|By Story and Photos Patricia Sheridan,
Pittsburgh Post-GazetteMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 06, 2010--WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Guests at The Greenbrier didn't have to look at the night sky to see stars during the Fourth of July weekend. The fabled luxury resort was dense with Hollywood dignitaries, athletes and politicians for the Casino Club's grand opening. All 721 rooms were sold out in anticipation of the Friday night fete, which featured the famous and their fans. Well over budget at $80 million, the state-of-the-art casino designed by Carlton Varney is high on style and adds a new dimension to the many activities available at the hotel.
But the main activity last weekend was spotting celebrities -- including Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck, Jessica Simpson, Shaquille O'Neal, Raquel Welch, Barbara Eden, Jack Nicklaus and Elliott Gould. Brooke Shields and her family spent the weekend indulging in all things Greenbrier, as did Jane Seymour, Debbie Reynolds, Charles Barkley and others. They came to celebrate and joined resort owner Jim Justice, his wife, Cathy, and their children, Jay and Jill, at the black-tie casino opening. A West Virginia coal baron, Mr. Justice rescued the resort from bankruptcy last year, restoring jobs and confidence in region's economic future. He sold one of his coal operations to a Russian company and then purchased The Greenbrier -- a kind of Russian Roulette.
"The Greenbrier has its history and tradition ... but it had to have energy and, in this economy, like it or not, what we're doing is pounding a round peg in a square hole," he said.
Liking it was Ms. Shields. It was her first time visiting West Virginia, but she said it won't be her last.
"My kids are having the best time. They are doing everything -- falconry, archery, horseback riding and they are bowling right now!" she said as she posed for photographers on the red carpet.
When asked if she's a gambler, Ms. Shields said with a laugh, "I gamble with my emotions. I like to stand behind and be sort of the gun moll."
Later that evening, she was seen trying her hand at the $100 limit blackjack table flanked by Mr. Justice and Mr. Barkley, who is known for enjoying a roll of the dice. The two men were offering advice, but when she started to lose, Mr. Barkley said, "I feel bad. I'm gonna have to stay until she gets back to even."
Ms. Garner, a native of West Virginia, and husband Mr. Affleck flew in for the opening but did not spend the night because of other obligations. They arrived separately. She came with W.Va. Gov. Joe Manchin and first lady Gayle Manchin, and they were the first to walk the red carpet flanked by bleachers for hotel guests.
The stars drove up to the newly refurbished entrance via vintage automobiles. Catching a lot of attention on his arrival several minutes later, Mr. Affleck said nothing but did graciously pose for a few photographs with fans. He also gave the bank of photographers a few shots but moved quickly past reporters seeking a salvo from the handsome leading man. Ms. Garner made a detour over to the bleachers, waving and shaking hands with excited fans.
"I feel like I'm going to bust with pride that my home state has something this beautiful, elegant, classy and glamorous to offer. I mean, have you ever been anywhere more beautiful in your whole life than West Virginia?" asked Ms. Garner. "I hope this place can stay alive after my husband hits the poker table."
As it turned out, Mr. Affleck never had a chance to play a hand because the evening's ambitious schedule was running a little behind.
Following the parade of personalities on the red carpet, there was gourmet dinner and a private concert by Lionel Richie. The celebrities dined separately in the Crystal Room, while guests who paid $850 per person for the evening dined in an adjacent room.
For $2,000 per couple, people got a room and tickets to the opening night festivities.
After dinner, everyone gathered in the Colonial Ballroom, where Mr. Richie had the crowd up and dancing in no time. Mr. Justice and his wife were seen doing a few jitterbug moves on the aisle.
Ms. Simpson was surprised with a birthday cake for her 30th. Seeming a little reluctant, she stood on stage as Mr. Justice led the audience in a chorus of "Happy Birthday."
Earlier on the red carpet, Ms. Simpson did not stop to talk to the press after posing for photographs.
Legend of stage and screen, Ms. Reynolds, looking lovely in red, actually spent her honeymoon with Eddie Fisher at the resort in 1955. "That was nice, but it's much nicer this time around," she noted with a twinkle.
Ms. Welch, actress and author of "Beyond the Cleavage," was escorted by her son, Damon Welch. She also was visiting West Virginia for the first time. "I always wanted to come to this part of the country because I'm a little partial, somewhere in my heart, to the South," she said. Asked what she thought of The Greenbrier, she said, "I think the hotel is fantastic."
Ms. Seymour agreed and said her family had been whitewater rafting and fly fishing. "I caught six fish today and couple yesterday," she noted with a smile.
Mr. Gould volunteered that on January 27, 1976, he was made an honorary citizen of West Virginia. "I was brought to the floor of the legislature here and made an honorary citizen because I had worked at a place here called Bronco Junction, a camp for asthmatic children." He said he hadn't been back since then, but said, "I think the Justice family has done great by this place. It's full of history. It should be an American landmark if it isn't already."
Several athletes including Mr. O'Neal and golfers Mr. Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Lee Travino made their way through the gauntlet of fans with smiles and nods and headed down to the casino level for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Built under the front lawn of the main entrance, the casino includes a private area for high rollers, a sushi restaurant and a bar.
Gambling were Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear. Mr. Varney, the debonair designer who refreshed the hotel in the same style of his mentor, Dorothy Draper, escorted actress Christine Ebersole. He beamed as waitresses and waiters dressed as Southern belles and gents passed trays of champagne to toast in the new era at The Greenbrier.
Saturday night, Ms. Ebersole performed in the Casino Club to rave reviews. On Sunday, Ms. Eden and Ms. Reynolds took part in the parade that went through downtown White Sulphur Springs. As the tickets to the party stated, "It's no longer sleepy time down South."
To plan a trip in the footsteps of the famous and formerly famous go to www.greenbrier.com or call 800-624-6070.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2613.
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