlantic City as Penn & Teller return; Robert Irvine cooks at Live! Philly

The one-of-a-kind comedy-magic team Penn & Teller stands as the longest-running resident headliner act (as opposed to production show) in Las Vegas history: Twenty years and counting. But that formidable milestone may not have been reached had it not been for what took place some 35 years earlier on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

As the 66-year-old Penn Jillette recalled during a recent phone chat, by the mid-1980s, Penn & Teller’s then-decade-old partnership had achieved a level of success while neither courting nor aspiring to mainstream success. The first while street performers had found a relatively small, but rabid, audience enchanted by and enthralled with their singular blend of cynical, wise-guy humor and often-cerebral magic tricks–some of which were accompanied by rivers of fake blood and fraught situations that appeared to put the towering, motor-mouthed Jillette, and his much shorter, always-silent-onstage partner, the mono-monikered Philadelphia native Teller, in physical danger. It was a situation with which they were completely satisfied. But then an offer of work came from a most unexpected source: Joel Fischmanwho at the time was director of entertainment at the now-demolished Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino.

For the most part, Fischman hewed to what was then standard operating procedure for those who ran gaming hall show biz operations by booking the likes of old-school comics Buddy Hackett other Alan King and such crooners as Engelbert Humperdinck other Jimmy Roselli—eg the types of acts that lured older, well-heeled gamblers.

“We were off-off-Broadway and we considered ourselves–and I say this with embarrassment–we considered ourselves, really hip and smart,” said Jillette, who, with his partner, performs Dec. 9 at Wind Creek Bethlehem and the next two days at Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City. “And Joel came to us and said, ‘I want to book you in Atlantic City.’ And we said, ‘Sorry, we would never play in Atlantic City for gamblers and casino people.’

“And he said, ‘Well, I’ll make a deal with you: You come down and do the smartest stuff you can possibly do, and try to alienate the audience. And if you don’t like it after three days, you can leave and I’ll pay you for the whole week’—or whatever it was; it might have been five days. It really was a stupid offer.”

“So we went down and guess what? The audiences were exactly the same as in New York–in some cases, literally the same people. That was the big punchline, the joyous discovery that we liked being down there.”

While that first gig saw P&T open for The Temptations, they subsequently returned to the Plaza as headliners on a regular basis. A winter, 1987 Plaza run coincided with the filming of their sole cinematic effort to date, the ultra-black comedy Penn & Teller Get Killed, which was directed by the legendary Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde).

In the mid-’90s, Fischman moved to Bally’s Las Vegas and, not surprisingly, took the team with him, thus introducing P&T to that city. In 2001, they moved to the Rio All Suites Hotel & Casino where they remain to this day, performing some 40 weeks a year at the Penn & Teller Theater.

Even after they put down roots in the Nevada desert, P&T always made it a point to return to Atlantic City whenever their schedule permitted. They performed at the Claridge when it was a casino (it’s now a non-gambling hotel) and, more recently, at Casear’s Atlantic City other Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City. It was at the Claridge that the team first performed its bullet-catching bit in AyCee which, Jillette—who anticipates producing another season of the popular CW magic series, Penn & Teller: Fool Us– proudly noted, was voted as the greatest stage trick of all time by their fellow magicians.

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