Friday, March 9, 2007


In 1966, Owatonna-born Don Laughlin bought an eight-room motel and bankrupt bar on a dirt road 20 miles from nowhere. Today, his 1,400-room hotel/casino anchors a desert gambling town that draws five million annual tourists.
A white piano sits on white carpeting in the penthouse suite in a tourist town that 30-some years ago was next to nothing (just an eight-room motel and bankrupt bar) in the middle of nowhere, on a dirt road 20 miles north of Needles, Calif. (where Snoopy's wispy-mustachioed brother Spike talks to cacti) and nearly as far west of Oatman, Ariz. (where wild burros roam the streets of the 1916 gold mine-turned-1918 ghost town).
Now, from 28 stories up, you can see everything — everything that matters to the 5 million annual visitors, anyway — of Don's eponymous Laughlin, Nevada.
Pontoons taxi tourists and casino workers across the Colorado River and jet skis and ski boats speed through river reflections of the city's nine hotel/casinos, which edge the banks of the slow, 800-foot-wide river that scribbles along the Nevada-Arizona then Arizona-California border as it carries Rocky Mountain snow runoff to the Sea of Cortez.
"This is the highest spot in Laughlin," Don says, as he steps out on the balcony. He's dressed in black — buttoned-to-the-top shirt, pants and tassled shoes — and, out here, his white hair — swept to the side — whips in the wind. He speaks in sharp sentences strung one after the other and he punches up the words that matter. "The Palms [the River Palms Casino] looks higher, but it's actually 20 feet shorter. You can see everything from up here."
Everything, now, is nine hotel/casinos (with 15,000 employees) and a permanent population of 9,000 in the state's hottest (the average August high is 113 degrees — it hit 125 in June of 1994) and lowest (elevation 510 feet) spot, at the southern tip of where Nevada's knife-point glances off California and jabs into Arizona.
To the west of Don Laughlin's Riverside Resort and Casino, the sunlight glares off the tops of Winnebagos and Silverstreaks in the 900-spot Riverside RV Park (full hookup for $19 a night, $100 a week). Early in the morning — ungodly hours, the times when all-night casino goers are just going to bed in Vegas — elderly women in pantsuits and their bifocaled World War Two veteran husbands are exiting their RVs (which are plastered with "Spending the Inheritance" and "Retired: No Phone, No Clock, No Job, No Money" bumper stickers) for the air conditioned casinos, where they'll slip dollar bills or plunk coins — nickels and pennies, even — into machines where the winning or losing is determined before the symbols even stop spinning, before you even put your money in.
"The trailers are good business," he says. "A lot of people thought the trailer crowd wouldn't spend money, but in the early days it made good business sense. It was a lot cheaper to build RV spaces than hotel rooms, and we've found they spend about the same amount of money."
The Chamber of Commerce says Laughlin visitors gamble an average of seven hours per day and spend $353 per visit — just under Las Vegas' average.
"It's mostly the over-50, over-60 crowd. They don't write bad checks, they don't stay up all night and get drunk and cause trouble. They get up early and they gamble and they go to bed early.
"The only problems we've had in the RV park are the coyotes. They'll take dogs and cats if you leave 'em out," he says. "We always have to warn people but you'll still get someone who doesn't believe it. Their teeth are like razors and they know how to adapt to anything. The coyotes will be here long after all the people are gone. They'll be here a thousand years from now."
Don Laughlin, if all goes according to plan, might be here then, too. He pulls up his sleeve and shows me his gold bracelet with red lettering. It's not Medic-Alert; it's the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. When Don dies, they're going to freeze him — cryonically suspend him — until they can find a cure for what ails him.
Born in Owatonna in 1931, Don Laughlin grew up on a dairy farm in Merton, a farming town just seven miles to the northeast. His mother was a housewife, his father a dairy farmer and part-time truck driver.
Don went to school in a one-room, eight-grade schoolhouse and helped on the farm. In the mid-1940's, he spent a winter trapping mink (at $20-$40 per pelt). "I'd accumulated $1,000," says Don. "So I took $75 and bought a slot machine. I played it for a week, and other people on the dairy farm wanted to play it. I had a friend with a store in Merton, and finally I put it in there. It started making $50-$60 a week and I split it with the owner."
In Minnesota, like most states, the slots were illegal but overlooked, and Laughlin took his money and invested in more slot machines. "Pretty soon I was running 15 or 16 slots," he says. "I was 15 years old and making $500 a week. Then the principal called me in for a chat and told me he didn't like what I was doing. He said ‘Get out of the slots or get out of school.'
"I told him, ‘I'm already making twice as much money as you are.' And that was it for school."
Laughlin's barroom and backroom slot machines continued to thrive until the 1946 election of Minnesota's 27th governor, Luther Youngdahl. "A lot of people think it was the fed crackdown that hurt the gambling," Laughlin says, "but Governor Youngdahl came in and started chopping up slot machines with axes. That's when we really lived in fear of being busted."
Youngdahl — nicknamed "The Governor Who's Against Sin" and best known for his anti-gambling stand (and later, as a federal judge, for dismissing the government's and Sen. Joseph McCarthy's case against alleged Communist Owen J. Lattimore ) — "sent his Carry Nation-style sledgehammer platoon into taverns, gas stations, and resorts around the state," according to the Minnesota Session Weekly, "... to destroy 8,000 illegal slot machines."
"Youngdahl's vehemence," said historical columnist Fulton Klinkerfues, "created one of the greatest political firestorms in Minnesota history. Local law enforcement officers rebelled at dealing with unhappy resort, bar and club owners and managers, all of whom depended upon gambling for economic survival. But Youngdahl prevailed, provoking an unhappy truce. Within six months, the machines were gone. Blank spaces where machines once stood were often labeled ‘Luther Was Here.'"
In 1952, after a business/vacation trip to Las Vegas, Laughlin and his then-wife Betty moved out to Sin City with their infant son Dan. Don bartended at the Thunderbird, waited tables at the Sands, went to dealer school at night. By 1955, he'd saved enough money to buy the 101 Club, an on- and off-sale liquor bar in North Vegas with one blackjack table and a dozen slot machines and a dance place in the back.
"We were doing it all ourselves," Don says. "We worked the bar, swept the floors, fixed the ceilings, whatever we had to do. It would only rain about once a year but then the signs would go out, and we'd have to fix those."
A few years later, Don and Betty opened the expanded 101 Club, which was four times bigger than the original, with a restaurant, 25 slots and three blackjack tables. "There were only three or four places like this on the strip," Don says. "In 1964, we sold that place for $165,000, which was a lot of money then."
After flying lessons and a subsequent barnstorming session of the state in a small plane, Don Laughlin flew over, then made an offer on, an eight-room motel and a bankrupt bar in a place without a name. With a $35,000 down payment and for $235,000 total, the Laughlins bought the buildings and six acres on the Colorado River. "Again, we were doing everything ourselves to get the place going," says Laughlin.
Ninety-eight-cent, all-you-can-eat chicken dinners drew customers — from Bullhead City, mostly — into the dozen-slot-machine, two-blackjack table casino.
"We lived in four of the eight units and rented out the other four. We cleaned up and dealt cards and made drinks. Our oldest son, Dan, counted coins in the coin room.
"The place still didn't have a name, and the guy from the post office came and asked me for one. We suggested Casino, Nevada and Riverside, Nevada. I saw the postal guy a few months later, after he named it Laughlin, and he said that the government doesn't like gambling names and that every state had a Riverside. He said Laughlin sounded like a good, solid Irish name. So it's Laughlin."
Don shows me the rest of his penthouse — the spiral staircase, the Rock-Ola jukebox (with CDs like "Hooked on Swing") recessed into the wall near the dance floor. He activates a switch in the giant bedroom closet and clothes hung on a mechanical lazy susan scroll by like at some high-tech dry cleaner. The bedroom's big-screened TV displays a three-by-three grid of security camera shots — door entrances and the elevator and Don's McDonnell Douglas 600N helicopter, which sits covered in a gray tarp on a rooftop landing pad outside his bedroom.
"Vegas is 80 miles to the north," he says, pointing out the bedroom window. His 1,300-acre ranch is to the east, in Arizona. ("See the bump on that mountain? The one that looks like a nose? They call that the Sleeping Chief. If the cleaning people haven't moved the telescope you can see my American flag planted at the ranch."). He pilots the MD 600N back and forth between the ranch and the penthouse landing pad.
We take the elevator down to his private basement parking garage, then take his Rolls Royce Corniche convertible into the car elevator. He pushes a button on a remote control, and we're carried up to the parking lot.
Don Laughlin loves his cars. The Riverside Auto Museum, on the casino's third floor, showcases his seventy-plus classic car collection — everything from horseless carriages to 60's muscle cars to motorcycles.
"I like to drive around and check out the area once a week," says Don, wearing sunglasses with a flaming 8-ball decorating the side. We cross the bridge into Bullhead City, Ariz., a city of 35,000 built in 1940 as a homebase for the Davis Dam construction crews that now houses "50 percent of the casino workers," Don says. It's also the place where they captured the world's largest live rattlesnake — 8 feet 5 inches, 32 pounds.
"We get a few rattlers down by the river in the summer," Don says, "but those coyotes are the real worry."
Don Laughlin, with his own money, built the bridge over the Colorado River. In 1987 — after "three-and-a-half years of problems and dealing with 38 different government agencies," Don says — "we finally got the OK. It took three-and-a-half years to get the approval and we got it built in three-and-a-half months." It cost $4 million, and carries 50,000 people a day. The bridge's Nevada side terminus sits on the north side of Laughlin's strip — Don Laughlin's Riverside Resort. "We were generous but not stupid," he says.
We drive by the flood control project (funded by Don Laughlin) and the Laughlin/Bullhead City International Airport (Don donated millions to build a 7,500-foot runway, capable of handling the 737s which land daily). In 2001, according to airport officials (and in their terms), "148,770 passengers enplaned and deplaned at the airport." Don's also made a deal with Sun Country, buying seats on flights and packaging hotel deals (last year, according to the Associated Press, "[Don Laughlin] agreed to buy 100 of 165 seats on every plane Sun Country flies from the Twin Cities.")
Don still has his Minnesota ties. "My roots are there," he says. "I left when I was 21 years old but I get back there two or so times a year. I was in the Elks Club in Owatonna a few weeks ago and I knew a lot of the people from one way or another. We've had Owatonna class reunions out here. And I tried for a long time to build a casino back in Minnesota. I wanted to give the state millions of dollars in revenue. But I've kinda given up on it. It's just not a level playing field with the advantages given the Indians. I'll be 76 and I'm still in good health, but it's time for me to start scaling back.
"It's a 24-hour a day job but I only work 16 hours."
Which isn't, it turns out, an exaggeration. Don typically gets into his office at 9 or 10 a.m., works until 6 p.m., naps upstairs in the penthouse until 8 or so. Then it's back to work until 4 a.m. And you can see it. He's probably worked like that since he was a kid on the dairy farm. And he's still working like that even though he's nearly 76 and worth, according to the best estimates we can find, $200-$400 million.
Casino employees, on the record, describe Don as a "hands-on boss."
"I get involved in every aspect of the operation," Don says. "We have 2,100 to 2,200 employees and I'll show up at different times and get involved in everything from the help being impolite to guests to wilted salad on the buffet to dirty ashtrays. I see it as a big garden, and you have to keep pulling the weeds."
His oldest son, Dan, is the resort's purchasing manager. Son Ron runs a food supply company on the Bullhead City side. Daughter Erin is a former casino employee. Don's ex-wife Betty still lives in Laughlin.
Don Laughlin, along with Howard Hughes and Liberace and former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, was recently named, by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "One of the First 100 Persons Who Shaped Southern Nevada." At least one rundown of Laughlin subsections the area's history into three parts: Ancient Geology, Ancient People (area petroglyphs date from 900 B.C.), The Arrival of Don Laughlin ("Don Laughlin, former owner of the 101 Club in Las Vegas, flew over the tri-state area in his private plane ...").
When he dies — probably out here in the arid Mohave Desert in a city with the state's highest average temperature (73 degrees) and the record stretch of consecutive 90-plus days (nearly four straight months in the summer of 1992) — Don Laughlin's blood will be replaced with dimethyl sulfoxide or some glycerol-based solution and his body will be lowered to the temperature of liquid nitrogen (320 degrees below, give or take). His body — his entire body, though there is a less-expensive, head-only option — will be shipped 150 miles southeast to Scottsdale, to a storage facility at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, formerly The Alcor Society of Solid State Hypothermia, for cryonic suspension.
"Why not?" he says, showing me the red-lettered, gold bracelet that will alert doctors or paramedics or whoever to call Alcor. "What do I have to lose? It's a gamble, and when you look at all the advances in technology you've got to think it's possible. Cloning would probably be used when the body is reanimated. If you die when you're 80 you don't want to come back in that old body."
Current prices on the Alcor website list full-body and head/brain-only costs at $120,000 and $50,000, respectively (though they say some insurance companies will pay for it), not including the $150 membership fee and $400 annual dues. The company boasts 600 members, 49 of whom are currently in cryonic suspension.
"It's like heaven," Don says. "I haven't talked to anyone who's been there, but I like to think it's possible. But it's like religion. I'll talk about it if people ask, but I won't preach it. It's a gamble. But no one ever thought," he says, looking out at the shining strip on the city that bears his name, "that this place would work, either."


Anonymous said...

Blah Blah there a part 8????? Please don't bore us with this anymore;)

Anonymous said...

Rex, Because I am a history nut, I enjoyed the series. History, especially recent history, explains so much of why the world is the way it is. There is always a value in history.


Virginia said...

Looking for the name of a city not to far inside the Arizona border next to Calif. that is about 2,000 feet elevation, or has some Pine trees! Will be traveling back and forth from Torrance, Calif. so don't want a real long drive. Since you folks seem to do quite a bit of traveling, thought you might know of someplace! Thank you, Virginia