For the last 37 years, the Michaelides family has owned and operated one of Newcastle's grandest buildings, firstly as a casino and now as a conference and function venue. Peter McCusker speaks to Antony Michaelides.
ANTONY Michaelides is used to people’s amazement at discovering one of Newcastle's best kept secrets.
Every day someone comes into the building and says ‘wow, isn’t this just fantastic. I did not even know it existed’, and when they hear it has been here since 1776, they just laugh,” says Antony
“We get tourists visiting the city who have heard all about us and want to have a look around. Their jaws drop.
“We are the only privately owned assembly rooms in the country. People rave about the Bath assembly rooms but this is every bit as good.”
Michaelides proudly leads The Journal on a tour of the lavish and ornate Old Assembly Rooms on Fenkle Street. We stop off in the main ballroom with its grand chandeliers and original sprung dance floor.
“It used to make the lights shake in the casino downstairs,” he recalls. “I’ve never been an office person. I don’t have an office,” explains Michaelides, as he takes a seat at a grand desk in the ante-room to the lower ballroom.
He retains the ambitions his father, Homer, and uncle Michael first had when they bought the Old Assembly Rooms in 1974, that is to make it the number one venue in the region.
Homer had arrived in the UK from Cyprus in the mid-50s and worked in restaurants and bars, before opening a hairdresser’s shop in Woking in Surrey
“He had cut hair when he was in the army,” explains his son.
Michaelides senior was an entrepreneur who then opened a coffee shop, a restaurant and then a club.
With the 1968 Gaming Act and the relaxing of the licensing laws, he opened a casino and then worked for a plc which operated the Tiberius Casino on Forth Lane, Newcastle.
“It was a loss-making casino, my father was sent up and told if he could turn it around, he could have it.”
At first Homer commuted from their home in Woking. “Some of the poker games would last 24 to 48 hours,” Michaelides elaborates.
With the casino business looking up, the family moved to the North East in 1972.
After a few years, Homer took an interest in the Old Assembly Rooms building which had fallen into disrepair and was being considered for demolition.
It had a sign outside which read ‘Site for Redevelopment’.
Michaelides explained: “He thought that would be an ideal place to relocate the casino from Forth Lane.
“He joined forces with my uncle, who had previously run a casino in Newcastle, and they bought the building.
They spent an absolute fortune redeveloping it, including £26,000 on repairs to the crystal chandeliers.
“They didn‘t even have running water in the bars.”
It secured its gaming licence in 1977 and opened as the Casino Royale.
He continues: “This is the business I grew up understanding. For eight months I travelled around the world seeing how other casinos operated.”
When his mother, Sheila, died at the age of 53, he became more involved in its operation.
“My dad had wanted me to be an optician, ‘people always need glasses’, he would say, but this is the business I knew I would always end up in.”
It would be a tough shift for many – six days and seven nights a week for months on end.
But not for Michaelides. “The place had a real club atmosphere. It was a real special place where ladies could come in by themselves and feel comfortable.
“We had a strict policy on not allowing undesirables to join. There was a strict dress code and we would not allow bad language.
“Back then, new members would get a two-day cooling off period before they could join.
“We provided a quality restaurant and we would regularly have full houses of between 200 and 300 people, including lots of celebrities.
“It could have been a thankless task, but it was fun. The thing about casinos is that they have an edge. It’s a place where money travels between people. The casino makes a commission, a tax. It’s a profitable business but with those dynamics, it will always have an edge.”
Roulette and black jack are the mainstays of the casino world and every day Michaelides would ensure his staff calibrated the roulette wheel and measured the gaps in the holes to ensure accuracy and fairness.
Michaelides was born in 1964 and despite moving to the region in 1972, he still has a South East accent.
His working day now starts at about 10am and a couple of times a week he goes to the gym.
He says he has a good team running the place, which means he can return to his Northumberland home where he’ll cook dinner for his wife – something he has a real passion for.
And it was this that led to a sea change in the operation of The Old Assembly Rooms back in 1991.
“Two other casinos in Newcastle were looking to relocate and they approached us to see if we would sell our licence,” he recalls.