THACKERVILLE, Okla. -- Bob Dylan is playing Saturday at the WinStar World Casino here in this tiny Oklahoma community just across the Red River on Interstate 35.
Not a Dylan impersonator. Not some guy with the same name. The Bob Dylan.
While some might find that to be a sure sign of the apocalypse, the reality is that the casino circuit is no longer just the domain of the Tony Orlandos of the world.
"That night is going to go a long way toward putting this place on the map creatively and proving that we are serious," says an obviously awed Rick Lotempio, entertainment manager at WinStar, as he poured over a contract rider detailing exactly what Dylan and his band would be fed while at the venue (soy milk and fresh fish were among the items). "It shows that we are not afraid to go out and get these guys who are icons. Dylan is a legend.
"Before, you play in a casino, it was kind of [making a face]. But now Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Ringo Starr, they're all playing casinos."
While this will be Dylan's first performance at WinStar, it is not his first casino gig. He joins an incredibly eclectic parade of show-business greats who will be playing at the sprawling gambling mecca in the coming months. The list includes Santana, ZZ Top, Wayne Newton, Diana Ross, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Yes, Melissa Etheridge and the Temptations. And other casinos across the country are booking the same acts.
"In the last 10 years we have seen an explosion of these American Indian-owned casinos," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, a trade publication and website that tracks the concert industry. "They've had an enormous impact on touring because they provide a lot of secondary market plays for artists who like to tour a lot, with Dylan being a great example of that. He has done a lot of these small-market casinos. Any stigma with playing casinos has largely evaporated. They are important paydays for a lot of these artists."
While there is clearly a bias toward the great rock bands of the 1960s and '70s and, in our area, country artists of any era -- the assumed demographic fits for a significant number of casino gamblers -- that is no longer the whole story with these venues.
WinStar, which is owned by the Chickasaw Nation, has also presented shows by acts like Snoop Dogg and Kid Rock. Among the bands with concerts coming up are Alice in Chains and Weezer. Stand-up comedians are also part of the mix, with Martin Lawrence and Dana Carvey on the horizon. Lewis Black performed there and lived to tell about it, and TV host Craig Ferguson said nice things about Thackerville in his monologue.
"The country and Western [music] is automatic," says Lotempio, who has Billy Currington, Dwight Yoakam, Rascal Flatts and Sara Evans scheduled before the end of the year. "But we have entertainment for everybody. We want to convince patrons that they don't have to go to Vegas to see these acts."
"There was a time where entertainment was just a huge loss-leader for the casinos. They were just concerned with getting people in the door," Bongiovanni says. "But with the downturn in the economy, more of them are concerned with trying to more or less break even on the concerts."
WinStar is certainly not the only casino trying to lure Texans north of the border with entertainment. The Choctaw Casino in Durant, for example, will be presenting the Judds next month. Merle Haggard and Charlie Daniels are among the performers coming up at that nation's casino in Grant. But the WinStar concerts seem to be operating on a different strata.
From a tent to the Roman Colosseum
The rise from being a gaming facility without entertainment in 2004 to booking the likes of Bob Dylan has been surprisingly rapid for the WinStar World Casino.
"When I came here in 2005, we were in a tent," recalls Lotempio, a former New Yorker who resides in Denton and who had been a guitarist in various bands in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, including a stint as a regular player on the TV series Star Search. "We started with county fair-level acts."
Today, the casino property stretches 519,000 square feet (including 380,000 square feet devoted to gaming areas) with a massive facade that recalls some of the great architectural wonders of the world, including the Roman Coliseum and Paris' Arc de Triomphe. Its grounds include a 27-hole golf course and a 395-room hotel. Next weekend, a temporary outdoor arena will be erected for a Professional Bull Riders tour event.
The concerts, comedy shows and, occasionally, boxing and martial-arts matches are presented in the Global Event Center, a 42,000-square-foot, nondescript room with a seating capacity of 3,000.
But, despite the fact that WinStar has twice been nominated for an Academy of Country Music award for best casino, Lotempio is honest about his venue's shortcomings. "There are things that are not right. It's a convention room that we use for shows. It would be better suited for conventions and trade shows," he says.
A recent concert there by Los Lobos and Los Lonely Boys, for example, featured acceptable sound quality. And because the space is smaller than many noncasino concert venues, shows there place the fans and the bands in closer proximity.
"The venue was nice and comfortable," says Steve Levering, a professor at Texas Christian University's Schieffer School of Journalism and avid concertgoer who attended comedian and late-night talk-show host Craig Ferguson's show at WinStar in February. "The food was kind of lackluster, and we thought the hotel was a bit overpriced. But we would go back if there was an act there we liked who was not playing the Metroplex."
Still, it is certainly less than state-of-the-art. So improvements are coming.
"We're going to build a real theater with fixed seating," says Lotempio, adding that the new facility, which should be completed in two years, will seat more than 4,000 and will offer patrons "more bang for their buck for a concert ticket."
Building a reputation
Lotempio says that he has been able to grow his concert-booking efforts "hand in hand" with the growth of the casino. The American Gaming Association reported that the gaming industry became "more stable" in 2010, posting a 1 percent gain in revenues after two rough years. But during that time, WinStar seemed to steadily expand, creating massive gaming areas built around international themes. You can play the slots under an enormous ornamental dragon in the Beijing room or in the shadows of marble statues in the Roman room, among other geographically themed areas.
So Lotempio may have benefited from the apparent success of the casino as a whole, but it can take more than the deep pockets for which casinos are famous to lure in the best acts.
"The quality of the production has to be professional or nobody is going to come play there," says Pollstar's Bongiovanni.
For that reason, Lotempio's focus has always been on making his venue an attractive stop to top performers.
"They [performers] automatically hate the house, unless you have a history. You have to gain trust. It took us awhile to get our reputation established," Lotempio says. "When a band tells me, 'Thanks, I hope you will have us back,' that's my most satisfying moment."
Among the WinStar performers whom Lotempio has found to be most memorable are Tony Bennett, Lionel Richie, Bonnie Raitt, Snoop Dogg and Kid Rock. He notes some artists do gamble but doesn't have any knowledge of winnings or losses.
But it is not always easy to get along with the artists, some of whom apparently arrive with chips on their shoulders.
"For many of them, work is work. But there's a lot of guys who can't handle falling from here [hand held high] to here [hand held low]."
But surely the gracious guests must outnumber the prima donnas?
Says Lotempio with a wry smile, "I'll concede you about 50-50."