Vegas Legends: Don Laughlin

Don Laughlin

If you have spent any time around a Las Vegas casino or talked to any long-time visitor, you have heard them talk about a little town on the Arizona, Nevada border called Laughlin. It’s a cheap place to eat, drink, gamble and it’s even kid-friendly!!

The town is named for its founder, Don Laughlin. A lifelong entrepreneur who came to Las Vegas from Minnesota as a teenager with a dream to make it his way! And He Did!

Before Don Laughlin moved to Las Vegas in the 1950s, he already had an entrepreneurial spirit. In ninth grade, he started selling slot machines to the hunting lodges around his hometown of Owatonna, Minnesota. Soon, his school principal gave him an ultimatum: get out of slots or get out of school. Since he was making more than three times what the principal was making, he got out of school.

Since school was now out of his future, so what to do? Well, you head west. Las Vegas seemed like a good place to be. Here he worked in a few casinos doing odd jobs until he was old enough to actually work in the real casino. But once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. He bought a beer-and-wine bar just north of downtown on the border of Westside. He of course installed some slot machines!

At that time, Las Vegas was very much a segregated town. His store was located on Bonanza Ave. Bonanza was considered an “open” street. Meaning black and white patrons could mingle at the bar together.

He sold that establishment for $10,000. Using that money, he bought the 101 Club on the Salt Lake Highway in North Las Vegas. That Highway was later renamed Las Vegas Boulevard.

Don Laughlin then bought land across the street from the existing club and opened a brand new 101 Club on January 1, 1960. He had a gaming license and the only blackjack table in that part of town, plus plenty of parking and a popular new restaurant. In no time, the business tripled! Four years later, he sold the 101 for $165,000. In later years, it later morphed into the Opera House Casino, which was demolished in 2014 and replaced with a Dotty’s casino.

Taking the profits from that sale to buy an old 8-room motel and bait shack he saw while out flying, just across the Colorado River from Bullhead City, Arizona. About ninety minutes from Las Vegas. His family lived in four of the units and he rented out the other four to travelers and local miners.

With that little piece of property and a vision, Don Laughlin started to build his empire.

Even back then, Las Vegas casinos spurned recreational vehicles. The thought was that RV travelers were tightwads. Don Laughlin did the numbers and knew it cost a tenth of as much to build an RV space as a hotel room. Plus, he figured right, that anybody who can own and operate an RV is somebody with money.

Now that led to another idea Las Vegas hated. Marketing to parents with kids. Not just “with kids” but actually parents traveling with their children! So why not build a childcare facility and amenities for families alongside the casino? Keep the kids busy watching movies or playing in the playground while mommy and daddy go into the casino, gamble, and catch a live show.

Laughlin Riverside

Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort

In a 1988 interview, Don Laughlin was quoted as saying “We’ve found RV customers spend just as much money as people who stay in our rooms”. Smart move!

By 1968, the town had gotten to the size where it needed its own post office. The postmaster suggested “Laughlin”. Laughlin’s entrepreneurial city father would go on to help build and later expand an airport plus a gas station, as well as amass vast tracts of land, a bank, movie theaters, a fleet of water taxis, a bus line, a 34-lane bowling alley, a granary, hay farm, and even a cattle ranch. Owning and controlling all this made him indispensable to the local economy.

In the early 70’s he added 100 hotel rooms to the Riverside. A 253-room tower in 1983, and a 307-room tower in 1986. In 1994, just before the Laughlin economy began to stagnate, Don Laughlin built yet another tower, bringing his total room inventory to 1,404 plus plenty of room for more RVs!

Then reality hit as tribal gambling exploded in Arizona and California in the ’80s and sent Laughlins economy into a four-year nose dive.

What do you do? If you are Don Laughlin and it’s 1987, you fund the building of a four-lane bridge between Arizona and Nevada alongside your resort, then donate it to the two states! According to Don, it took four and a half years to get the bridge approved by about 38 different agencies! Once approved, it only took four months for them to build it!

As word spread about this family-friendly casino next to a bridge that spanned a state line, the Las Vegas casino’s started to take this man and what he had built, seriously and they wanted to be a part of it. They knew they needed to be where Laughlin was.

Soon Steve Wynn, Hilton Hotels, Boyd Gaming, Circus Circus, and Harrah’s Entertainment started to build their own little piece of the Laughlin pie. Laughlin as a town flourished, and so did neighboring Bullhead City, Arizona. Their population more than doubled as more casinos moved south.

As the travel writer Cary Ordway summarized the city’s appeal as being “thought of by many visitors as the Old Las Vegas – the one that was more focused on providing cheap beds and cheap eats, but plenty of opportunities to gamble.”

To better put it, a Laughlin regular summed up Laughlin’s appeal thusly, “I like it there because it’s low-key, everything is cheaper, and the people are friendlier.”

Don Laughlin the casino baron built a reputation for keeping operations sharp. He is famous for prowling his casino floor in the predawn hours and monitoring the prices at his gas station through a telescope.

As much as he wants you in the casino gambling, he also knows you need some distraction. So attached to the main floor of the casino is a world-famous classic car museum and movie theaters. Don Laughlin knows how to make money keeping the entire family entertained. And it happens in the town that he built!

And yes, he still lives on the top floor of his casino, The Riverside. He sold his helicopter a few years ago. Not to worry, he is still seen often walking the gaming floor. Just look for the mob of people wanting to meet the man who made it all happen!

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