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The man behind the clowns, knights and pyramids
by David McKee | posted December 10, 2010
WITHOUT BILL BENNETT, there could not have been Steve Wynn. The man whom Michael Milken dubbed "the Sam Walton of Las Vegas" marketed Sin City to budget-conscious American consumers. This generated the wide customer base to which Wynn would pitch his upscale-but-affordable resorts, The Mirage and Treasure Island.
Before he could reinvent Vegas, Bennett had to remake himself. A college dropout and World War II naval aviator, Bennett returned to his native Phoenix after the war, entered the furniture business . . . and failed miserably. Fleeing the aftermath of bankruptcy, Bennett accepted a job as clerk at Del Webb's Sahara Tahoe casino. Applying himself with complete diligence to the gambling business, Bennett experienced a steady ascent that culminated with buying the failing Circus Circus from its eccentric, dissolute creator, Jay Sarno.
[Listen to author Jack Sheehan discuss his recent book on "KNPR's State of Nevada"]
Over the next 15 years, Bennett would delicately extricate Circus Circus from its Mob entanglements and "mainstream" the Strip's identity. He built aggressively in Laughlin when its main drag was still a dirt road. He cloned Circus Circus into the immensely lucrative Excalibur and the considerably more problematic Luxor. Problems associated with that Egyptian-themed casino, Bennett's increasingly erratic behavior and growing number of enemies all led to his ouster from the company he'd built. Retreating to the Sahara, Bennett spent his declining years in a miasma of illness, medication, paranoia and eccentricity -- as when he made his physical therapist the casino's president.
Despite its beautiful presentation, Forgotten Man (Jack Sheehan; Stephens Press, 228 pp.; $29.95) is a handsome shell, hackwork off the Jack Sheehan assembly line. Everything you need to know is in the lengthy introduction. The remaining chapters simply reiterate Bennett's saga in an indolent, "oral history" format pasted together from interview transcripts. The overlapping accounts go backwards and forwards so much that constructing a mental timeline of Bennett's life proves impossible. Nor has Sheehan bothered with simple fact-checking: The annual return from Excalibur is given as both 20 percent and 40 percent. An associate is described receiving an award from the Global Gaming Expo "[s]omewhere around 1990." G2E was not founded until 2001.
A pivotal figure like Bennett deserves a major biography, but this half-hearted effort must temporarily suffice.
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