Marcus Zavala, the general manager of Ellis Island Casino and Brewery, has worked at the casino for two decades.
Marcus Zavala, the general manager of Ellis Island Casino and Brewery, has worked at the casino for two decades. David Greene/NPR
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Kimba Ocampo, standing in front of Ellis Island's brewery, has been a bartender at the casino for 16 years.
Kimba Ocampo, standing in front of Ellis Island's brewery, has been a bartender at the casino for 16 years. David Greene/NPR
Maybe it doesn't compare to the Elton John concert at Caesar's Palace, but the karaoke lounge at Ellis Island Casino and Brewery in Las Vegas is packed.
It has been like this all night. In the restaurant, there was a line for the $6.99 steak dinner. Then, people moved into the lounge for the free music show.
"You know we're proud of our little joint. It's not the Bellagio, but it's comfortable; it's home," says Marcus Zavala, general manager of the casino.
He says revenues in his casino and restaurants are down 5 to 10 percent from this time a year ago. But he is OK with that. Other casinos are faring much worse in this recession.
Entertainment On A Budget
"People are going from quarters to nickels and from nickels to pennies. They still want to play. They still want entertainment," Zavala says. "They want entertainment value which we offer."
This is a quirky little place behind the Las Vegas Strip, right next to a Super 8 motel. The casino floor is just one level. There are slots, blackjack and a sort of miniature craps table, which is so small it takes only one employee to run it.
But the customers are here — like 29-year-old BJ Feast from Wichita, Kan. He says he found the casino — and read about the dinner — on the Web site cheapovegas.com
Feast says he has been affected by the recession in a concrete way: "I'm unemployed. I worked for Circuit City: They went out of business."
Because Feast lost his job, he thought about canceling this Vegas trip with his parents.
"I was like, well, I don't know what we're going to be able to do while we're there," he says.
But he and his parents have done a lot, including grabbing the steak special here, playing some video poker and taking in the karaoke.
Support From Locals
Still, people at the Ellis Island Casino say it is the locals who really keep them going. Bartender Kimba Ocampo says she has regulars who work at other casinos or hotels. They have had hours cut back. Some have been laid off. But they are still at her bar, eating and drinking on the cheap.
When people collect unemployment, the money gets put on a special Nevada debit card adorned with horses.
"They apply the money to the card and that's what people live off of," Ocampo says. "I've noticed a lot more people using those."
Does she advise them not to gamble with these funds?
"No," she says. "I'm here to cater to whatever they need. But it crosses my mind."
Nobody is going to argue that gambling is a wise choice when money is tight. But the feeling around here is this is Vegas — people are going to hit the casinos no matter what. So why not come to a place where they feel at home?
A Haven From The Downturn
"It's fun; it's like one big happy family that comes here. Everybody knows one another," says Rona Caprista, one of the regulars, who is with her husband, Vinny.
She works as a server on the Strip, and when the recession hit, her hours were cut.
"Three days a week, I'm working like five or six hours a day. That's it," she says. "It's hard — very hard," to make ends meet.
Vinny Caprista is an Elvis impersonator. These days, fewer couples are paying for him to do their weddings. So, the Capristas are being careful with their money, but they haven't cut back on their evenings out at Ellis Island.
Vinny Caprista usually wears his Elvis wig and he has a full wardrobe of Elvis clothes to go with it.
He breaks into song: "I'll do anything you want, but lay off of my blue suede shoes..."
That's Vegas, during the recession.