METROPOLIS, Ill. -- Last month Harrah's Entertainment, the McDonald's of casino gambling, came to this remote outpost in the heartland and hired Robin Leach to host the grand opening ceremonies for the new riverboat operation they bought from Merv Griffin 18 months ago.
Lifestyles of the rich and famous? Well, uh, not exactly.
The only famous people were represented by celebrity lookalikes, and the hottest games on the casino floor were nickel slot machines. If you wanna see what gambling looks like on Main Street U.S.A., this is the place--the new Harrah's Metropolis, formerly known as Players Island Casino.
Eight years ago Metropolis was a cute little old-fashioned town of 7,000 souls who were thrilled to death when gambling arrived. Before 1993 it was known principally as the official home of Superman. Back in 1971 some of the city fathers petitioned the owners of the Superman comic books to grant them the rights to use the character, and ever since then the courthouse square has been Superman Square, dominated by a 15- foot bronze statue of the Man of Steel inscribed with his motto-- "Truth, Justice and the American Way"--which, when you think about it, is not a bad motto for a courthouse at all.
Joe Bob sizes himself up against the number one tourist attraction in Metropolis, Illinois, home of Harrah's Metropolis Casino. There's a Super Museum (where you can see George Reeves' original costume), an amazingly well-stocked Superman memorabilia store (how about some Kryptonite hot sauce?), and Superman himself holds up his hand and stares at you from the tops of stop signs. It's not uncommon to find either Clark Kent or Superman making speeches at civic events, and the city gives out both "Superman" and "Lois Lane" awards for community service. In 1995, when Christopher Reeve had his paralyzing accident, the town sent him a huge get-well card signed by 80 per cent of the local residents.
Virtually every actor who has ever appeared in a Superman movie or TV show has visited the town during the annual Superman Celebration in June, and this year the current Superman, Scott Crawford, married his real-life girlfriend, Marcella Encinas, in a municipal park while wearing his Superman costume. (He wanted her to be dressed as Lois Lane, but the comic book wouldn't grant permission. They take these things seriously.
You would think that, with all the Supermania, Harrah's would be courting Metropolis' first citizen. "But we can't really do anything with Superman," explains Christina Felts, Advertising and Public Relations Manager. "The Superman people don't really want him to be associated with a casino."
It's heartening, I guess, that Superman is one of the last pop-culture icons that hasn't merchandised himself as a slot machine. But the new triple-deck North Star riverboat that finally docked here a couple of weeks ago has all the others, from "I Dream of Jeanie" to "The Price Is Right." (Actually the boat is not new at all. Eagle-eyed casino buffs would recognize it as the former Players Kansas City. It took six weeks to float it down the Missouri, down the Mississippi and up the Ohio to its berthing place next to a sparkling new pavilion. The old Players II riverboat, which was stiflingly small by comparison, will be sold, says Harrah's.)
To show you just how remote Metropolis is, their largest market is . . . Paducah, Kentucky, on the other side of the river. The only tourism in Paducah prior to the advent of gambling came from devotees of quilting (the Museum of the American Quilter's Society is there) and those who fancied horsedrawn carriage rides through "Old Paducah." Paducah has its own famous statue--of its namesake, Chief Paduke--but the old Indian can't really compete with Superman.
"We draw from a two-hour radius," says Felts. "Nashville is a big market for us, but our biggest market is southern Illinois." And southern Illinois is mostly farms and small towns. Metropolis also draws a few gamblers from Evansville, Indiana, even though they have a hometown casino, the Aztar. The reason: two years ago Illinois changed its gaming regulations so that riverboats no longer had to cruise. They now stay tethered at the dock, and you can board the boat and leave whenever you'd like. In Indiana, by contrast, if you miss the boarding time, you have at least a 90-minute wait for the next cruise.
When the casino opened in 1993, it was owned by Players International, the company Merv Griffin sold to Harrah's 18 months ago. The Merv Griffin Theatre is still here, part of the tiny Amerihost Inn across the street from the boarding pavilion, where B and C-level acts play most of the year. (Sawyer Brown was headlining when I was there.) In the summer months Harrah's brings in bigger acts at an outdoor theater that's actually a city park (4,500 people for Randy Travis).
Otherwise, the gaming experience is nothing special. There are only 25 tables, most of them blackjack, and about 1,100 slot machines. Like many Harrah's casinos, the amenities are generic (a steakhouse, a buffet, a tiny lounge) and the marketing is all oriented toward slots players who come at least once a week. (They estimate two million visitors per year.) There's no high- roller business at all, but why should there be?
After all, the casino isn't the biggest thing to ever happen in Metropolis. The biggest thing was the official Superman adoption ceremony on January 21, 1972. It was attended by 3,000 people and news media from across the country, thanks to publicity provided by the first person to notice it--a UPI reporter. Today the Superman Celebration draws 50,000 people a year. But the casino helps in a more direct way, pumping about $6.5 million cash into the annual Metropolis budget. When I asked Felts if there were any negative impacts from gambling, she said, "The only thing I can see is a few more fender-benders."
And Superman wouldn't like that: you must drive safely.
Especially in a town where there are gamblers on the loose.
Foot of Ferry Street, Metropolis, Ill.
Theme: Generic Glitz
Total Investment: $107 million
Known For: Slot machine heaven
Marketing niche: Greater Paducah, Kentucky, with bus business from Nashville.
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Medium
Rooms: 120 (across the street at the Amerihost Inn)
Surrounding area: A tidy little Middle American community.
Overall rating: 64
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $20 after a depressing bout of "The Price Is Right" slots: Total to date: -$163