Bethlehem, Pa.: 'Christmas City' bets on new Sands Casino Resort

Visitors to Bethlehem, Pa., can try to strike it rich at the new Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem or wander the town's quaint shops.
Visitors to Bethlehem, Pa., can try to strike it rich at the new Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem or wander the town's quaint shops. (Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem - Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem)
By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

In a little town called Bethlehem, I shopped for Christmas ornaments by day -- and hit the slot machines at night.

No, not that Bethlehem. I'm talking about Bethlehem, Pa., a town whose yearly celebration of Christmas is so intense that it's known as "Christmas City, USA." Even in May, many houses sport electric candles in the windows, and shops sell holiday ornaments.

So when the casino resort company Las Vegas Sands Corp. chose Bethlehem as the site of its only U.S. property outside Vegas, residents were rightly perplexed.

What did Sin City want with Christmas City?

"Why here? Why Bethlehem?" wondered Debbie Mangano, whom I chatted up at a country furniture store that was selling Christmas ornaments at a discount. She was at a loss for an answer.

So was I, so I thought I'd head out to the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem and see what there was to see. "Resort" is still a bit of a misnomer: The hotel hasn't been built yet, despite the casino's grand opening a year ago. But I found that building impressive: high ceilings, exposed piping, brick walls, red carpeting. It had the elegance of a few casinos I'd been to in Vegas, plus the grittiness of Bethlehem Steel, the now-defunct company that had once been the bedrock employer in town.

Perhaps a little too gritty, I thought, as I eyed the overflowing ashtrays between the slot machines. "It's been here a while, you can tell," said Sharon Fournier, a resident of nearby Bath, pointing to the ashtray as we sat side by side losing at the 2-cent slots. Nonetheless, Fournier found the casino progressive for a city like Bethlehem. "I've done all the Christmas stuff I can do," she said.

My friend Seema, from Los Angeles, and her husband, Mark, were visiting family nearby, so I had them meet me at the Sands for dinner. Afterward, we hit the casino floor. Seema and Mark were surprised that there were no game tables (table games are slated to debut this summer). We settled for the slot machines, pressing buttons like automatons while listening to tunes by U2 and Def Leppard.

Oddly, Mark's machine made no noise. Mine, called Diamonds and Devils, made too much. Any time a diamond or a devil appeared in the first column, the image would light up and a bell would sound, raising my hopes that the next few columns would produce all sorts of joy when they stopped spinning.

"Something's happening here," said Seema, equally optimistic. We stared, and then-- nothing. Such a tease.

I watched my $20 quickly disappear into the nickel machine. Mark lost his $20 in less time than I did. A cocktail waitress came by with weak drinks. We abandoned the slots and headed to the virtual blackjack table, where we sat in front of a TV screen with a revolving set of female dealers, all with waists not much bigger than my right thigh, all dressed in bustiers or strapless dresses. Whenever a player went over 21, the fembot dealers would thrust their chests forward and declare, "Busted!"

We all ended up busted that night.

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