A Disney-trained designer descends on the Alton Belle Casino's new venture, the Spirit of America

Dec 22, 1999 at 4:00 am
The contrast could not be more striking. Near the river stand the massive Con Agra grain elevators, with "Welcome to Alton" and an American flag painted patriotically on the side; on the sloping hills rests the sleepy, quaint town of steeples and old storefronts -- a town, like many Mississippi River towns, that has seen better days. But then cross the tracks to the Spirit of America.

It is orange, the color of certain fungi sometimes seen erupting from decaying logs, or the color of prison garb -- lots of that orange, matched with deep blues and greens -- paint streaked along the sides of one complex of warehouselike structures to make it all look worn and rustic, "Outfitters and Suppliers" stenciled on one wall. The Alton Belle Casino's new "landing facility" is the cartoon version of a working port, right next to the silos that really are part of a working port. One functions as decoration (sort of) for the new economy; the other just functions, the old economy trundling along.

Out of one might walk men and women with muscles thickened by work rather than by aerobic workouts at Bally; out of the other walk chipper PR folk Shareen and Doug. Doug, the more vocal of the pair, regards the orange hulk floating on the Mississippi and says, "It's got some color. It's got some pizzazz. It's got some fun to it." What else can he say, other than he sure hopes this $14 million orange blob is enough to bring more people into this casino before it sinks into bankruptcy?

Doug doesn't quite have the vocabulary to match the glowing new edifice, so he quickly escorts the press to one who does, through a labyrinth of Sheetrock and laborers in overalls and hard hats, to where Lenzy Hendrix, the production designer of the new landing, has been "working with that canoe."

"That canoe" is an 800-pound wooden dugout that Hendrix picked up in Mombasa on an Argosy shopping spree (Argosy Gaming Co. owns the Alton Belle). "What we paid for it probably sent a kid to college," Hendrix says, repelling any cultural-imperialist kind of talk. Whatever the folks in Mombasa are doing with those Western dollars, today that canoe is being wrangled into place high above the soon-to-be-opened Key West Bar. Hendrix is coaxing the workmen to set the boat higher and then to turn it so the interior of the canoe may be seen from below, an effect that is not lost on the sober tour group below and -- who knows? -- might pierce the aesthetic sense of some crapped-out customer someday: "I just gambled away the kids' tuition, but look at how tastefully that canoe curves across the ceiling."

Hendrix, in the words of the linguistically impaired Doug, is "colorful." Hendrix worked for Disney for more than eight years, and it shows. He is ebullient. Although he stands before the touring entourage with feet planted firmly on the floor, he appears to quiver with energy. He's got hundreds of design details swirling around in his head at one time, yet he can focus on one problem in a pragmatic flash (turn the canoe this way; there needs to be more color in the water tubes "to give life and fantasy to the space").

Hendrix is one of a generation of designers who learned their craft from the ghostly father Walt and his first apostle Roy and the prophet Michael. When Hendrix was a child, he confides, "I dressed up like Disney. I bought Disney stock when I was 6." While still in high school, Hendrix wrote a letter to Roy Disney (Walt's nephew) seeking guidance. Disney wrote back, advising the young Hendrix to get a college education -- fulfilling the qualifications of the American mainstream rite of passage -- and then contact him again. Hendrix did and found himself in on the ground floor of the creation of the Epcot Center.

Depending on one's sensibilities, this is either a tale of the American opportunistic dream or a Faustian nightmare (which indeed might be the same tale).

Hendrix moved on to work for Argosy and to design civic-theater productions in Indianapolis, bringing with him "the Disney approach to design, a theatrical approach." The family-centered Disney approach to design coincides well with recent changes in the gaming industry as gambling meccas such as Las Vegas have worked to become something more than, or other than, weekend vice trips -- rather, weekend vice trips for the whole family.

Color, excitement, a sense of moving out of the everyday -- or, as Hendrix refers to Alton, the "dull background palette of the town" -- and into the exotic: a mini-fun capital on a floating barge.

Hendrix wanted something other than the traditional Mississippi motif ("the paddle wheel has been so overdone"), so he mixed themes of history and desire (a primary Disney strategy). People of this region, Hendrix surmised, either go or dream of going to the tropics in winter. The Argosy family (apparently there was one) was involved in trade in the Caribbean in the 19th century, according to Hendrix (sugar; rum; slaves, perhaps), and the Caribbean theme emerged. Thus the Key West Bar was invented, with its crackled paint, a stuffed Mandalay parrot, pictures of Papa Hemingway -- the kind of faux re- creation that would have made the Illinois native turn surly had he found himself stuck in such a place, where after a few stiff ones he might have peskily sparred with another Illinois native on the barstool next to him, eventually decking the faux high-roller.

"It's not historic re-creation," Hendrix cautions. "It is pieces of history put together" -- presumably the way Disney wanted to put together its Civil War theme park in the Piedmont of Virginia before a few historical elitists (heretofore simply known as historians) got all huffy about it and so now no one gets to take in the robotic Grant and the robotic Lee shaking hands at Appomattox Court House in Reconciliationland, or hide out with runaway slaves in Chattelville, or listen to the grisly sawing in the hospital tent in Amputeeland.

But back to the barge, which is the device to draw people from the "dull background palette" -- and other dull regional palettes -- into the casino boat. "The casino needed a weenie to draw people to it," explains Hendrix, referring to a design concept taught by his former employers.

A weenie? "You should always have a weenie at the end of the street, a weenie to draw people farther."

Think of Disneyland: You turn one corner, and there in the reachable distance is the Magic Kingdom. Turn down another, and there's the Matterhorn. The weenie.

The boundless Hendrix guides the tour, hotfooting the group from weenie to weenie: across the suspension bridge (reminiscent of the grand Clark Bridge in the distance) into the octagon, which today is garnished with a Christmas tree at its center (six extra electrical circuits had to be brought in to light this weenie), through turnstiles into the Key West Bar, over to the "Fun Barge" with its entertainment room and stage for such stars as Jim Nabors and Shirley Jones (according to Hendrix). Lots of old steel barrels are stacked about as decoration, painted in those oranges and blues and greens, but, given the Superfund history of the region, they conjure less festive images. Even Hendrix acknowledges the association: "The barrels are not toxic waste," he assures everyone, "even though they look like it."

One-hundred-sixty-five different mixed paint colors, 29 ceramic tiles, 10 carpets -- all bright, all inviting, all chosen with the "wear, tear and volume of people" in mind -- are used to direct "a straight path to the boat," where villagers along the Mississippi might lose enough to send somebody else's kid to college.

Hendrix hustles the group along through the concept: Downstairs, the burly sailors drink; upstairs is the Captain's Table, with a buffet and view of the river (and the Con Agra silos). Pineapple tchotchkes abound: "The pineapple, of course, is a sign of hospitality," Hendrix instructs. Then there is the Outfitters's Grill, which features a collection of orienteering gadgets, including traps and helmets and netting and other manner of things that might capture mythic undersea monsters.

The tour completed, Hendrix shakes hands and goes back to check on the Kenyan-college-fund canoe. There's the feeling of being windswept without having left the building.

Outside, people board shuttle buses to slip back into the dull background palette, and the couple from the RFT heads up the hill to the Hotel Stratford, itself a local weenie during those seen-better days. In the lobby is a picture of Adlai Stevenson on an Alton whistlestop. From the tall picture windows the floating orange fungus is in view, the Spirit of America.

The hotel bar is dark but isn't dingy or seedy like so many decaying hotels in similar towns (OK, just seedy enough, comfortably seedy). A couple of aging denizens watch Murder, She Wrote on the color TV. The bartender is friendly and laughs at the newcomers' whispered awe of the place. Huge canvases of painted Wild West scenes decorate the walls, each, it is said, the creation of the hotel's former owner. Maybe he had caught on to a theme as well, the Gateway to the West motif, or maybe he just liked Frederic Remington and old shoot-'em-ups and Gunsmoke.

Whatever his inspiration, now it fits into another theme, that called "local color," which surprisingly does not fade so near the gaudy Spirit of America but, rather, gains poignancy. The decor of the bar in the Hotel Stratford represents a singular personal vision, unincorporated, the kind any traveler might stumble on in days gone by and talk about back home -- the bar in Alton with the Old West paintings.

It's a silly vision, all right, another false history portrayed, but homely -- a word growing less pejorative with every new theme park, with every venture that seeks to make one place like every other place -- secure, a place of respite, where rhapsodies might be sung of local virtues from the hardwood bar, even before the bartender stirs the drinks.