Thursday, September 18, 2003

Jack Binion Sells Horseshoe

The man with the friendly "aw-shucks" expression is just another billionaire.

Posted By on Thu, Sep 18, 2003 at 4:00 AM

This is what Jack Binion, who sold Horseshoe Gaming to Harrah's Entertainment last week for $1.45 billion, taught the competition:

First, notwithstanding Horseshoe's corporate name, it's gambling, not gaming. Monopoly and Chutes and Ladders are games. What goes on inside a casino is gambling.

Second, Tunica, Bossier City, and Hammond can be just as profitable as Las Vegas, New Orleans, or Atlantic City for a smart casino operator.

Third, gambling is sport, and a poker tournament can be presented to a mass audience and sponsors as televised entertainment just like boxing, football, or horseracing. Poker and dice games are good marketing and support the perception that gamblers control their own fate even if all most of them ever do is feed coins into slot machines.

Finally, a casino owner need not look like a movie star or have a full head of black, slicked-back hair. Instead, he can be unabashedly bald, look like your favorite good-natured uncle, make fun of himself in commercials, and customers will love him.

The commercial says, "You don't know Jack," but thousands of customers think they do. Memphian G.A. "Bert" Robinson III sold Binion his Tunica site and has been his friend and partner for 10 years.

"He walks into that casino and everyone speaks to him and he talks to everyone," said Robinson. "One time we were going to dinner, and it took us an hour just to go a hundred yards. You can't put a name with a face at any other casino. On opening night, I saw Jack on several occasions just helping people having problems. A security guard came up and said somebody had spilled red wine on a customer's dress. He said, well, get it cleaned. She said, 'That is not what I want. I want a hug from Jack Binion.'"

Robinson played a small part in acquiring the classic red Cadillac limousine with a set of longhorns on the hood that sits outside the main entrance to the Horseshoe. Nine years ago, a friend in Memphis told Robinson he had something Horseshoe needed. A couple of weeks later, pictures of the Cadillac, which was in Dallas, arrived in the mail. Robinson took them to the casino manager.

"He went crazy and said we've gotta have it," Robinson said. "So we called Jack, and he said go buy it. They put the longhorns on it later. Jack paid about $50,000 for it."

Binion opened the Horseshoe in Robinsonville in February 1995, nearly two and a half years after Splash Casino opened the Tunica market in October 1992 at Mhoon Landing 20 miles south. At the time, Harrah's Entertainment was still headquartered in Memphis and generally considered the most knowledgeable casino operator in the market. In 1993, Harrah's opened, by today's standards, a very modest casino with a restaurant that was little more than a cafeteria. A few years later, Harrah's moved to its current location, formerly the home of the now-defunct Southern Belle.

With a favorable ruling from the Mississippi Gaming Commission on how far casinos could be from the river, Binion raised the stakes.

"At first, it was like they gave a party and nobody came," he told Memphis magazine in 1996.

But the competition took notice when Horseshoe began earning more than $200 million a year while many of them were barely clearing $100 million. Circus Circus, one of Horseshoe's two neighbors, took down the pink big-top and morphed into Gold Strike, with a 30-story golden glass tower. Treasure Bay, frozen out of a deal with Horseshoe, Circus Circus, and Sheraton, found itself on the wrong side of the parking-lot fence one day, and pretty soon its pirate ship set sail for the Gulf Coast.

Anyone who has ever been in a casino knows that most of the differences between them are a matter of perception. Tethered to a slot machine with a frequent-player card, a customer stands about the same chance of winning regardless of whether the prevailing theme is Egypt, the jungle, or NASCAR. In a conference call last week, even Horseshoe executives admitted that the percentage of profit that comes from slots versus table games is "higher than you might think." He revealed no number, but industrywide the standard is about 80 percent.

Binion, however, made sure that Horseshoe, unlike Harrah's, wasn't known as a slot house. He nurtured the legend of the no-limit bet, the biggest employee tips, and the best leveraged odds for players at the craps table. He put the poker tables near the front of the casino. While Harrah's' annual contribution to the industry is a number-crunching survey of players and their habits, Horseshoe's is the World Series of Poker.

Benny Binion, Jack's father, started that with a cult following in 1970. Thirty-three years later, it's a fixture on ESPN. Benny Binion left Texas in 1946 with a rough reputation and celebrated his 83rd birthday at the University of Las Vegas. When he died in 1989, the city put up a statue of him in a prominent square. Someday Jack may get his in Tunica.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Ringo Doesn't Not Live Here Anymore

There are plenty of houses in Memphis where stars don't live.

Posted By on Thu, Sep 11, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Not Zachary Taylor’s House

Mike California sits on the curb at Beale and Third next to a handmade sign reading, "Maps." Occasionally, if a tourist passes by he'll ask them if they are interested in buying a map, but he lacks enthusiasm.

"Why'd they wanna go and do this to me?" he asks, holding up a copy of the September 3rd Commercial Appeal. On page one, above the fold, there is a story titled "Chateau Ringo," about a palatial Germantown home where, allegedly, ex-Beatle Ringo Starr does not live.

"I don't know for a fact he don't live there," California says. "I didn't see any expert opinion voiced anywhere. Just because some people claiming to be the owners of the place say Ringo doesn't live there don't mean he doesn't. What's Ringo gonna do, take out a full-page ad saying, 'Hey everybody, lookey where I live now'?"

For years, California has made a modest living selling maps to homes where celebrities don't live in Memphis. He has a theory: When tourists go to Los Angeles they want to see the stars. When they come to Memphis they are looking for a more down-to-earth experience. California believes people are comforted by the fact that there are many homes around the world where celebrities do not live. He sees the CA's story as a deliberate attempt to put him out of business.

Not Cybill’s house

"It used to be people just wanted to see houses where Elvis didn't grow up," California says, "but since George Harrison died there's been a renewed interest in the Beatles. Especially among the young folk." And then he breaks down. "I'm just a little fella trying to get by the only way I can," he sobs.

But California isn't giving up. "I kinda saw this as a wakeup call," he says. "People want the kind of personal touch you just can't get from a newspaper. That's why I plan to start customizing my tours to suit my clients' needs. If they want to see where that guy who played Snyder on One Day at a Time doesn't live, I can show them. They want to see where that irrepressible Italian clown, Roberto Benigni, doesn't live? Well hey, I'm versatile. The fact is, there are a lot of homes -- and I mean a lot of homes-- in just the downtown area where celebrities don't live."

California, currently in negotiations with potential investors, has yet to launch his new business venture. He did, however, agree to share with the Flyer some of the Bluff City's finest examples of celebrity-free housing. His only request was that we not publish the actual addresses.

Zachary Taylor: "This is kind of a special side trip I'll make for clients who are big history buffs," says California, pointing to a brightly colored home in the Uptown area, which he claims was never occupied by Zachary Taylor, the 12th president of the United States. Taylor was a career soldier who never voted in his life and served fewer than 500 days in office. According to California, he never so much as slept in this house.

"Nope," California says, "This house wasn't built until the 1870s and ol' Zach died in 1850, or something like that. He never even dreamed this house existed.

Not Lil’ Bow Wow’s House

Cybill Shepherd: "This one gets people every time," California says of a quaint Midtown dwelling. "They know Cybill actually keeps a home here in Memphis so they are surprised when they discover that this one isn't hers."

Lil' Bow Wow: "You're seeing more and more fans of the hip-hop coming through town these days," California says, beaming with pride over his new discovery in Central Gardens' Historic District. "And when it comes to the hip-hop there is no name bigger and no star brighter than Lil' Bow Wow." And just how does California know that the diminutive rapper doesn't live here?

"Dude," California says, "Lil' Bow Wow is a man of taste. This place is a pit."

Thursday, September 4, 2003

Blues Odyssey

For the Thomas brothers, a love of blues turned into a seven-year project.

Posted By on Thu, Sep 4, 2003 at 4:00 AM

When they started doing research on the history of the blues in 1995, brothers Frank and Eddie Thomas didn't know they were embarking on a musical odyssey that would take them seven years and lead from the roof of the Falls Building in downtown Memphis to the choir loft of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.

Their idea was to be "songstorians" of blues and jazz, with Eddie performing and Frank recording at sites along Highway 61. This year, they completed the fourth and final CD of Angels on the Backroads, their remarkable collection of 65 songs by 55 singers and composers both famous and obscure.

Except for a segment on National Public Radio, Angels on the Backroads hasn't yet received the national acclaim it deserves. The soft-spoken Thom-as brothers live in the little northeast Mississippi town of Iuka, where Frank is director of a church choir and Eddie used to be a pharmacist. They are selling the set on the Internet at their Web site, www.angelsonthebackroads.com.

Eddie sings and plays guitar and trumpet on location and backs himself up on piano, drum, and harmonica tracks recorded in a studio. Frank recorded the songs in settings that included cotton gins, railroad crossings, remote country stores, the banks of the Mississippi River, and the Louisiana State Prison at Angola, hauling a trunkload of equipment up and down Highway 61 on countless trips between 1998 and 2002.

They started in 1995 at the Blues Archives of the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Mississippi, where Eddie had gone to pharmacy school 30 years ago. Musicians almost all of their lives, Eddie and Frank, a graduate of LSU, were looking for a worthy follow-up to a CD about the Natchez Trace which they wrote, performed, and produced the previous year.

They decided they would look for the origins of the music that rocked their youth and influenced such artists as James Brown, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones.

"The music that we were playing and listening to back in high school didn't originate in London or Greenwich Village," says Eddie. "There was this wonderful musical aroma around us, and we came to find out that we were living right on the edge of the garden."

For more than two years they drove back and forth to Oxford, making 45 one-hour tapes of hundreds of songs.

"We had already read most of the books and stories of the music, but we hadn't heard it," says Frank. "We would listen to something we liked and then put it on the map of Mississippi based on where the author was from or whatever the song was about. Then Eddie would take the tapes home and decipher the words and learn the songs. At this point, we didn't know we were going to record on location. We just knew there was a story there."

In 1998, they began to literally connect the dots on their map and record songs. Eleven songs on the first CD were recorded in Memphis. On the roof of the Falls Building, once the site of the Alaskan Roof Garden where W.C. Handy and his band performed in 1914, Eddie played the opening trumpet refrain of "St. Louis Blues." On subsequent visits, they recorded "Downtown Blues" on a trolley car, "Mississippi Bottom Blues" at The Peabody, "Downhearted Blues" at The Orpheum, and "Memphis Blues" at the corner of Main and Madison.

Next, with frequent side trips, they set off down Highway 61. On a good day, they would get two songs done or as many as five songs on an overnight trip. When mockingbirds sang, dogs barked, or train whistles blew in the background, Frank called it the voice of the angels and got it all on tape. Curious onlookers often remarked "that's pretty good" when Eddie gave one of his impromptu concerts. His vocal range and guitar talent are amazing. He doesn't try to mimic the originals but takes pains to get the key, phrasing, and finger-picking just right. He does "Jolie Blonde" in Cajun French.

By the time the brothers were ready to record the last songs in New Orleans, word had gotten around, and an NPR crew came to do a segment at St. Louis Cathedral. On the first take, Eddie nailed the haunting "Sweet Hour of Prayer," a tribute to Mahalia Jackson, leaving the interviewer nearly speechless. To the Thomases, it was blessed by an angel.

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