Decadence turns 10
What will a weekend at Mohegan Sun get you? All the gambling, spa treatments, dining, cocktails, concerts, and nightlife you could imagine. Oh, and up close and personal with Tony Danza.
UNCASVILLE, Conn. Two years ago, I witnessed a Christmas miracle: A beautiful convergence of song, maracas, and plastic surgery that cuchi-cuchi-ed its way straight into my heart. Yes, I beheld the wonder of Charo. Even now I can barely find the words to describe the elation I experienced as this Spanish flamenco vixen, dressed like Mrs. Clauss trampy little sister in a red velour mini dress with fur trim, exploded onstage with a pair of scantily clad male backup dancers to ask that eternal holiday question: Mamacita, dónde está Santa Claus?
This could happen in New England only in the casinos of Eastern Connecticut. I keep a bloodshot eye carefully trained on the entertainment that comes into the Mohegan Sun casino and have frequently made the pilgrimage to see singers whose best years are well behind them (forgive me, Petula Clark).
Mohegan Sun regularly attracts major bands in its arena, but I gain far more joy seeing the acts that are booked into the Cabaret Theatre and the free concert space known as the Wolf Den, where musicians battle to be heard over the din of slot machines and announcements such as, There is a white Buick in the Indian Summer garage with its lights on.
Mohegan Sun celebrates its 10th anniversary next weekend with a star-studded lineup, including sets from the Kevin Costner Band (who knew?), a reunion of the Laugh-In cast (Ruth Buzzi, yes. Goldie Hawn, no), Craig Ferguson, Barenaked Ladies, and Keith Urban.
But I decided the best way to celebrate the den of Native American gamblings first decade was to enjoy Mohegan on my own terms. I watched the schedule carefully, and my prayers were finally answered when a single weekend yielded a bumper crop of Vegas-ready entertainment: Patti LaBelle, Tony Danza, and, the icing on the cupcake, Ashford & Simpson. Faster than you can say Love Boat reunion special, I was making my reservations.
The plan is to ease myself into the full-on kitsch of Mohegan by starting with Patti LaBelle, who is headlining in the arena on Friday night. Im accompanied by my frequent partner in Mohegan Sun crime, a co-worker whom Ive given the tribal name of Butt of Buffalo (well call him Bob for short). As Bob and I enter, we are drawn, like Star Jones to a plate of Snackwells, to a giant, airbrushed painting of LaBelle on a sheet. For just $10, you can get your picture taken with Patti on the sheet. Of course, we would have paid $100 for the privilege.
LaBelles singing is flawless. She strolls out in a big velvet cape singing New Attitude. She attempts a Good evening, Hartford! and when she determines that shes not in Hartford, shes thoroughly confused.
You mean this isnt Hartford? Can someone tell me where I am?
These are the Mohegan moments I treasure. Yes, Patti can hold a note for a minute-and-a-half at the climax of Over the Rainbow, but when she warns a group of overzealous fans who have hopped onstage that Im 62. Im menopausal, I have diabetes, and if you touch me, Im gonna cut you, my evening is complete.
Following the show, and after a few mojitos, Bob and I decide to check out Mohegans nightlife. In the acres of white sneakers, fanny packs, and Wal-Mart sweatshirts, we find a group of well-dressed 20-somethings milling outside a velvet rope. Theres a trio of clubs here: Luckys Lounge, the Dubliner, and Ultra 88. The bouncer informs us that we are not dressed well enough for Ultra 88 (tip: Dont wear sneakers if you want to get in), and were stuck downing whiskey sours in the Rat Pack-styled Luckys Lounge until the wee hours. The club may look like Dean Martins rumpus room, but I dont think Dino was a fan of Gnarls Barkley, was he?
My carefully planned itinerary calls for a facial at 11:30 a.m. (Bob and I want to shrink our pores for Tony Danza that night). I wake up, and the clock says 12:16 p.m., which means Tony will just have to accept us, blackheads and all. The oversleeping isnt my fault. The beds in our hotel room are too comfortable and too posh. We have a late lunch at Uncas American Indian Grill, and I decide to try the traditional Native American dish of matzo ball soup. Shockingly, its quite tasty. Our sweet waitress, Debbie, who calls us hon and dear, earns the tribal name of Debbie Wind Beneath My Wings. Based on her recommendation, Bob orders the Buffalo burger, which also scores high marks.
After lunch, we walk by the three clubs we visited the night before and notice that there are no burly dudes guarding the exterior. So we take the opportunity to sneak into the empty Ultra 88. The space is filled with leather sofas, red velvet curtains, and silver champagne buckets. If Luckys was Dean Martins rumpus room, Ultra 88 is Jay-Zs private gentlemens club.
In the perpetual twilight of the mall that connects the two casinos, were drawn into Spin Street music store, where I find a Tom Jones box set that I cant live without. Bob has a difficult time passing by the Old Farmers Almanac General Store. Eventually he emerges with a bag full of tea and scone mixes.
That evening in the Cabaret Theatre, recently unemployed talk show host Tony Danza demonstrates that hell do anything for $50. Well, not exactly anything, because he seems disturbed by the attention of some obnoxious fans in the front of the room. But he does sing, tap dance, play the ukulele and coronet, and this is where it gets surreal rap. Im gonna bust a clean rhyme, he declares. At which point I think Im going to bust a spleen laughing. Waitress, another Blue Bay cocktail. Please.
Bob and I celebrate Tonys talent afterward with champagne and dessert at Rain, which is one of the fancier Mohegan eateries. The bubbly (and all those Blue Bays) has left me woozy, and I promptly head back to my room and pass out. After Tonys rapping and my drunken escapades, Bob decides hes had enough and heads back to Boston.
Oh, Donald! says Marlo Thomass voice. The video screen fills with daisies, and I realize Ive just won another $1.50. Ive been coming to Mohegan Sun for three years, but this is the first time that Ive ever sat down at the slot machines and gambled. Because Im a high roller, Ive given myself a limit of $20 to gamble. Fate has winked at me with a giant false eyelash. When I spot a That Girl penny slot (based on the 60s TV show starring Thomas), I know that I have found the machine that will make me rich. I come close. After hitting the Fashion Bonus multiple times, Ive doubled my $20, and Im already planning to celebrate by buying a giant cinnamon roll at Granny Squannits in the food court. But luck, and Marlo Thomas, is not a lady. I end up losing my fortune. Sorry, Granny Squannits.
I pull myself out of the slump with my rescheduled facial. In a darkened room in the Elemis Spa, Erin the esthetician blobs something on my face that she says will feel like frosting (shes right), while soothing new-agey music plays in the background. Im just relieved its not Tony Danzas album playing.
The spa is the first place Ive been all weekend where I can see natural light and Im out of the smoky air. The only thing that can get me back down to the casino is Ashford & Simpson, the 80s duo youll remember (OK, maybe not) for their hit Solid. Im seated next to a couple in the Wolf Den who are celebrating their 40th anniversary. Pete and Anita are incredibly friendly, but they start making me nervous when they tell me that I remind them of their son, and perhaps Id like to meet him after the show.
This is my cue to plan to head home after Ashford & Simpson sing Solid. Its probably for the best. If not for Pete and Anita, Id probably still be sitting at the That Girl machine, gambling away my hard-earned pennies while waiting for Marlo Thomas to coo Oh, Donald! over and over.