Two Atlantic City clubs serve niche of tourists with a wild side

Jun 12, 2012 | Journalism

Author’s Note:

I published this article in 2012 for The Press of Atlantic City.

This was one of those stories that was hiding in plain sight. There were billboards and ads for these clubs, but I was apparently the only reporter brave enough to ask, “What’s that about?”

This was probably the toughest story I ever had to publish. Not because of anything to do with the content – although I did see some things while reporting that I cannot un-see – but because I had to fight with my old school, conservative editors for a year before they would print it. And it’s barely even PG-13! (That definitely informed my opinion that a significant reason for mid-market newspapers’ downfall is that they simply refused to publish interesting content.)

Dance music pulses, spotlights rotate and an upscale crowd fills the first floor of Role Play Lounge on a Saturday night, a scene typical of small clubs in Atlantic City.

Some elements stand out, however.

Two couples passionately kiss on one of the couches. Everyone seems to be with someone. A video screen on the wall shows a nude woman pleasuring herself.

Upstairs, it becomes clear this club is very different. Some would be shocked; for others, it’s a thrill.

In a resort that’s trying to attract a wider range of tourists, Role Play, on Atlantic Avenue, and Saints and Sinners, on South Mount Vernon Avenue, are the only clubs in Atlantic City that openly offer on-premise erotic couples experiences.

The clientele at these “adult playgrounds” is primarily couples, and they meet other couples inside, often knowing only each others’ first names. They have sex on the premises, sometimes in full view of strangers, sometimes switching partners.

They prefer their privacy, and in most cases they come to Atlantic City for a weekend to forget their everyday lives and explore their wilder sides.

“People go to a nightclub, but what do they want to do at the end of the night?” Role Play manager Eric Crewe said. “This is the best of both worlds.”

Eric Crewe, manager of Role Play Lounge in Atlantic City.

Eric Crewe, manager of Role Play Lounge in Atlantic City.

Role Play is entering its third year of operation this summer; Saints and Sinners opened last year as part of the complete renovation and redesign of the Diving Horse entertainment complex and hotel. Each club requires memberships, and entry fees range from $50 per person at Saints and Sinners to $100 for single men at Role Play. Saints and Sinners does not permit single men — only couples and single women — while Role Play allows a certain number on Fridays only.

The memberships also include confidentiality agreements, stipulating that members are not to take photos or videos in the clubs.

Tom Sherwood Sr., the owner and architect behind Diving Horse, said a concept such as Saints and Sinners was necessary to contend with the surrounding casinos.

“I knew I could only compete if I could make this more of an adult environment,” he said. “We’re looking for that special minority of people who want something a little more exciting than just gambling, dancing and eating.”

“I don’t want to say sex sells, but there you go,” Sherwood said.

People enter Saints and Sinners from the back of the Diving Horse complex, a more private entryway than the front door to the club on Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Couples meet in the hotel lounge and loosen up with a few drinks at the bar, which is strictly bring-your-own.

“If couples do like each other, they may invite each other back to the room,” said Sherwood, of Philadelphia. “You know what happens when you get back to the room, but it’s still nobody’s business.”

Tom Sherwood, owner of Saints and Sinners couples club in Atlantic City.

Tom Sherwood, owner of Saints and Sinners couples club in Atlantic City.

Caligula’s Temple, ostensibly the first club to advertise itself as a swingers club in Atlantic City, opened in 2004, but closed last year. Owner Larry Belfer said he chose to get out of the industry after Role Play and Saints and Sinners opened.

Belfer, an entrepreneur who has run a number of businesses in the city and who currently owns Coconuts strip club, said his business was steady for years as the only swingers establishment in the city.

But with three such venues open, he said, they were all competing for a limited, niche market of clients who mostly come from outside the area.

“It’s not my lifestyle. I was in it as a business,” he said. “We had a great club. I just didn’t think it was a growth area.”

Swinging grew in popularity during and after the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Today, some of the people who lived through that period are still a part of the lifestyle, but club owners are also seeing a younger generation get involved.

Crewe said the clientele at his club ranges in age from 22 to 52. Sherwood said his customers are between 28 and 48 years old.

On a recent Saturday at Role Play, that age range looked correct, with men leaning toward the older end of the range and the women seemingly younger.

The women wore tight dresses, and men wore button-up shirts and jeans, similar to any other club in the city.

On the second floor, several people wore nothing. One couple had sex on a bed in the middle of the room, and a few others did so in rooms with no doors while other couples stood outside and watched.

That scene notwithstanding, Role Play and Saints and Sinners market themselves as upscale experiences, and shy away from the term “swingers” itself.

“We’re trying to get it out of that grimy swinger’s club perception, where you have a hot tub with stuff floating on the top of it,” said Crewe, of Egg Harbor Township. “We try to take it to another level.”