TUNICA, Miss., Aug. 27 (UPI) -- Hang out in the casino town of Tunica long enough and you'll eventually start jonesing for Beale Street. Somebody will mention it, and 45 minutes later you'll be pulling into downtown Memphis, cruising the bars and blues joints, trying to figure out what's cool and what's not.
People either love Beale Street or hate it. Some say it's a Disneyesque inauthentic tourist trap (correct). Others say it's one of the last places in America where you can hear old-style Mississippi Delta blues (also correct). Others say it's just a great place to party (always correct).
At any rate, if you're a first-timer, you'll undoubtedly be drawn to B.B. King's Club, where you sit at rickety tables and wander across beer-slick floors while the B.B. King All-Star Orchestra funks out. There's a great local singer named Larry Springfield, with dreads and attitude, who sometimes fronts the band, and they tend to keep it safe -- Lionel Richie, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the inevitable request for "Brick House" by the Commodores.
But the REAL show on Beale Street -- you should be writing this stuff down -- is a couple of blocks east at a bar where there's usually standing room only and the main attraction is always James Govan and His Boogie Blues Band. I don't know how to describe James Govan exactly, except to say he's got a face that's got so much experience on it that it looks like nine miles of road construction in a Louisiana swamp, and his voice has a quart of whiskey in the back of his throat. He is, of course, amazing.
But there's a point at which Beale Street, even on a good night, starts to cloy, and if you still have your boogie shoes on -- quick! who recorded "Boogie Shoes"? that's right, Kool and the Gang -- one thing you can do is head back down Highway 61 to the Sheraton Casino, which is laid out like a neon Tudor castle -- well, they call it Tudor, but the Tudor lord who lived in it must have been gay -- and hang out at the River Stage Lounge right on the edge of the gaming floor.
Tunica is not a serious LOUNGE kind of city, but this place is the exception. They have party bands, blues bands, Top 40 bands, reggae bands, pretty much every kind of band you've never heard of, and in that great tradition established by the original lounge act -- Louis Prima and Keely Smith -- they don't stop playing until the sun comes up.
And really, if the truth be known, they're just taking a break when the sun comes up. You have to wait a FEW hours, because who can handle "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" when you're popping Advil at the breakfast buffet? (Name that artist, White Boy! That's right, Wild Cherry!) But along about 11 they'll crank up again and you can get your lounge buzz going even while sitting at the blackjack tables, which are arranged conveniently close to the stage.
Last time I was there, the band was "18 Carat" out of Mobile, Ala., fronted by a lean cool soul mama named Amanda Jackson. "I Wanna Rock with You." "Get Down on It." "Soul Heaven." "In the Mood." "You Got It Bad." "Voulez Vous Couchez Avec Moi, Ce Soir." You get the idea. Perfectly flawless cover band, just the kind of thing you need to pump some life into the day.
There's a reason for the Sheraton's new 24-hour-a-day entertainment policy, and it's that the Sheraton is about THE most ignored casino in Tunica. Of the 10 casinos in town, it has a profile that ranks 11th. They do all kinds of promotions -- right now it's "All Slots! All Loose! All the Time!" -- which isn't even strictly true, because they have 43 table games as well. But their problem is that the Sheraton sits on a little three-casino cul-de-sac with two of the biggest players in town. Jack Binion's slick Horseshoe Casino -- where the high rollers go -- is right next-door, and the 31-story Gold Strike -- tallest building in Mississippi -- is on the other side of the Horseshoe. The little turreted Tudor castle has some SCALE problems.
It's a shame, too, because this place is a steal for the tourist who knows what he's doing. It was apparently built by Caesars. I don't know exactly what kind of property-swapping went on, but it's an all-suite hotel that has 134 rooms designed EXACTLY like the old Caesars, with Jacuzzis in every one and all the gold fixtures and faux-Roman touches. But nobody really knows this, so the rooms frequently go for 29 bucks a night or less.
There's also a spa on the property called the Roman Touch. (Aha! Conclusive evidence that it WAS a Caesars.) It's become a hobby of mine to seek out exotic whip-me, hurt-me things that casino spas dream up to abuse the bodies of gamblers. The only ones that sounded interesting here were the Four-Layer Facial (wouldn't that result in exposed cheekbones?), the European Seaweed Facial (seaweed has always struck me as icky), the Seaweed Body Mask (for people with eyeballs in their belly buttons), and the Honey Body Polish (honey, almonds and buttermilk smeared all over you like you're a cafeteria sandwich).
The truth is, the Sheraton relies almost entirely on overflow from the Horseshoe and the Gold Strike. The gaming floor is just 33,000 square feet, second smallest in the market and just 20 percent of the space in its sister property, the Grand.
In other words, it's a COZY place whose motto should be "Thank God for the Isle of Capri." (The Isle of Capri is even tinier, and in a constant struggle to stay in business, thereby saving the Sheraton from being 10th in a 10-casino market.)
It wasn't always like this. At one time they were trying to book some big-name acts into their 400-seat showroom, but they long ago gave that up as the Horseshoe captured the market with A-list performers the Sheraton can't really afford. Instead they have novelty acts like Pudgy, a sort of one-woman musical comedy show performed by a woman who, as her name implies, is on the zaftig side, but she dresses up that flesh in rhinestones the size of nickels on her black matador's vest, and beefs up her show with "special guest female impersonators" Phyl Craig and Brad Fennel. (Can anyone say "camp"?)
It's too early to say whether the all-out slots-party strategy is working. A new general manager and new director of marketing arrived earlier this year from Station Casinos in Las Vegas, indicating that the future of the Sheraton is firmly directed at locals. And I actually like that idea, because it means nobody will be booking the cool rooms.
There's nothing really distinctive about the Sheraton -- well, other than the fake English turrets on a turquoise roof. They've got the usual steakhouse, the usual stained-glass atrium, the usual red and gold leaves on the carpet. They have ZERO convention space, which to me is a major plus, because I don't like name-tag people.
Unfortunately, the numbers don't look good, though. The Sheraton opened in the middle of the 1994 boom -- eight casinos opened that year -- and its first full year in business was great: $111 million in revenues, even before the hotel was built. It's been downhill since then: $93.3 million in 1996, $82.1 million in 1997, a slight rise to $91.0 million in 1998 caused by the new hotel, $81 million in 1999, and a measly $71 million in the year 2000.
Since the Sheraton is owned by the huge gaming conglomerate Park Place Entertainment, they may be happy to use it simply as a satellite to their prestige property, the Grand. But it would seem like they need to do more, something fairly dramatic. You know what they need to do? They need to hire James Govan and His Boogie Blues Band. Because, after you've been to Beale Street, Pudgy is just not gonna cut it.
1107 Casino Center Dr., Tunica, Miss.
Theme: Rip Taylor English Tudor
Total investment: $80 million
Known for: A Jacuzzi in every room.
Marketing niche: Locals, slots players, older people.
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Medium
Dealers: Bored to mildly amusing
Rare games: None.
Rooms: 134 suites
Surrounding area: The casino is part of Casino Center, a three-casino cluster that also includes the lavish Horseshoe next door, and the gleaming tower of the Gold Strike. All three casinos are within easy walking distance, and visitors tend to move back and forth among them.
Web site: sheratontunica.com
Overall rating: 68
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $40 after 30 minutes of "Wheel! Of! Fortune!": total to date +$205
(E-mail Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.)