Rock 'n' Nole

A casino's comin' to Hollywood. It's a big gamble.

The Seminole Hard Rock casino in Tampa is a low-slung, vanilla-colored, 37-acre playpen with a 50-foot replica of a Paul McCartney electric guitar at the street entrance and an Elvis-autographed six-string inside. On Saturday night, it becomes a cross between an outlet mall, a meat market, and a nursing home. The gift shop offers Grateful Dead swim trunks for $60. The don't-call-them-slot machines siphon sawbucks from your grandparents' money clips while wide-bodied go-getters with sideburns and sneers coagulate around the three casino bars. The carpet designs are chromatic explosions. The lights on the ceiling keep changing colors. The wait for a seat in the 32-table poker room is two hours. The ten-month-old, 90,000-square-foot casino bristles with the human static that comes when "Village of the Damned" Aryans share a room with large women wearing Shaun King jerseys, the Nickelodeon set, white boys in FUBU, and the determined elderly, including a woman who looks like Strom Thurmond resurrected.

And look over there -- the original Aldous Huxley cardboard head from the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover! A glossy suit that used to belong to Brian Setzer! A harmonica Bob Dylan played in a concert! Dude, this place has everything.

And on May 11, on State Road 7 north of Stirling Road, Hollywood's getting an even bigger one.

Hard Rock in Managua collapsed when the Cordish Co. pulled out in 2001.
Mark Poutenis
Hard Rock in Managua collapsed when the Cordish Co. pulled out in 2001.
At left: Steve Watkins, lead instructor at the makeshift poker academy training the new Hard Rock's dealers, assures students: "You can never get worse. You can only get better." At right: Doug Pattison, president of the Hollywood Hard Rock complex, oversees the micro-Vegas complex in the Broward 'burbs.
Colby Katz
At left: Steve Watkins, lead instructor at the makeshift poker academy training the new Hard Rock's dealers, assures students: "You can never get worse. You can only get better." At right: Doug Pattison, president of the Hollywood Hard Rock complex, oversees the micro-Vegas complex in the Broward 'burbs.

From the Tampa casino's center bar rises a plume of plasma TV screens, steel mesh, and liquor bottles that serve as a porch light to Ricky Dillon, age 22, and Justin Messenger, age 24, a pair of childhood friends from Tampa who sit a couple of feet above the fracas of force-feeding bills into the blipping, flashing gaming machines. Dillon, who dates a Seminole woman and builds chickee huts by day, is the taller of the two, with dark skin and a Randy Moss All-Star jersey. Messenger, a carpet cleaner, sports a white-and-navy Ralph Lauren pullover. Both could use a shave. They speak highly of the March 11 opening of this hotel -- there was a fire by the pool, apparently, and that was cool. They say that the food here sucks but that otherwise, this new joint makes hash of the Seminole casino that previously occupied this space.

"It was rundown, ghetto -- everything. It was just horrible," Dillon says, his gold chain swaying. "This is a thousand times better, a thousand times."

The biggest difference Dillon notices in the new casino: "Girls." Ah, yes. The center bar affords a panoramic view of Von-Dutch-hat-wearing hotties, raven-haired model-types in pinstriped pants -- blond kewpie dolls fending off Efferdent advances. Where the cute dames go, so will follow contrails of gel-smeared mooks hoping to cadge tail.

Still, the capricious cute-girl demographic remains ambivalent. Later in the evening, three friends from Clearwater -- Denise Fougere, age 23, Victoria Mills, age 27, and Brieanne Wheeler, age 24 -- wait to enter the bingo room. All are clad in scanty somethings that show off back and midriff. They'd fit in fine at even the haughtiest nightclub. When someone blows a whistle, they glance backward. A man stands on the bar, juggling four white bottles, enthralling gawkers from all sides. He pauses a moment to light wicks at the tops of the bottles and continues juggling the tumbling flames.

"I didn't see that the last time I was here," Wheeler says, unimpressed.

They proceed to get shellacked in the bingo hall, then convene with the other cool kids at the center bar. "Bingo sucked," says Wheeler, who works office support in an Alzheimer's clinic. "They called the numbers too slow."

While smoking a Marlboro, Mills recalls a visit to Nevada last December. "There's something missing for the comparison to Vegas," she says. "I can't put my finger on it."

Mills is right. Vegas it ain't, quite, though the Seminole tribe and its financial partners are betting more than $440 million that they can present a reasonable facsimile.

The Hollywood facility will be closer to the Diamond of the Desert, with a 500-room hotel instead of a 250, more casino floor space, more restaurants, and more room for conventions, all in a glittering, ivory catacomb that simultaneously recalls a suburban office park and a palace out of Star Wars. It will neighbor the transmission shops and cigarette trailers that now line nearby State Road 7. It is intended to complement the smoky, dusty, low-slung, low-overhead, 25-year-old casino less than a mile south.

The Seminole Hard Rock casino resorts comprise what may be the most ambitious Native American casino resorts ever forged in the Southeastern United States. For more than 1,200 rooms combined and 200,000 square feet of casino space, the Seminole tribe is on the hook for $410 million in bonds it'll be paying back for 30 years. Additional thousands of people will depend on the hotel and casino for a living. The stakes riding on the new venture are staggering, even before the first Social Security check is converted to bingo cards.

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Max Osceola sits in his corner office on the third floor of the gleaming, blue-and-steel tribal headquarters on Stirling Road in Hollywood, about a half-mile from the Hard Rock. The Seminole wears a black ball cap adorned with the emblem of the Tampa Hard Rock casino on top of his graying hair and round face. His broad frame tapers into blue jeans that nearly cover a pair of anteater-skin boots. The firm, black-leather furniture here is trimmed with hundreds of Indian-head nickels.

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