WALDORF, Md. - Even surrounded by fast-food joints, the red neon "WALDORF RESTAURANT" sign looks garish, as if it belongs in another place or time.
Which it does.
Forty years ago, lights flashed, and bells rang as tourists hit jackpots on the restaurant's oak-paneled slot machines. Tourists slow-danced to big band music in an upstairs room draped in red velvet, and waiters served bacon-wrapped slabs of filet mignon for $3.99.
It was an era when slots were omnipresent - and legal - in Southern Maryland.
The Waldorf (now called Rip's even though the old sign remains) vied with the Stardust, the Desert Inn, the Wigwam and other minicasinos for tourist business along a glowing Vegas-style strip of U.S. 301, then a major north-south route.
The slots, winked at by the authorities for years, were legalized in the late 1940s so that the counties of Charles, Calvert, St. Mary's and Anne Arundel could tap into the ample proceeds. But pressure from religious groups and the news media, along with worries about organized crime and corruption, led the General Assembly to phase out the machines over five years, beginning in 1963.
The Waldorf's heyday officially ended at midnight on a summer night in 1968 - when General Manager Dino Cotsonis yelled "That's it, that's all" through a microphone, and employees draped red and gold tablecloths over the machines. "Slots Given Last Grasp," read the headline in The Sun.
The music of the slots died that night, but debate over the machines never ended.
Today, this area is as divided as the rest of the state about Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to legalize the machines at four racetracks. A recent Sun poll found that 53 percent of Southern Maryland and Eastern Shore residents favor installing slots at tracks, compared with 48 percent of state residents as a whole.
The difference is that in Southern Maryland, many older residents can recount grand successes and equally spectacular failures of an industry they lived with while others were just passing through.
Some still possess relics of the era. Those include old slot machines that are now collectors items or any of hundreds of coins from the Wigwam featuring an Indian in headdress. The owner uncovered the coins in an old refrigerator when he took over the business 35 years ago and converted it into a bakery and kitschy gift shop.
But other residents tell poignant stories.
State Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, 57, says his father, a prominent Charles County resident, took hundreds of dollars of family wheat crop money and drained it into the machines, which were fixtures not only at bars and restaurants, but also at drugstores and gas stations. "I am certainly opposed to slot machines and am going to do my best to make sure Maryland doesn't go down that route again," the senator says.
Then there was the state lawmaker who stuffed his trouser pockets with complimentary coins provided by the slots industry during a goodwill boat cruise to Colonial Beach, Va., where minicasinos were built on Potomac River piers stretching into Maryland waters.
"He wouldn't spend the coins," said John Hanson Briscoe, 68, a retired St. Mary's County judge and former state House speaker. "He slipped, and when they grabbed his arms, he had so much weight in his pockets that his suspenders broke. And his trousers came down."
To Briscoe, this is one of the enduring images of the period: a senator flailing under the weight of the silver lining his pockets.
There were countless examples of other elected officials working directly for the industry - as the manager of a game room or as a slot machine distributor. When it came to conflicts of interest or other indiscretions, politicians from that era say, law enforcement agencies often followed a long tradition of looking the other way.
Slots were common in the area even before they were legal, "and the only thing the establishments had to do was turn the machines around when court was in session" to avoid trouble, said J. Frank Raley Jr., 76, a retired St. Mary's County senator.
By 1962, a grand jury report in Anne Arundel called the machines a "sordid mess." The jury found that minors were playing the machines, that county oversight was inadequate and that operators were skimming profits.
At the time, nearly 5,000 machines were licensed in the four counties, and the local economies - and local governments - had become heavily dependent on them. One-fourth of Charles County's annual budget was coming from fees on slots. In Calvert, tens of thousands of dollars in slots proceeds helped pay for Calvert Memorial Hospital, which was built in 1953.
Former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who was state House speaker before slots were banned, said last week that the problem was not the machines, but a lack of government oversight. He also said slots owners should have been paying a higher return to county treasuries.