This week’s portrait, Jeanne Chiaradio, has been in the “people business” for over 30 years. Chiaradio has held positions from dealer to director in gaming, marketing and human resources for Harrah’s in Atlantic City. She currently is on the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance Education Committee and is vice chair of the Board of Directors of the South Jersey AIDS Alliance.
PGN: So you’re originally from Philly.
JC: Yes, I’m a South Philly girl. St. Maria Goretti High School.
PGN: I keep on hearing about Goretti girls and it seems that it’s always said with a wink. What’s so special about Goretti girls?
JC: I think we’re a close-knit bunch. I’m still in touch with my Goretti girls. There are about 10 of us that we call The 50s Club — because we all went away together when we turned 50 — and there is a bond and camaraderie there that’s hard to describe. I say it’s like therapy when I’m with them. We get together about once a month and laugh, and reminisce and share stories.
PGN: And what made you so close? Fighting off the nuns?
JC: [Laughs.] Well, I was always in trouble! I used to get pulled up by the collar for not sitting up straight in my chair, but I was short — I could only go up so far! My feet would be dangling in the air! People that I work with now find that hard to believe, but my mom had to make quite a few visits to the school. But we all turned out pretty well.
JC: No, I’m an only child, but my mom had three sisters so I had lots of cousins. We all lived about one block apart in South Philly and were more like siblings than cousins. Even now that our parents are gone, we still carry on all the family traditions and holidays, etc. I never felt like an only child.
PGN: What were your parents like?
JC: My dad was a Philadelphia policeman and my mom was a hairdresser.
PGN: Was she a stylish person?
JC: Oh yeah. [Laughs.] My mom always looked like she was going somewhere, even if she wasn’t. She was always dressed with a big smile on her face. She was a social butterfly.
PGN: Looking at your résumé, you seem to be a people person too.
JC: Yeah, both my parents were very outgoing. They did a lot for other people and were well respected in the community. When God was giving out parents, I got in the right line. Growing up gay back then could have been difficult but they were so supportive and loving ... I can’t say enough about my family. I’m very fortunate.
PGN: How old were you when you came out?
JC: When I was in my early 20s my mother asked me. I’d always said that if she asked it would mean she was ready to know. With a father who was a detective and a mother who was sharper than the FBI, I knew it wouldn’t take them long to figure it out. I just waited until the time was right to tell them. They were immediately supportive of not just me, but my friends and any significant others. People were invited to family gatherings and holidays and made to feel welcome. And I know it must have been hard for my mother with me being an only child. I always felt bad about the grandchildren thing, but I had a pet at the time and my mom would say, “It’s all right, I have a wonderful granddog!”
PGN: Having a police-officer dad, was there a scary moment that stands out?
JC: When the whole MOVE incident went down [in 1978] my father was there. I remember watching TV and seeing my father running across the street while gunshots were being fired. Later they said that a policeman had been shot but they weren’t releasing the names, so it was scary waiting to find out what happened.
PGN: What were you like as a kid?
JC: I was pretty sporty. I played baseball and football with the boys. I didn’t play basketball ‘cause I was too short, but I was always comfortable playing with the guys. I was one of the few girls allowed to play on the boys’ teams.
PGN: After high school?
JC: I started to go to Philadelphia community College for criminal justice, but I got a side job as a blackjack dealer and it ended up being a career path. The casinos were just opening in A.C., and I thought it would be pretty fun to make money playing cards. There was so much opportunity at the time, I went from dealer to director in Gaming, Marketing and Human Resources for Harrah’s. One thing led to another and before you knew it, 15 years had gone by. I never finished school but I was pretty much running the casino.
PGN: You’ve been in the industry for so long: What’s your craziest client story?
JC: Oh boy, there are a lot. We get some extreme situations. I’ve seen people turn $100 into $100,000. We have a lot of people that get on a roll and won’t leave — even to go to the bathroom. We had one guy who played in the baccarat pit and whenever he played we had to get the chair reupholstered!
PGN: Something I’ve always wondered about: How do you know if people are counting cards?
JC: There are basic strategies playing cards and, when you see someone deviate sharply, it gives you a heads up. If there’s a wide range in someone’s betting patterns it’s a red flag, like if they’re betting $25 here and there and then they suddenly bet $400 and two 10s come up. Things like that are a giveaway.
PGN: Is it illegal to count cards? How can you keep people from counting?
JC: No, not in New Jersey. Casinos in the state of New Jersey are forbidden from barring card counters as a result of a New Jersey Supreme Court decision, but there are ways of deterring it — cutting the decks shorter and other things that are legal. We actually had a good relationship with a card-counting team that used to come to the casino. When they’d go away, they let us know so we could relax. They’d even send us postcards!
PGN: What’s a favorite casino moment?
JC: That would have to be when I received the Harrah’s Entertainment Chairman’s Award for Excellence in Managing People and Outstanding Team Performance. It was probably the highlight of my casino career. It’s not just an internal award for our Harrah’s property — at the time they probably had about 50 facilities and about 50,000 employees. Winning one Chairman’s award was a big honor and I got two, which was unheard of. So it was very special.
PGN: Best celebrity encounter?
JC: Gladys Knight and Neil Diamond playing cards in my section when I was pit boss. Not at the same time! But they were both really nice.
PGN: So back to coming out: First crush?
JC: It was probably a teacher, but since we’re all still in touch, I don’t want to say any names!
PGN: Have you worn your Catholic schoolgirl uniform since graduating?
JC: [Laughs.] Funny you should ask. At our 30-year reunion I went to the bathroom, put on the uniform and came out swinging my locker key. I just found a certificate I got for being able to still fit into it. At 50, I took it to Florida with me and pulled it out. It’s all beat up now and has writing all over it from people signing it, but I’ve worn it a few times!
PGN: Do you have a partner?
JC: I do. Her mom had a restaurant near my office and that’s how we met.
PGN: Tell me a little about some of the resurgence in A.C.
JC: We have a lot going right now. Some of it started with Dennis Gomes, a true visionary, who gave the 13th floor of Resorts to Joel Ballesterous, the director of LGBT marketing. He used it to create Pro Bar, the first LGBT bar inside one of the casinos. It’s doing great and has really reenergized the community. They also recently opened The Piano Bar, which I absolutely love! I have held three or four ladies’ parties at Pro Bar and I’m thinking about getting my old South Philly 10th Street Girls together for a night of singing around the piano ... and yes, we can and will sing Donna Summer songs. I’m also involved with the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance Education Committee. We’ve done all sorts of events and, on June 19, we’re having a Stop the Hate Jazz & Sunset Cruise with live music, food, DJ and a bar. Our South Jersey AIDS Alliance is also strong. We just had an AIDS walk and we’ve held “Meet me at the Chez Paree” reunions, which are always a great time. We’re doing some good things.
PGN: Who are the 10th Street Girls?
JC: Tenth and Snyder in Philadelphia used to be the corner where all the lesbians hung out. Cars would drive by and holler nasty things at us, but it didn’t matter. It probably started out with a couple of girls hanging out and before you knew it, there were 20, 30 girls hanging out there. We had a reunion and about 70 girls showed up.
PGN: How did you know who was gay at the school?
JC: Our gaydar! At an all-girls’ school you just knew. This was back in 1973 and ’74 and there were a whole lot of girls, a whole lot. I remember a nun calling me into her office and telling me I shouldn’t be hanging out on 10th Street. But it was fun, I’m glad I lived through it.
PGN: Called out by a nun! And what do you do now?
JC: Well, in 1992 I got my real-estate license and went from cards and dice to contracts and deeds and then, in 2004, I lost my mother to Alzheimer’s disease. My grandmother and aunt also died from it. I had her with me for a while and had taken some time off to figure out what to do about it. It’s really hard even figuring out where to start: Should I keep her with me, take her somewhere else to live, get a full-time companion? I’d begun taking her to a sort of daycare facility and she loved it. She got to interact with people and do different things. I called her The Mayor because by the end of the day, she knew everybody’s name and they all loved her. I found her a full-time place near my home where I could visit every day. I never thought of doing anything but the casino business, but after she passed it was like a little bird kept telling me I needed to switch directions. I became a committee member for the Alzheimer’s Association, Walk to End Alzheimer’s and an Alzheimer’s support-group facilitator. In 2009, I opened Synergy HomeCare in Hammonton, N.J. About 55 percent of the folks that we help have mental disorders, dementia or Alzheimer’s. I was lucky in that, though our roles reversed, my mother never lost her wit. I sometimes think maybe that’s why I never had children, it gave me time to take care of her. I wouldn’t trade a thing.
PGN: What are some of the highlights and low points of running the facility?
JC: Highlights: It’s so very rewarding, helping a family to figure out the right thing to do. When they send a card saying, “Thank you so much, you were right, it was the best decision and Mom is really happy.” There’s a lot of resistance to having someone you don’t know coming into your home and I understand that, coming from a big Italian family, where you are supposed to take care of your own. But when we can give both the families and the patients peace of mind, it’s a great thing. Challenges: It’s a 24-hour business. Fortunately, we have some really great people working with us. It’s a shame, but the current unemployment situation means we can be selective in hiring. Facing end-of-life situations is challenging too, but you know, there’s also something peaceful about it. It’s hard to describe but there’s something special about helping someone out at that stage.
PGN: I always thought that I’d be a good funeral director, because I don’t get freaked out about death or speaking about it. Not that I’m in any hurry to experience it, but it doesn’t particularly scare me.
JC: [Laughs.] My mom used to say, “Death is a part of living,” so I never had any fear about dying either. I just don’t.
PGN: Is Alzheimer’s disease hereditary? If so, is that something you fear?
JC: Yeah, my cousins and I joke about it. We’ve said we’re going to start wearing nametags at the next family gathering. But we’re realistic about it. My grandmother and my aunt all had it so when my mother started showing signs, we went to a class which taught us everything from the medical to the legal aspects of handling the disease. Communication can be huge, learning not to correct her, etc. I was just in Washington with the Alzheimer’s Association, so it’s something that we’re conscious of but don’t dwell on it.
PGN: Changing gears, any hobbies?
JC: I wish I had time. I do like picking up seashells and I’ve recently gotten into finding beach glass.
PGN: Any good scars?
JC: Yup, I have one on my knee that looks like a smiley face. I got it climbing up aluminum bleachers, like I shouldn’t have, to change the scoreboard at my cousin’s Little League game.
PGN: Words of advice?
JC: Live every day as if it were your last, because someday you may be right!
PGN: Your dream for the future?
JC: I would love to have an all-gay casino! We’d have entertainment and a gaming floor but we’d spell it gayming. That would be a dream come true.
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