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Entertainment Director Danny Finnerty in his office at Hard Rock Casino. Photo by Natasha Ball.

Magazine | Done That

Gaming: the Gift that Keeps on Giving

• By

Posted 02.02.12

For someone who’s not from here, it must be eerie to head out for breakfast on a Sunday morning and discover the roads deserted, only to realize on the drive to the café that all the cars are stowed in church parking lots, as if swept there by some giant broom.

I got a taste of that the night after Thanksgiving, like maybe the rapture had happened while I was sleeping, as I drove in the dark on Riverside Drive toward River Spirit Casino, practically alone. Then the lights of the casino—amplified as they bounced off the windshields of what must have been the hundreds of cars and SUVs and minivans in the parking lot there—came into view. “Well, as they say,” said one casino official when I emailed, asking if this was normal, “it is the most wonderful time of the year.”

The easiest way to get to the gaming floor at River Spirit is to ride the elevator from the garage below; maybe that’s what it’s like to be beamed into a spaceship. The gaming floor looks like what’d happen if Chuck E. Cheese grew up to be a Vegas show manager, with cocktail waitresses in black skirts, and busty movie stars instead of cartoon characters emblazoned on the games, and bars and full-service buffets taking the place of the prize counter. I found a game just as a man sitting at the next machine switched his cigarette to his right hand and stretched to slide his members’ card into the reader. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he said as I backed away, even though he insisted that I go ahead. He played both machines while I went around the corner and won $10 on a game called Coyote Moon.

A lady I saw on the way to cash out sat her oversized purse on the seat next to her, as if to have someone familiar, even if it was a something, to sit by. She didn’t look up as I passed, like she was plugged into the machine by her eyes somehow, like something in The Matrix. Rows and rows of games are arranged to fill practically every space on the floor, and the faces of the players—they’re in neckties, in full rodeo cowgirl regalia, in OU pajama pants—glow as they stare at the numbers and images spinning before their eyes, pressing buttons and pulling levers, never sure when ritual might transform into reward.

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Two years ago, the Cherokee Nation—the third-largest gaming tribe in Oklahoma, which is No. 2 in the U.S. for Indian gaming revenues and fourth overall, behind Nevada, New Jersey, and California—followed through on a plan to hedge against those times when the gaming floor isn’t flooded by opening The Joint, a concert hall tucked into the corner of the Grand Ballroom of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. The entertainment director there is Danny Finnerty. He’s the former co-owner of Cain’s, and he also worked as the press secretary for then-Representative Inhofe. Later, he was communications director, then special assistant to the Senator, whom he describes as “kind of a practical joker, actually.” He worked on Inhofe’s campaigns, and he was his liaison to the national media, setting up interviews with CNN and Fox News and Meet the Press. Now it’s his job to rope the acts on the casino circuit into the 2,700-seat venue at Hard Rock, and he bagged 40 of them in the first year: The Doobie Brothers, Blake Shelton and Hall and Oates, not to mention Eagles founder Don Henley, Finnerty’s favorite act to pass through The Joint since its opening. “There’s plenty to do in here—the most I get out on the floor is if I go have a beer with one of the guys who played,” he said, meaning like Henley.

“He left me a message not long ago,” Finnerty said of his former boss. “We were doing a country show here, and he left me a voicemail: ‘I just have two questions for you: Do you want me to bring my guitar and open for ya? And two, are you wearing one earring or two?’ So I called him back and left him a message: ‘No, and two.’ ”

He emerges every now and then from his domain, in a pair of boots with rhinestones in the heels that sparkle when he walks, a black, striped scarf tied around his neck, even indoors. “It wasn’t much of a transition, coming here,” Finnerty said. “The family business has always been entertainment. I mean, Jim was my regular job.”