Louis Cappelli, 49, lives in a rented apartment on the Upper
East Side and dates 30-year-old actress Kylie Travis. Last year he developed
New Roc City, a $180 million entertainment complex in New Rochelle, N.Y., with
apartments next to the IMAX theater and a skating rink that is supposed to
resemble Central Park. But he leaves developing in Manhattan to the “big boys”
like his buddy, Donald Trump.
Mr. Cappelli has other ambitions. He is searching for El
Dorado in the Catskills, where Danny Kaye and Milton Berle once ruled. Louis
Cappelli has bought the Concord.
And Louis Cappelli has bought Grossinger’s.
He has become a kind of guardian of history, successfully
bidding in bankruptcy court last year for the two resorts-for which the
designation “legendary” may be an understatement-for a bargain $16.5 million.
There were five other bidders for the Concord. “We were prepared to go to $25
million for the property,” said Mr. Cappelli. “When we wound up getting it for
$10 million, we couldn’t believe it. We think it’s worth $70 million.”
Mr. Cappelli, a third-generation Italian-American, went to
the Concord only once, when he was 17, to play golf with Notre Dame college
buddies. But he’s ready to bring its glory back for the new-millennium
vacationer who can’t be bothered to even drive from a hotel to a restaurant for
dinner. He has big plans to lure Manhattanites, even Hamptons visitors sick of
the L.I.E., back to the Catskills in two years, when the first phase of the
Concord’s $500 million face lift is completed.
“The Concord,” said Mr. Cappelli, “is my swan song.”
And he wants to channel the old Concord’s glory days. He
said he wants to stage a production of Cats
in the Concord’s 3,000-seat Imperial Theater, which he plans to restore to its
condition in the 1950’s, when Joey Adams, Jackie Mason and Alan King worked
there and it was the largest of the 400 hotels in the Catskills. Mr. King spent
his honeymoon at the Concord 53 years ago and said the place was his “favorite
resort,” and that he performed there “a million times.”
“It needs a fresh look, someone who has vision,” said Mr.
King. “When I think about the old days, I have very fond and pleasant memories.
I wish him good luck, but I can’t get emotional about it.”
But Cats ? Mr.
Cappelli’s idea was to draw a younger crowd, but also to summon the exact
spirit that fueled the Concord during the period from its opening in 1937 until
it closed two years ago, by which time ghosts clogged the air: the place where
Mr. Berle, Freddie Roman and Tony Bennett worked the rooms, where Buddy Hackett
met his wife, where Jayne Mansfield lounged by the pool in a bikini and a white
The grandeur of the Catskills-the Sour Cream Sierras, the Hava
Nagila Heights, the Land of Milk and Funny-started to fade in the 1960’s, when
vacationers discovered Florida and air-conditioned rooms. By the time Mr.
Cappelli and his partners (including George Soros) showed up intending to raze
80 percent of the old resort and build a proposed four-star French restaurant,
the Catskills resorts were history, and Jenny Grossinger’s rye bread was no
longer on America’s supermarket shelves.
On the other hand, the Catskills had history, and boy, did
they have golf courses! Possibly good enough to draw chief executives with
their own planes who could fly up, land at Sullivan County’s airport 10 miles
from the Concord and play for the day with clients.
Mr. Cappelli parked his BMW and headed into his office in
Valhalla, N.Y. It was filled with leather couches, framed photos of golf
courses and model airplanes. He pointed out a photograph of his girlfriend, Ms.
Travis, in a red dress.
“That’s my girl,” he said. He met her five years ago, at a
party thrown by Mr. Trump in Atlantic City; Mr. Trump said he introduced them
after a prizefight. Every third weekend, they fly to the Bahamas and stay at
Today, though, he was getting ready to fly north. He grabbed
a handful of Halloween candy and headed to the Westchester County airport to
board his helicopter, which was waiting for him, its propellers spinning.
He sat down, his back to the pilots. “It takes an
experienced flier to go backwards,” he boasted. “Hovering still makes me
nervous.” He pulled out a pack of Trident gum. Over White Plains, he pointed
out some of the office buildings he developed, complete with gyms and
cafeterias. Twenty minutes later, the helicopter landed next to the Concord’s
golf course tee.
“I like to keep thinking about who was here,” he said,
bringing up Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett as he walked toward the old resort’s
hotel, which was gutted save for a few telling remains. Propped up against the
concierge’s desk was a large photo of Juliet Prowse, the dancer who was once
engaged to Sinatra, wearing a beaded leotard.
Entering the lobby, to be designed in “Adirondack Mountain
Style,” Mr. Cappelli ran his hand over an old sign which read: “No one under 21
years of age permitted.”
“We should save these signs!” he said. A Zamboni, once used
to clean the ice rink, was parked under the spiral staircase, which was missing
a railing. He peered into the dark Imperial Theater, which opened on Christmas
1958 with Harry Belafonte headlining.
There’s also some talk of building a casino in the Catskills.
Mr. Cappelli said he wouldn’t mind if there were gambling nearby. “I figure
with all these guys trying to get a casino, one of them is going to work. I
wish them well. I hope there are three of them up there. If gambling comes,
that will be great for the county, but I don’t think the gambler is our
Mr. Trump, who has fought legalizing gambling in the
Catskills because it might hurt his casinos in Atlantic City, agreed. “That area is booming without
gambling, not booming because of gambling,” he said. “The Catskills are the new
frontier; that’s where people are going. It’s going to be very hot.” He thinks
that, “at a certain point,” even the chi-chi Hamptons crowd will trek upstate
for a weekend. “If he works his magic, he’s got a really good shot at it.”
Last March, Mr. Cappelli, who heads Concord Associates, a
joint venture of his real estate investment firm, Cappelli Enterprises, and
Reckson Strategic Venture Partners, unveiled his plan by arguing that the
Concord (about 90 miles from New York City, off exit 105B of Route 17) is
within a four-hour drive for 55 million people-and that’s how long it takes him
to travel round-trip to his house in Sag Harbor. “He was not a regular member
of the Borscht Belt crowd,” said Steven Shepsman, one of Mr. Cappelli’s
partners. “He’s not trying to make it what it was.”
“A lot of people go to Bar Harbor, Me., and Bar Harbor is
not the Hamptons,” said Mr. Cappelli. “The water’s cold. I think the Concord is
an alternative to going up to Maine or Vermont.”
Mr. Cappelli is building six or seven restaurants at the
resort, whose kitchen is equipped to cook for 5,000 people.
“I had dinner in that gargantuan dining room the size of
Madison Square Garden-there were 2,500 people at a seating,” said gossip
columnist Cindy Adams, who often went to the Concord with her late husband,
Joey Adams, the comedian and Borscht Belt baron. “You could have any one of 10
appetizers, or 10 main dishes, 10 desserts- and if you wanted, you could have
all 10 desserts and take a bite of each. It was a fashion show of food.” She
remembered that the waiters always had a thumb in the silver soup cauldron.
But Ms. Adams, who owns a house in the Hamptons, said she
wasn’t so sure the Concord was the answer. She said that people who wanted to
escape the traffic would go someplace like Bedford. “After an enormous search
to become famous and well-known, they search for dark glasses,” she said. “A
place to hide with only their own people,” she said. “The concept of the
Borscht Belt, that’s not an attractive phrase.” The Riviera, the Cote d’Azure,
the Costa del Sol all had better names, she said. “The Borscht Belt is not
necessarily chic. It’s like Moses wandering in the desert. It takes 40 years
for a whole new generation to grow up to want to go there if it’s supposed to
“If you import models for free the first couple of weekends,
I’m certain it could have its own niche,” she said, but “I can’t see a reason
why I would go up there. I don’t do winter sports; I can barely walk. I hate
air, I hate trees, I hate insects-I’m not someone who goes to the country,
unless it has great racing or a festival of movies, something other than just
the resort itself. Then I would go.”
Mr. Cappelli, however, said that he had done an informal
market study by asking his friends who own houses in the Hamptons if they’d
spend a weekend at the Concord, and they all liked the idea. “I think the Long
Island Expressway and the rents in the Hamptons are going to drive people to a
place where they’ll probably have more fun at, which is open air, fresh air,
the mountains instead of the beach.”
Mr. Cappelli owns the 1,600 acres surrounding the hotel and
golf course, but he’s working on building a conference center, an Alpine
village, an equestrian center and an entertainment and retail complex. He’s
planning on renovating Grossinger’s after the Concord is finished. The whole
project won’t be completed until around 2006.
The Oct. 10 groundbreaking was marked by fireworks, a
10-by-60-foot balloon sculpture spelling out “Concord,” confetti shooting from
cannons and real snow flurries. Phase 1 consists of a $150 million demolition,
then 18 months of construction that will create 525 guest rooms (starting at
$200 a night) in the original hotel’s structure; two 18-hole and one nine-hole
golf courses; a golf school and tennis academy; a health club and spa; and an
85,000-square-foot convention center that includes a ballroom, a bowling alley
and basketball and volleyball courts. Phase 2 will create 800 additional hotel
rooms and 10 villas featuring 40 suites and time-share units.
Sources said that Mr. Cappelli and his partners were close
to announcing that Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., which operates
the chic W hotel chain, would manage the resort.
Mr. Cappelli may not get Manhattanites out of their
full-service apartments or break the Hamptons habit, but he should have no
problem filling hotel rooms for a Club Med in the mountains. But the task of
rekindling the Concord’s legend may take more than Cats .
Mr. Cappelli said he’d like to have Mariah Carey perform,
and suggested that perhaps publicist
Lizzie Grubman, the daughter of entertainment lawyer Allen Grubman, could
organize a movie premiere. “The Concord is part of my childhood,” said Ms.
Grubman, for whom Mr. Cappelli said he would send a helicopter whenever she
wanted to visit the place. “I think it’d be a big hoot to do a party there.”
In fact, said Mr. Cappelli, last summer Ms. Grubman’s father
told him that “the Imperial Theater is where all the famous stars were. Maybe
we should get those stars back.”
According to Mr. Cappelli, Mr. Grubman had come up to him at
a party in the Hamptons and said: “You’re the one. You’re the Italian guy that
bought the Concord.”
Mr. Cappelli continued: “He said, ‘You know, my great-grandfather
went there, my father went there, everybody went there. He said, ‘You know how
meaningful it is for you to own the Concord?’ I said, ‘Well, how?’ He goes,
‘Can you imagine if a Jew owned the Vatican?'”