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Betting on clubs

Booking big names and pushing cool nightspots, Southern California's revamped Indian casinos are ...

July 20, 2006|Susannah Rosenblatt; Rebecca Frantz | Times Staff Writer

JAMIE FOXX strutted across the stage in a sparkling belt buckle and diamond studs in his ears, having shed his white dinner jacket and donned a red, rhinestone-encrusted Dodgers cap to blow through songs from his platinum-selling album "Unpredictable."

"She takes my money / when I'm in need," the comedy veteran and Oscar winner riffed. Fans' camera phones shot into the air during the instantly recognizable intro to the Kanye West super single "Gold Digger."

"Yeah, she's a trifling friend indeed," Foxx continued, doing his best Ray Charles impression as the DJ launched into a "What'd I Say" remix.

Just before, he had been hamming it up at the piano with a few Charles-inspired numbers and basking in a cameo appearance by hip-hop melody man Nate Dogg. Foxx had dedicated the show to his beloved grandmother, and he exhorted the sold-out audience of nearly 4,000 to "say uhhhhh." And he had name-checked San Bernardino.

Why? Because on this Thursday night, Foxx was not on the Vegas Strip or in Hollywood promoting his film "Miami Vice," out next week. He was at San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino in Highland, about 70 miles east of Los Angeles.

Look at Southern California's Indian casinos, and the sleepy bingo parlors housed in temporary digs are largely gone, replaced in recent years by trendy nightspots, big-name entertainment and resort amenities including spas and lushly appointed hotel rooms.

Take Morongo Casino Resort & Spa's 27-story desert monolith just west of Palm Springs, part of the new generation of Indian casinos. Swarovski crystal chandeliers dangle from the gold-leaf ceiling of the swanky top-floor restaurant with wraparound mountain views. Tanned and oiled twentysomethings sip foot-high cocktails by the pool's lazy river. With the swaying palms and searing desert sun overhead, block out the big rigs snaking along Interstate 10 for just a minute, and you might mistake Cabazon for Vegas.

Sort of.

"It's Vegas without the four-hour drive," said Matthew Worthy, 22, a machine shop owner from Orange celebrating his girlfriend's 21st birthday by guzzling fruity concoctions from 83-ounce buckets poolside.

That's exactly what promoters at these new and expanding oases want day-trippers to think. "We offer anything and everything you'd find in Vegas," said Ciara Coyle, public relations manager for Pechanga Resort & Casino near Temecula.

Competition for the young and the hip at Southern California's gambling palaces is heating up. Pleasure seekers are coming from places like Corona, Northridge, San Diego, La Habra and Newport Beach by the thousands, tugged by Indian casinos' neon tractor beam. California's $7.2-billion Indian gaming industry is the largest in the nation, with 55 tribes operating 57 casinos statewide in 2005, according to this year's Indian Gaming Industry Report by Alan Meister, an economist with L.A. financial consultants Analysis Group.

Nearly a dozen of these are in the Inland Empire, with close to a dozen more sprinkled across San Diego, Santa Barbara and Inyo counties. There are plenty of glittering pit stops an hour or three's drive from downtown L.A., with inland casinos strung along Interstate 10 and scattered from southwest Riverside County to the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains to the Arizona line.

Nongaming revenue at California's Indian casinos -- increasingly drawn from nightclubs and concerts -- jumped by nearly a third last year, to $710 million, according to Meister's report. Since Vegas-style gaming on reservation lands was approved by voters in 2000, the tribes' growing juggernaut has been fueled in no small part by flashier attractions, like shows by rapper-actor Ludacris in June at San Manuel and the luxe dance floor and VIP cabanas at Pechanga's Silk nightclub.

Some casinos will pay talent 30% to 50% more than similar venues to lure performers farther afield, said Roger LeBlanc, a talent buyer for Key Club at Morongo. "Indian casinos have certainly become one of the biggest consumers of music talent out there as far as buying," he said. But casinos' paying a premium for performers does not necessarily translate into higher ticket prices, because casinos can often absorb the costs through gaming revenue.

"Look at the success of the Palms and Hard Rock [in Las Vegas] in grabbing a market niche and very, very successfully going after a younger crowd, a more edgy crowd," said Bill Eadington, an economics professor and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada at Reno. "More of the Southern California tribes thought that's what they'd be able to do," although their ultimate success remains to be seen, he added.

The shift from older and more blue-collar patrons who live near casinos isn't without risk: "People who frequent the tribal casinos have a very different demographic than who you'd find in the lounges at the Palms," Eadington said, alluding to the Parises, Lindsays and Britneys who frequent Vegas' trendiest locales.

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