The Albatross

St. Louis has a long and tortured history with the Admiral, home of the President Casino, but the city is about to gamble another $3 million to keep it afloat. It's a risky bet.

To get from the hull of the Admiral to Deck A, Schafersman climbs up a narrow flight of steps, which emerge in the middle of a long, rectangular wet bar. Around the bar in every direction are rows of nickel slots, where many of the day players, mostly senior citizens, sit one on one with their machines. The tokens collected from the machines are sent to something called the "hard-count room," where access is restricted because this is where 10 wrapping machines spin, count and roll the hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of weight that Schafersman worries about every day.

He's optimistic, though. The Missouri Gaming Commission is in the process of changing its rules to allow casinos to use bill validators on its slots. So instead of buying tokens, gamblers will be able to play with real money, which, with any luck, will be in the form of paper, thereby lightening the load. In preparation, the casino is building a new "soft-count room" up on Deck B.

"It's not operational yet," Schafersman says as he looks into the new room through heavy plate glass. "There are still a lot of cameras being installed. It will also be monitored auditorially, and all of the employees that work in here will have their pockets sewn shut."

Mike Schafersman, director of safety and facilities for the Admiral, will oversee the relocation of the gambling boat this year.
Jennifer Silverberg
Mike Schafersman, director of safety and facilities for the Admiral, will oversee the relocation of the gambling boat this year.

He stands and stares at the room hopefully. "A lot of money will be counted in that room," he says.

If anyone's affair with the Admiral could be called torturous, it was that of the man who was mayor of St. Louis from 1981-92, Vincent Schoemehl.

"I had never met John Connelly, never talked to him," Schoemehl says. "He was going to take the Admiral up to Pittsburgh to be part of a permanently moored operation up there, but there were editorials being run every other day about how horrible this was for the city and that somebody has to do something about it."

When he bought the Admiral from Streckfus Steamers in 1979, Connelly was president of Gateway Clipper Fleet Inc. After buying the boat, he moved it to Kentucky for repairs. He then planned to take her up to Pittsburgh, but editorials in St. Louis' dailies wailed that part of the city's heritage was floating upriver. "So I called him," Schoemehl says, "and we talked him into keeping the Admiral here in St. Louis. That's how it all got started."

As Schoemehl calls up history, the story unfolds about how 27 investors anted up $1.5 million to buy the boat back. The group, calling themselves Admiral Investors Inc., included William E. Maritz; Fred Weber Inc.; Emmett Capstick, then vice president of Community Federal Savings & Loan; the law firm of Gallop, Johnson & Neuman; S. Lee Kling; Lieberman Advertising; and Pasta House co-owners John Ferrara, J. Kim Tucci and Joe Fresta.

The investors then transferred ownerboat of the Admiral to S.S. Admiral Partners, with Six Flags Admiral Corp. (a subsidiary of Six Flags Corp.) as its general partner. The plan was to renovate the boat and turn it into an entertainment complex. Despite the fact that a 1982 study had concluded that the only way to determine the condition of the boat's hull was to put it in dry dock, the investment group decided not to bother. They brought the Admiral back to St. Louis from Kentucky, came up with $26 million in private money and received a $5 million federal urban-renewal grant through the city of St. Louis.

"At the time, there was every reason to believe that it was going to be successful, because Six Flags was a very successful operator of entertainment destinations," Schoemehl says. "But the effort to make it into an entertainment complex was, how shall we say, ill-fated."

By 1985, the investors' investment wasn't looking so promising. One of them, J. Fleischer Sr., owned a construction company that the group hired as the project manager, even though the company had no experience renovating a boat. In addition to major construction mistakes and labor problems, the group had to replace much of the boat's structural steel -- a condition that could have been determined ahead of time had the boat been dry-docked. S.S. Admiral Partners then raised an additional $3.3 million from a special limited partnership and got loans from the city of St. Louis totaling $2.5 million.

When the Admiral reopened in 1987, more than a year behind schedule, the investors had spent nearly $37 million for renovations, including $7.5 million in public money -- almost $11 million more than originally estimated.

Inside, the boat had taken on the characteristics of an overwrought peacock. There were shops, music venues and a restaurant with a $2 million kitchen and a $100,000 sign in gold-and-silver lettering. One of the big attractions was the Birdland Theater, featuring an "audi-animatronic show" of 14 animated birds that, at a cost of more than a half-million dollars, played in a Dixieland band. There was also Lindy's Cabaret and the Mississippi Theater. The main ballroom was now a music hall, complete with strolling cigarette girls, and a $100,000 Bandathon playing mechanical band instruments stood in the foyer. A 1987 article in the Midwest Motorist magazine noted of the Admiral: "She's got a new look and a new purpose. And typical of a 'new woman' of the '80s, she's a product of what some might describe as a rigorous fitness routine. She's been transformed into the Jane Fonda of steamships."

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