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Entertainers of the 1950s and 60s popular with casino guests

Entertainment and casinos go together like hand and glove. But is entertainment offered as an amenity for guests or is it used to bring in guests? It can be both, say managers at some of Mississippi`s casinos.

With an on-hold telephone message that calls Bally`s in Tunica “your entertainment universe,” it would seem the river county casino takes providing entertainment for its guests seriously.

“To some extent entertainment is a marketing tool,” said Laura Shelby, marketing manager at Bally`s in Tunica, “but it`s not our main focus. There`s no admission for any of our shows. It`s something extra we do for our guests.”

Shelby said Bally`s has a band every night of the week except Monday in its 125-seat Saloon Bar where patrons can relax as they sit around the bar and listen. Two headliners are booked each month in addition to popular pianist Jason D. Williams, who plays once each month.

The band Confederate Railroad, Clarence Carter, T.G. Sheppard, Bowzer`s Rock & Roll Party and Freddy Fender are crowd pleasers at Bally`s, she said.

“We try to mix it up with country, rock and roll and R&B,” she said. “People will be lined up an hour ahead for Freddy Fender and standing four and five deep at the bar.”

Shelby said Bally`s uses a company in Orlando, Fla., to book entertainment. “It`s someone who`s been in the business 30 years and knows these people,” she said. “It`s entertainment that appeals to the age 45-and-up group. These older entertainers are having a rebirth on the casino circuit. They can perform when they get ready and now they have a place to play.”

The casino circuit is especially lucrative for entertainers who were hot in the 1950s and ’60s and nowhere is that truer than at Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis.

“We focus our bookings for what`s the best act for our customers, which means the 40 and 50 age group,” said Christian Reese, public relations manager. “Playing in our entertainment complex in the coming weeks are Smokey Robinson, Neil Sedaka, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Fats Domino and Bobby Rydell.”

The concert venue at Casino Magic seats 2,000 people but can be adjusted to what managers think a show will draw. There are at least two headliners each month, and Pete Fountain has been playing every Tuesday and Wednesday for the past year. For him, seating is arranged more intimately like a jazz club.

“We purposely have him play mid- week to help draw in a crowd,” Reese said. “Close to 60% of our customers come from New Orleans and they identify with him. He has a good following and a lot of them spend the night. It does very well.”

Fountain, a legendary jazz clarinetist, closed his New Orleans club last year and retired to his home in Bay St. Louis.

Casino Magic`s director of marketing Jena Tribble said the casino spends between $15,000 and $100,000 a show. “Entertainment bookers have a fairly wide budget,” she said. “Coast casinos compete for the same acts, but the Coast Coliseum and New Orleans venues don`t really factor in.”

With casino acts focusing on the 40s and 50s age group, she said those are not the same types of acts that sell out major theatres.

“But if there`s a huge country act in New Orleans, for example, we wouldn`t want to book a country act that same night,” she said.

Casino Magic offers some entertainment on the main lobby stage in the casino to look like something`s going on, Reese said, but they don`t put big names there for fear it would distract from playing casino games.

For several years after opening, the Bay St. Louis casino featured boxing matches but no longer does.

“We haven`t had boxing in quite some time,” Reese said. “The crowd drawn by boxing wasn`t a fit for the goals for our business. The concerts do better for our customers and brings them in.”

While the Tunica Sheraton has no large show facility and books no headline acts, they do provide a band each night at the River Bar stage, said general manager Steve Schutte.

“We primarily book acts from the mid-South region and have two bands on weekends,” he said. “It`s a mix between classical rock and pop music that appeals to the 55-and-up age group.”

Schutte says the River Bar is a popular spot for employees from other Tunica casinos when they leave work and for that reason also draws a younger crowd.

The President Casino in Biloxi doesn`t spend big bucks on entertainment, instead concentrating on mid-level acts, according to marketing director Joe Giardina. The stage in the Vegas Vegas Showbar, seating 250 people, is utilized because it`s on the gaming floor near the casino`s 900 slot machines and 35 table games. There such entertainers as Vince Vance and the Valiants, Frankie and the Cruisers, Clarence Carter and B.J. Thomas hold court with the senior crowd. There is no admission charged for these shows.

“At one time, our casino was the hot spot for the 21 to 30 age group but we don`t focus on them anymore,” Giardina said.”If we had the facility, we would be glad to offer entertainment for them but they took up parking spots and are not our focus customers.”

From time to time, the President spotlights headliner acts such as Crystal Gayle and Lee Greenwood in the Tower Hotel ballroom across the street from the casino. There is a charge for these shows plus the challenge of luring the audience from the show to the casino. The ballroom is also used for boxing with Junior Olympic Boxing coming up April 30- May 2.

“We offer incentives to go to the casino,” Giardina said. “They can redeem their ticket stubs for $5 in coins. We want people to give us a shot at entertaining them and then we want to get them into the casino.”

Entertainment is a draw and the casino definitely sees an increase in business because of it or they wouldn`t do it, he added.

“That`s why we try to get bargains in entertainment,” he said.

The Isle of Capri Casino in Biloxi also uses musical entertainment in the midst of the casino to draw a crowd and provide something extra for guests, said marketing manager Michael Giunti.

“Our stage area is across from the table games and our entertainment focus is local groups,” he said. “We get a lot of calls from groups wanting to play, but we mostly use an agency and take their recommendations.”

Once or twice a year, the Isle books headline acts such as Little Richard, Mary Wilson of the Supremes and Lee Greenwood in its hotel ballroom, which seats 700 people. Giunti says everyone seems to enjoy that kind of music.

He says there will be more headliners featured when the new hotel, presently under construction, is completed with its 10,000-square-foot multi-purpose room.

“That will allow us to do bigger entertainment more often,” Giunti said.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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