"The Normandie has gone Las Vegas, right here in Gardena," Freeman Love crowed the other night as he stood on the small stage of the dining room of the Normandie Casino.
With that line, the 63-year-old comic launched into his routine. The sound system squealed and the audience of 60 or so groaned at some of his gags. Love kept lobbing the jokes, capturing his biggest laugh when he stepped offstage, removed his toupee and planted it firmly on the head of a balding patron.
But Love was just there to warm up the audience for Eric Sahagun, who eight years ago began impersonating Elvis Presley and two months ago was signed by the Normandie to begin what it ballyhoos as a first among Gardena's three card clubs: entertainment, Vegas-style.
"The card clubs are where Vegas was in the '50s," before the Nevada casinos had big-name entertainment, Normandie spokesman Blaine Nicholson said after Love and Sahagun had finished the evening's first show.
"In Gardena, the clubs occasionally may have a three-piece band that plays in the back of their bar, but no one here except the Normandie has ever put in a show format."
The entertainment is another ploy to bring customers back to Gardena clubs, which had several lean years after larger, flashier clubs opened in nearby cities. In recent years, the Gardena clubs have rebounded somewhat by introducing a host of new games such as the Chinese pai gow and Super 9, which resembles baccarat.
For the fiscal year that ended last June, the city's three clubs pulled in estimated gross revenues of $20 million, up from $16 million the previous year, city officials say.
George Anthony, owner of the Eldorado Club and chairman of the California Card Club Assn., said his club has introduced no fewer than nine new games in the last three years.
"I'd like to see some of the games go in the trash heap," Anthony said. "There is so much diversification that it's harder to control the games."
Unlike the Las Vegas casinos where gamblers bet against the house, card clubs make money by renting seats at gaming tables and selling food and drinks.
Anthony concedes that the Normandie is luring customers with the stage shows. But he predicts that it is only a matter of time before it drops them.
"The shows are bringing the Normandie some activity, and it might end up helping all the clubs in Gardena" by drawing gamblers to the city, Anthony said. "But sooner or later the overhead will destroy them."
He said he has brought in various performers in the past, including a mariachi band that strolled among the gaming tables. "I spent a couple thousand dollars a week but it didn't seem to help," he said.
The other club in Gardena, the Horseshoe, has traditional lounge entertainment in its bar.
But Nicholson says stage shows at the card clubs are long overdue, and he envisions a day when busloads of people will come just to see them.
"Ninety percent of the people in Los Angeles County don't even know these clubs exist. . . . The important thing is to introduce to the people that there is entertainment here."
To do that, the casino has been running a splashy newspaper advertisement headlined "Vegas in L .A." Pictures of Sahagun and Duke Hazlett, a Frank Sinatra impersonator who alternates on weekends with Sahagun, are featured, along with two smiling couples. There is a t wo-drink minimum but no cover charge.
Nicholson said the Normandie plans to expand its stage, and he is negotiating for its next act. He declined to provide details.
So far, Nicholson's ploy seems to be working.
Several patrons at the Normandie said they had never been to a card club before and had come only to see Sahagun perform. "The only reason I am here is to see him," said Rusty Canzoneri, 40.
"He's wonderful," said her friend, Nancy Lawson, 38, another first-timer to a card club. "He takes me back to the days of Ed Sullivan."
Outside the dining room, in the crowded, smoky game room, many gamblers seemed unaware of the stage show going on several feet away. One gambler, however, said he had seen the show another night.
He gave it a mixed review.
"From a male standpoint, it's a good place to meet females," said Steve Hawkins, 36, of Torrance. "Other than that it is very nauseous. It's loud and its disturbing and you can't concentrate."
Another gambler, a middle-aged man dressed in peach-colored pants and and a floral-patterned shirt, was not aware of the stage show. "I wish I was in there, though," he said.
"Why? Because I'm on my can, broke, that's why." After a brief pause, he asked if he could borrow some money.