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.
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.
Each casino had a licence for 12 tables and the two competitors were wanting to relocate to large, purpose- built premises with 18 tables. An agreement was reached whereby the Royal sold six licences to each party.
Michaelides says they did not make any money out of the deal.
“We were torn. We deliberated about it for weeks on end. We struck a deal whereby our two competitors agreed to take all of our staff who wanted to move, with a guaranteed continuous service clause. In the end it actually cost us money.”
He continues: “I had a vision. I started to love food and drink. This provided us with the new opportunity to expand and develop the banqueting side.”
The Assembly Rooms has eight suites of varying sizes, with the first floor main ballroom or Chandelier Suite being the largest, with the ability to accommodate up to 550 people.
On the ground floor is the Lower Ballroom Suite which can accommodate over 200 people and was the venue for the Casino Royale.
It is a remarkable room which still retains its original 1776 Georgian decor. A real trip back in time, it’s like walking into the set of a costume drama where you imagine the gentlemen are set to ask the ladies for a dance as the band strikes up the Gay Gordons.
It has been used as a location for many Catherine Cookson adaptations, the Mike Figgis Stormy Monday film, featuring Sting, TV series Spender and the Fast Show and, more recently, United, the TV film about the Manchester United Busby Babes.
Michaelides say the business is performing well and he has ambitious plans. “Every venue that hosts parties of people is a competitor, even down to the large pizzerias. I am just 46 and I have never thought too far down the line about what I will do in the future as I have lots to do now.
“We are a major player in the region and we want to be the number one.
“We are a high quality venue and we should be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.”
Just yards away from the Old Assembly Rooms, work has begun on the redevelopment of the former Eagle Star House insurance property into a four-star boutique hotel, which will be opened by the Intercontinental hotel chain under its Indigo brand.
Michaelides says discussions are under way with the hotel chain on how both parties can work together.
“The hotel will not have any conference facilities and we foresee the potential to establish a profitable partnership. Indigo is a great brand and Intercontinental is an international player. We are currently a major player in town, but this could provide us with an opportunity to become a national and international name.”
Over the 37 years the family has owned the building, it has spent in the region of £4m maintaining and improving it.
The last major refurbishment was in 2009 when £200,000 was spent, but every year there will be an outlay, with £30,000 being spent this year on various repairs.
During that time, the Michaelides family have not received a single penny of public money, which he feels is “disappointing”.
“We are right in the centre of Grainger Town where loads of properties have had support from the public purse. The authorities know the building is in safe hands and are happy with the way it is being run.
“My father was once promised an grant of £4,000 to replace some dry rot, but he went ahead and started work, without being given the go-ahead to start, so the grant offer was cut and he told them not to bother. We have never had a penny of public money.”
The Assembly Rooms is having to compete in a tough market, although Michaelides is cheered by the number of new hotels opening on Tyneside.
“Hospitality businesses like ours are the first to go into a recession and the last to come out of it.”
But Michaelides says it is performing well despite the economic climate, with its packages being tailored and buffets becoming more popular as companies look to save costs.
He added: “We are the key-holders for this magnificent building. We won’t be able to take it with us and we feel it is our responsibility to keep it in its best condition for future generations.
“When the history of the Assembly Rooms is written, the Michaelides family will be in there. We are part of that history. I am very proud of that.”
What car do you drive?
A Bentley Continental
What is your favourite restaurant?
Locanda Locatelli in London serves the best Italian food I’ve ever had, either in UK or indeed in Italy.
Who or what makes you laugh?
I love comedian Jack Dee’s deadpan style
What is your favourite book?
AA Restaurant Guide. I will just about read it cover to cover to see what new restaurants I should pay a visit to. I’m a huge fan of dining out.
What was the last album you bought?
What is your ideal job, other than the one you have?
Simple. It would be a restaurant critic. Can you see a bit of a theme developing here?
If you had a talking parrot, what would you teach it to say?
“Dad came home at 10pm last night mum, honest.”
What is your greatest fear?
Heights. Never been entirely comfortable with my feet not on the ground.
What is the best piece of business advice you have been given?
My dad once told me that I should never, under any circumstances, be a guarantor to anybody. I’ve been asked a few times, but have always declined.
And the worst?
“Microsoft? No son, not worth buying shares in a computer business.” That was my father as well...
What’s your poison?
It has to be big Tuscan reds. Brunello is a particular favourite.
Other than The Journal, what newspapers do you read?
I get most of my news through the internet these days, but the Sunday Times continues to be a great read.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
For the first few months, at the age of 17, I worked for nothing here at the Assembly Rooms. My first sum was £45 a week when my father decided I actually was worth it!
How do you keep fit?
I try go to the gym two or three times a week.
What is your most irritating habit?
Apparently, I tut lot. My nickname in the casino days of the Assembly Rooms used to be ‘Skippy’.
What is your biggest extravagance?
My wife, especially now she has discovered internet shopping.
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Scooby Doo. Slightly haphazard, but he would always get a result in the end.
Which four famous people would you like to dine with?
Elvis Presley for the music. Jack Dee for the laughs and then Amy Winehouse and Oliver Reed to make sure it wasn’t an early finish.
How would you like to be remembered?
Crumbs...it would just be nice to be remembered. Full stop.
We are a high quality venue and we should be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.