When Greenwood Gaming and Entertainment Inc. and its Parx Casino in Bensalem, Bucks County, pulled the trigger on a $50 million expansion plan three years ago, part of its vision was to attract visitors from Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and New Jersey for an evening of integrated, all-in fun that included new restaurants and a new poker room for the increasingly popular card game. Most important, though, was Parx's freshly built, state-of-the-art,1,500-capacity Xcite Center that offered gamblers and non-gamblers alike a hipper brand of live entertainment than is usually afforded casinos. With sell-out shows from mainstream acts such as Chicago (they christened the new room in January 2018) and indie giants The Flaming Lips, Parx and Xcite are prepared to compete with any major rock room in Philly and NYC.
"That's especially true considering that our previous concert space was nothing, a temporary wall in the back of the casino with a curtain," said Carrie Nork Minelli, who has been Parx's director of advertising and public relations since its opening nearly nine years ago. "We had perfect gaming and all other amenities, but wanted to add contemporary live entertainment to the equation so that our customers wouldn't have to leave Bucks County — or Parx — to get it."
To that end, Parx hired Helmut Perzi as its director of entertainment, who does all of Xcite's booking through the international AEG artist agency, as well as Parx's front of house operations. Perzi's aim from the start was dynamic booking: all genres of music and comedy, all demographics. "As a casino you want your 'casino' acts," said Perzi, mentioning the likes of boxing, Melissa Etheridge and Ron White. "We also wanted to do stuff that was different." Xcite looked to hipper live programming that they then added at an unusually fast clip, within a geographic area that's one of the most competitive in the country. "Philly's one of the biggest markets in the country with a lot of options in terms of great concert venues. We want to be part of that system, and more."
To accomplish that, John Dixon (Parx's chief technology officer, the main executive in charge of the $50 million expansion) and Nathan Cowell (director of entertainment technologies, responsible for lighting, sound and design application) went about crafting Xcite — a live space planned early on in Parx's evolution — with a $35 million piece of the overall expansion pie.
"We had to literally raise the ceiling for Xcite as bigger bands have larger set pieces and such," stated Cowell of the higher ceiling, which give the new room an "acoustical relevancy" rarely found in casinos. "Xcite looks and sounds like a concert venue, not the usual venue with low ceilings that's more of a ballroom or conference center." Cowell goes on to claim that most bands are so pleased with Xcite's tech, that they're happy to leave their own equipment on the truck. "Every act we've hosted since January has used our lighting and sound packages. We have the most equipped room on the East Coast."
How did it come to happen that Parx decided to hip things up with a new room and new sounds and vision in the first place?
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"Our owners' sons are working with us — millennials — and want offerings for a broader range of customer than just the textbook casino regular that tends to skew older," said Dixon. "Maybe they don't gamble much. Maybe they just want to see the band. Maybe once we get them into Xcite, they'll check out Parx's food and gaming."
Show Us the Money
According to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (gamingcontrolboard.pa.gov), the combined gaming revenue for the 12 casinos scattered throughout Pennsylvania exceeded $300 million for the very first time since the board was created, according to figures released in April 2018. While March's 2018 gross table games revenue was $79,165,79 (a decrease from March 2017 of $79,545,431), the added slot machine revenue of $221,350,220, pushed total gaming revenue to $300,516,011. To go with that good number, Parx Casino ranked first in slot machine revenue in March 2018 with $37.5M, and second in table games revenue ($17.2M) of the 12 casinos in Pennsylvania.
The Exclusive Oops
While discussing what's upcoming and hip at Parx, all were mum save for Cowell who let slip with, "We almost forgot the beer garden." Soon to be constructed in the back of the casino with entrances inside and outside Parx, the large covered space features a roof that opens and closes with the weather, expanding walls for larger parties, an outdoor fire place and gaming that goes from gambling to Foosball and ping-pong. None of this information was ready for the press. "Now you got a real scoop," said John Dixon.
The Hippest Upcoming Live Gigs
The rockabilly gut-punch of Dwight Yoakam, the weird wow of Flaming Lips, and socio-political comic Dennis Miller are difficult acts to follow on the hip meter. Parx's Xcite Center seems up for the task with:
June 1: Joel McHale – From NBC's critical fave "Community" to his caustic on-line/television commentary for an eponymous Netflix series, no comic does snark like McHale
Aug 4: Trevor Noah – The South African-born comedian made his bones as he who dared follow Jon Stewart at Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," but has continued along that victorious path with an equally incisive stand-up routine.
Sept 6: Alison Krause – If Yoakam is alternative country music's king, Krause is its queen with modern traditionalist takes on aged bluegrass and folk.
Sept 15: Patton Oswalt – One of modern alternative comedy's smartest godfathers, Patton makes history, past and present, cuttingly clever and always absurd.
Nov 3: Brian Wilson presents "Pet Sounds" – If this was with his Beach Boys, this would be cornball casino fare. But, the genius composer all-but-created harmony-filled, avant-pop with 1966's epic.