AT THIS stage of the game, it appears that pretty much everyone with a vested interest in Atlantic City's survival is on board with the idea that the city's future is as an entertainment destination that offers gambling, rather than as a gambling destination that offers entertainment.
One need only look at the town's summer talent roster to confirm that this strategy is being taken seriously by the 11 gambling dens.
The entertainment and special events schedule is noteworthy in terms of quality and quantity, but also in the diversity of attractions between now and late September.
Even the most jaded observer has to be impressed by a lineup that includes once-and-future late-night TV star Conan O'Brien, former President Bill Clinton, head Police-man Sting (backed by a symphony orchestra), pop-realm dominatrix Lady Gaga, an a cappella unit that came to stardom via YouTube and a comic, one-man recreation of "The Godfather."
Not to mention enough classic-rock heroes to satisfy even the most nostalgia-obsessed baby boomer.
Here's a look at just some of the highlights of what promises to be an interesting few months down AyCee way.
In terms of pure "wow" factor, the Atlantic City Hilton has lapped the field with its four-event "Summer Speakers Series."
The first program (set for June 24) is co-headlined by Fox News agents provocateur Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck, who will lead an "Americans for Obama" rally. (Just kidding!)
The conservative talking (and crying) heads will be followed by Clinton (July 23), lefty-righty pundits James Carville and Ann Coulter (Aug. 21), and former Vice President Dick Cheney (Sept. 18).
Those in their twenties and thirties may be an attractive demographic to Atlantic City's casinos, but it's their parents who are paying the gaming halls' bills these days as the core casino audience. So it's not surprising that the schedule is jam-packed with what seems to be every classic-rock act still healthy enough to hold guitars and climb aboard a tour bus.
There are far too many of these artists booked to list them all here, but some of the more noteworthy are: Doors men Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger (June 5, Hilton); Jeff Beck (June 5, Borgata); Jethro Tull (June 12, Caesars Atlantic City); Procol Harum/Renaissance (June 12, Tropicana); Yes/Peter Frampton (June 19, Borgata); Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band (July 2, Caesars); the Moody Blues (July 16, Borgata); Simon & Garfunkel (July 31, Trump Taj Mahal); Asia (Aug. 7, Showboat); Crosby, Stills & Nash (Aug. 29, Borgata); and Jackson Browne & David Lindley (Sept. 4-5, Borgata).
More recent sounds
Not that those whose musical tastes were formed after 1980 are being forsaken.
For instance the MTV generation is represented by the likes of locally bred '80s hair-banders Cinderella (June 23, House of Blues inside Showboat); Pat Benatar (sharing the bill with REO Speedwagon, June 26, Caesars); Sting with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra (July 9, Borgata); Huey Lewis & the News (July 10, Caesars); Brett Michaels, of Poison (July 16, Hilton); the Go-Go's (July 17, House of Blues); and the Fixx (July 30, Resorts Atlantic City). British synth-poppers Tears For Fears have a date scheduled Aug. 20, but the venue is TBA.
For women who grew up in the '90s, the top two "boy bands" of the era are due: New Kids On The Block hit the Borgata tonight and tomorrow, while the Backstreet Boys play the Taj Mahal June 12.
Today's chart-toppers are also in the mix, including Kings of Leon (June 5, Borgata), Lady Gaga (July 4, Boardwalk Hall) and Black Eyed Peas (Boardwalk Hall, Aug. 7).
Atlantic City has long been a regular stop for the "American Idol" gravy train, and this summer is no different. In addition to "American Idols Live" at the Taj Mahal July 10 (which will include this year's champion, Lee DeWyze, and runner-up Crystal Bowersox), we'll also be seeing Jordin Sparks (tonight, Tropicana), Adam Lambert (June 26, Borgata) and Daughtry (Aug. 7, Borgata).
Country music isn't a big part of the schedule, but fans shouldn't be too disappointed thanks to upcoming appearances by Josh Turner (tomorrow, Harrah's Resort), Willie Nelson (Aug. 6, Caesars) and Martina McBride (Aug. 7, Taj Mahal).
The next best thing?
The tribute-band phenomenon shows no signs of abating in Atlantic City, with a slew of musical clones on the books.
The mother of all faux-act events is Trump Marina's annual "FakeFest," this year set for June 25-27 at The Deck, the casino's marina-side, al fresco bar. The lineup includes: Head Games (who pay homage to Foreigner), Dookie (Green Day), Rockin' The Paradise (Styxx), Who's Next (the Who), KISS Army (KISS), B Street Band (Bruce Springsteen), 52nd Street (Billy Joel) and Parrotbeach (Jimmy Buffett).
If that's still not enough, there are also Grateful Dead avatars Dark Star Orchestra (Aug. 6, Hilton), Get The Led Out (Led Zeppelin, Aug. 6, Showboat), Appetite For Destruction (Guns N' Roses, Aug. 12, Bally's Atlantic City) and Pink Floyd acolytes the Machine (Aug. 20, Hilton).
Just for laughs
Of course, comedy is a crucial part of the show-biz game plan, which means that there are a slew of funny folks headed to town this summer.
Arguably the most unusual of these gigs is Sunday's visit to Borgata by O'Brien, who has two shows scheduled. Considering that his late-night TBS program debuts later this year, Sunday may be the only time we ever get to see "Coco" in this kind of setting.
But the laughs will surely continue, thanks to such gagsters as Wanda Sykes (June 4, Borgata), Lewis Black (June 18-19, Borgata), Dane Cook (Taj Mahal, July 2-3), Craig Ferguson (July 9, Tropicana), Jerry Seinfeld (July 10, Borgata), Cheech & Chong (July 17, Hilton), Kathy Griffin (July 23, Borgata), Bill Engvall (Aug. 14, Resorts), Chelsea Handler (Aug. 27, Borgata) and Bill Cosby (Aug. 28, Borgata).
Really big shows
The entertainment schedule isn't only about one-night stands. Some offerings will soon be settling in for extended runs.
The most unusual of these is "The Godfadda Workout" (June 30-Sept. 5, Bally's), which features actor Seth Isler performing numerous scenes from "The Godfather."
Not only does he play 37 different roles (from Marlon Brando's Don Corleone to Talia Shire's Connie), but he switches positions by vaulting over desks and executing similar acrobatic maneuvers. Isler also pokes fun at the movie's iconography, as well as at his own performance, making this a truly unique outing.
Also new to town is the presentation by Straight No Chaser (July 2-Aug. 31, Harrah's), the 10-man a cappella outfit whose clean-cut looks and rich harmonies have made it an Internet sensation. If the run is the success that Harrah's execs expect (hope?) it will be, SNC could be AyCee's first Las Vegas-style resident act.
On the other hand, the three Trump Entertainment Resorts properties are sticking to familiar titles: Impresario Neil Goldberg's Tony-nominated "Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy," which debuted at Trump Plaza several summers ago, is returning with a new address (June 24-Sept. 6, Taj Mahal). And last summer's nicest surprise, Trump Marina's "Hypnosterical," starring R-rated hypnotist Joe Bocutti, encores at the bayside casino July 1-Sept. 5.
Trump Plaza's production show is "V: The Ultimate Variety Show" (June 29-Sept 5), an old-fashioned vaudeville-type affair featuring a troupe of performers including 15-year-old Northeast Philly native Bianca Ryan, a former "America's Got Talent" champion. While it is new to the Plaza, several editions played at Tropicana a few years ago.
It's been a while since only those with actual talent earned major bucks for casino appearances. Nowadays, those who are famous mostly for being famous are also part of the entertainment scene. Reality TV stars, supermodels and the like have become big draws at gaming hall dance clubs.
Those slated to make the disco scene this summer include Brody Jenner (June 5) and Audrina Patridge (July 24), of "The Hills," both coming to dusk, the club inside Caesars. Francia Raisa, of "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," will celebrate her birthday at the danceteria July 31.
Also due are Playboy Playmate of the Year Hope Dworaczyk tomorrow night at mur.mur inside Borgata; Sean "Diddy" Combs, who will host "Diddy's Red, White & Blue Party" (July 4, The Pool at Harrah's); "Saved by the Bell" stud Mario Lopez (July 17, mur.mur) and supermodel Selita Ebanks (Aug. 15, Sunbar at the Water Club).
Food (and wine) for thought
In just a couple of years, Harrah's Entertainment Inc.'s Atlantic City Food & Wine Festival has become a local institution. This summer, it's going national thanks to the sponsorship of the Food Network.
As in the past, there will be events for every palate during the July 29-Aug. 1 culinary orgy that will unfold at Bally's, Caesars, Harrah's and Showboat.
Hosting are such kitchen wizards as Guy Fieri, Sandra Lee, Ted Allen and Philly's own Daniel Stern, Georges Perrier and Chris Scarduzio. *