Harrah’s Philadephia Casino and Racetrack recently joined many casinos featured on film or TV, even though the casino was in just quick cameo roles.
With an appearance in Concrete Cowboy, a film featuring Idris Elba streaming on Netflix since April, soon followed by three brief but pointed references in the HBO limited series Mare of Easttown‘s episode five titled Illusions which debuted on May 16, Harrah’s is having a bit of a star turn.
According to a Pennsylvania Gaming Contol Board spokesman, Harrah’s cameos appear to be the first references on film involving any Pennsylvania casino. That’s a bit of a surprise since the first PA casino opened in 2006.
Gambling provides a reliable setting for stories
Using gambling as a story-telling trope is at least as old as the dice game in the Book of Matthew.
Consider just some of the better-known film and TV settings featuring a casino setting:
- Atlantic City, with Burt Lancaster’s character telling Susan Sarandon’s character, “You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean back then.”
- Oceans Eleven, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt, with scene shots from Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
- Hard Eight, with an indelible Las Vegas scene played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman
- The Color of Money was shot partially at Resorts Casino in Atlantic City and featured Paul Newman and Tom Cruise.
- Las Vegas with James Caan ran on NBC.
Harrah’s cameo in Concrete Cowboy
Time Magazine listed Elba as one of the 100 most influential men in the world four years back. You might recall he played the business-minded drug dealer Stringer Bell in The Wire on HBO.
Cowboy features Elba as an estranged father who bonds with his wayward teen son. The boy comes from Detroit to join his dad in Philly, thrusting him into the unique “urban Black cowboy” culture of North Philadelphia.
The teen is Cole, named after legendary jazz musician John Coltrane, who lived for 15 years in Philly, which continues the City of Brotherly Love movie theme. Stranger Things‘ Caleb McLaughlin plays Cole.
Filled with uplift, the value of family and community, and earnest heart, Cowboy has an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The reason PlayPennsylvania and its readership cares is the brief appearance of the track at Harrah’s, a casino that, of course, features sports wagering and horse betting.
Harrah’s even took note of Concrete Cowboys on its FaceBook page.
The racecourse is where an adult mentor from the horse community takes Cole to show him he can make something of himself is Harrah’s, a harness track. In the movie, a thoroughbred runs on the otherwise unidentified racecourse. But it is clearly Harrah’s grandstand where the two urban Black cowboys are sitting as an African-American jockey rooted in North Philly breezes a horse on the otherwise empty course.
In all, the scene lasts maybe 90 seconds, but it clearly underlines the film’s theme that you can get what you want if you work at it, and also, community matters.
‘The Harrah’s’ gets name-dropped three times in Mare of Easttown
Then there’s Mare, a buzz-worthy show about a fictional small-town community dubbed Easttown.
That’s home to a dour native daughter cop named Mare Sheehan and her oft-dysfunctional but deeply connected and usually supportive family and friends.
Mare is also sometimes surreally comic, such as when the no-nonsense detective’s gag reflex responds to a butlered liver appetizer, which she surreptitiously wrapped in a napkin, then swiftly shoved deeply into a seat cushion.
Given Detective Sheehan is investigating the murder and abductions of girls she knows personally as her own life careens from one small disaster to the next — would you want your ex moving into the home directly behind you? — tragicomedy mixed with stoic dourness seems the right tone.
Written by Brad Ingelsby, a native of the Philly area schooled at Delaware County’s Villanova University, and with relatives in Delaware County’s Drexel Hill and Springfield neighborhoods, Mare has quickly developed an obsessive and fanatical following, especially in the Philly area. Fans include me.
Perhaps the best profile of Ingelsby is a piece about by a former PhillyVoice colleague of mine, Joseph Santoliquito, who knows the author’s family through sports. PlayPennsylvania has provided some sports gambling content to PhillyVoice. HBO declined to make the writer available.
Mare debuted with more than 1 million viewers. Has a 92% score on Rotten Tomatoes. And it generates almost 12 million Google hits.
The limited series wraps up with a conclusive final episode on Sunday, May 30 at 10 p.m.
Mare also introduced the world to Wawa, a convenience store chain rooted in the region, where cast and crew picked up style and attitude tips typical of Delco, as in Delaware County. Delco is home to Mare as well as Harrah’s. Oh, and previously also to me.
Harrah’s Philadelphia is not exactly Philly
And while the title of the “cah-sina,” as we in Delco would say instead of enunciating casino when speaking Delco-ese, is officially titled Harrah’s Philadephia Casino and Racetrack, the actual location of the gambling house is the city of Chester, the gritty end of Delco, way down the alimentary canal from Ingelsby’s Villanova education, and his relatives in Springfield and even Drexel Hill.
The casino and racetrack face the Delaware River just southwest of Philly. A marine transit terminal to the west and a state prison bristling with concertina wire bracket the casino. A railroad and the aptly named Industrial Highway front the property.
Harrah’s comes up when Mare questions a woman named Tammy about the disappearance of several women. The missing girls might or might not be related to a 14-year-old’s murder.
Mare showed Tammy pictures of the missing. Tammy recalled one girl, “Hanging outside the Harrah’s on the river. Sometimes… Sometimes on the corner of Belmont and Caldwell.”
Tammy then said “the Harrah’s” two more times. Saying “the Harrah’s” is a distinctly Delco verbal construction. And that was it for Harrah’s presence in Mare.
But other parts of Chester and the neighboring community of Marcus Hook make appearances.
Perhaps the most memorable Chester scene is a shot of Mare and partner Det. Colin Zabel standing beneath the massive Commodore Barry Bridge, which spans the lower Delaware River. That’s where they are standing when Zabel impulsively plants a kiss that is reciprocated by Mare.
The abduction location is fictional-ish
To be clear, the intersection of Belmont and Caldwell mentioned in the screenplay is half real, half fiction.
Caldwell Street is pretty much directly in front of Harrah’s, though cutoff by Industrial Highway. But a road named Belmont doesn’t exist anywhere in Chester.
Caldwell Street is a well-worn neighborhood of rowhomes, some vacant and derelict, little traffic, no commercial businesses. It is not the sort of place you’d go cruising to find someone to abduct.
Also, the dark street in the series where a woman is seen snatched away by a man in a blue work van is really shot in Marcus Hook. So is the shuttered Bennie’s Bar, the dive bar where the abducted women are imprisoned in the attic. Marcus Hook is a town over from Chester.
Reps for Harrah’s said they would discuss Mare, but never followed through.
The show has spawned a cottage industry of folks endlessly riffing on my native tongue – the Delco dialect, also known as Delco-ese.
For an exaggerated audio short course on Delco-ese, check out the SNL sketch, Murder Durder about “a grizzled lady detective,” as played by Kate McKinnon. For the record, the word daughter sounds like dorter in Delco, not durder. I won’t quibble since McKinnon can do no wrong. And dorter is not quite a rhyme with murder.
Brit movie star Kate Winslet plays Mare. She and television veterans Jean Smart and Julianne Nicholson brilliantly voice the Delco speech patterns. As does the eager detective played by Evan Peters. Well, for a time… damn, there goes a spoiler.
For more about Mare and her Delco-style messy ponytail, undied roots, flannel shirts, allegiance to her high school hoop team decades later, check the Urban Dictionary for a cheat sheet if you want to study up before the Sunday night finale.
I’m pretty sure I have the identity of Erin’s killer nailed – not who it seemed to be, but close, awfully close – and maybe I even have figured out some explanations of several red-herring sub-plots, such as the shady cleric who dumped Erin’s bike in the Brandywine River.
Unfortunately, I can’t find a bookie for these wagers.