TUNICA, Miss., July 23 (UPI) -- The first time I visited this oasis of Middle American gambling, I had no idea where I was, so I just drove straight for the gold tower.
You can't miss the Gold Strike Casino, rising out of the flat Mississippi Delta like a gilded castle in a Russian fairy tale. From the distance, it's mirage-like, especially in the summer, when the air is thick and heavy with humidity and everything moves more slowly, even the Mississippi River.
People in Tunica will tell you that the Gold Strike is the tallest building in the state. I've actually seen some dispute about this -- apparently a bank in Jackson has a little more height -- but at 31 stories, it's the only vertical statement on a supremely horizontal horizon. Everything about it says "What's wrong with this picture?"
I remember arriving there late on a weeknight, when the cicadas were roaring outside and there were gusts of hot air roaring up the river like exhaust fumes. There wasn't much going on in the dazzling marble lobby, with its art museum feel (no furniture!) and its mesmerizing water sculptures behind the check-in counter.
"Put me up high," I told them, and they did -- in a luxurious room by Mississippi standards, with a view of the river delta and a blow-your-face-off air conditioner that lulls you to sleep with white noise. It's one of those places where you can totally shut out the world.
The Gold Strike doesn't get as much attention as the two leaders in the market -- the Grand and the Horseshoe. But it's been one of the most consistently profitable casinos in the whole region, with $134.8 million in revenues for the year 2000 and a hefty 30 percent growth in year-to-year earnings. Apparently quite a few people besides me have discovered its quiet understated elegance and returned again and again.
The Gold Strike was originally called Circus Circus when it opened August 29, 1994, the same month as the nearby Sheraton.
The following February saw the grand opening of the Horseshoe, and together, these three hotels formed a little cluster called Casino Center. On most nights this is the hottest place to gamble in the state. The crowds in Casino Center are younger and a little better-dressed than elsewhere in Tunica, and it's known as the place to seek out table games and live action. It's the only place in Tunica, in fact, where you can easily walk from one casino to another, which makes it ideal for the annual World Poker Tournament every January, second only to the World Series of Poker in prize money and prestige.
The Circus Circus chain eventually became Mandalay Bay, named after the chain's flagship hotel in Vegas, and the Gold Strike has much of the same Mandalay Bay feel. It's female-friendly, a little more formal than the standard Mississippi day-tripper place, and features a lot of extras like a day spa and a better-than-average steakhouse called Chicago.
It's also one of four hotels in the market -- the others are the Horseshoe, the Grand and Sam's Town -- to aggressively go after big-name Vegas entertainment. For three years the 900-seat Millennium Theatre had a large-illusion magic show called "Magic & Beyond," featuring Brett Daniels, a sort of poor-man's
"Siegfried & Roy," on Roy's day off. He performed the sort of "big magic" that audiences love and fellow magicians make fun of, performing the Houdini Water Torture as well as a lot of gadget tricks.
They closed that show last year and went with more traditional B-level headliners that appeal to a young middle-aged market. Comedian Brett Butler is there this week, and she follows Little River Band and alto-sax man David Sanborn. For some reason they've kept the trappings of the magic show in the theater, so that the huge proscenium stage looks like something out of Harry Potter, with all kinds of fanciful medieval trim. General Manager David Schqur, who came to the Gold Strike six months ago from Motor City Casino in Detroit, is committed to two big acts a month, if for no other reason than to compete with the aggressive Horseshoe next door, which has been very successful paying major money to entertainers, especially country acts.
The casino itself is decked out with gold track lights, gorgeous chandeliers, a lot of ferns and marble, with absurdly high ceilings, creating a Czar's Palace kind of look. There's no real theme. The most popular eating place is the Courtyard Buffet, which has one of those flowers-and-louvers looks: French
Quarter Lite. Their brochure describes it as a "European-inspired, open-air" bistro, but it doesn't look too European and it's definitely not in the open air. It's smack dab in the middle of the casino.
The rest of the place is fairly typical for the riverboat states: the Atrium Cafe ("home-style meals"), the mahogany-paneled steakhouse tricked out like a private men's club, and a food court featuring McDonald's, Little Caesars, TCBY, and a Starbucks knockoff called the Gold Strike Coffee Bar. They also have pretty extensive convention facilities, which has made it possible for them to attract business from Dallas and Nashville, in addition to the usual drive-in business from Memphis and Little Rock. Part of the convention draw is their affiliation with North Creek Golf Course, site of the recent Gold Strike Open, a stop on the PGA's "rabbit" tour.
They also feature local acts in the lounge that would qualify as band names in the next "Spinal Tap" movie: Mirage, Rumours, No Secrets, and Aces Wild. ("Love Theme From Titanic" anyone?)
The main draw, though, is the 1,200 rooms, among the most lavishly appointed in Tunica -- and I'm not talking about the special two-bedroom suites for high rollers. It's the kind of place you can go to disappear and emerge three days later, when the hot wet Faulknerian winds have calmed down a little. It's one of my favorites.
GOLD STRIKE CASINO RESORT
Casino Center, Tunica, Miss.
Theme: Enron in the 1990s
Total investment: $200 million
Known for: Tallest building in Mississippi (maybe); shares the World Poker Tournament with the Horseshoe.
Marketing niche: Drive-in business from Tennessee and
Arkansas, convention business from throughout the midwest.
Gambler's Intensity: Medium
Cocktail speed: Can be hard to find a waitress.
Rare games: None (nice poker room, though)
Surrounding area: The nearby Mississippi River is invisible from the casino, but it's a five-minute walk to the Horseshoe (leading casino in the market) and another five to the Sheraton.
Overall rating: 83
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $100 after three hours of low-limit Texas Hold 'Em: total to date: +$55
(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.)