A true pair of aces

Jul 7, 2019 10:00 AM

One was born in Ogden, Utah in 1921. The other in Glendale, Arizona, three years later. The population of Ogden at the time was 33,000; Glendale under 5,000.

Both men were raised in stable families and learned early on the value of hard work and a good education. They served their country and earned numerous awards in the military. Both also had strong people skills and razor-sharp business instincts.

It would be said often of each of them, during their exceptional careers in Las Vegas: “He was the smartest man I ever knew.”

Their careers would intersect on several occasions through the years, and they had the highest regard for each other. It’s likely that neither would have given a thought when they moved to Southern Nevada that one day each of them would make a short list of the most important figures in the history of Las Vegas.

But banker E. Parry Thomas and hotel owner William “Bill” Bennett both belong near the top.

As a biographer of accomplished people in several walks of life, I had the pleasure of probing into both men’s lives and learning about the hurdles they crossed as they pursued their common goals of building Las Vegas into a thriving modern American city.

Parry Thomas’ path began here in 1954, when he was asked by an eminent Utah banking family, the Cosgriffs, to oversee a small bank they owned, the Bank of Las Vegas. His instructions were to observe the branch closely and determine within a year whether it had a future or should be closed.

Thomas had visited Las Vegas on and off since 1943, when he’d spent time at the Las Vegas Gunnery School (later to become Nellis Air Force Base) at just 22 years of age. He said of that time, “I was amazed to see all the money on the gaming tables there. I thought to myself that if they could ever perfect air-conditioning, Las Vegas might really become something.”

Parry made a healthy score on a Las Vegas shopping center investment in the two years before moving here, and he was further encouraged about his bank’s potential when he came to realize that the two other banks in town at the time, First National Bank and Bank of Nevada, both owned by Western Bank Corporation, had in their charters that they wouldn’t loan money to gambling operations.

As Nevada was the only state in the country with legalized gambling back then, this didn’t seem like an important omission at the time. But to Parry Thomas and his tiny bank, that resistance to gaming by the bigger banks was the opening he saw for unlimited growth.

Thomas understood that Las Vegas in the 1950s was a second-chance city, and that many of the men running casinos had checkered pasts. They had been forced out of their previous towns for illegal gambling. But that didn’t faze him at all. He felt if he treated them fairly and honestly, they would do the same with him. He was willing to loan money to anyone with ambition and the belief that Las Vegas had great potential.

“I didn’t pay attention to all the stories I heard about what someone had done before they came to Las Vegas,” he said in his biography. “I just looked around and saw that all the major payrolls in Las Vegas were coming from gambling. I viewed it as an open playing field for our bank, and I was given a lot of freedom to do what I wanted to do.”

Shortly after moving to Las Vegas, Parry met a civic leader named Nate Mack, and he soon became business partners with Nate’s son Jerry, a talented real estate executive. Between the two of them, Thomas and Mack (yes, the UNLV basketball arena is named for them) became the go-to business advisors to the Mormon and Jewish communities and any other entrepreneurial men and women who saw, like them, the bright future of Las Vegas.

As it grew and expanded, the Bank of Las Vegas became Valley Bank of Nevada, and with Parry Thomas working his people skills and business magic, properties like the Desert Inn, the Silver Slipper and Castaways, the Sands, the Golden Nugget, Circus Circus and later The Mirage and Treasure Island, either found the money to build or changed hands to more stable ownership.

It’s hard to imagine what the Las Vegas Strip would look like today if Parry Thomas had not been here to help move the city into more sophisticated hands.

Bennett’s long way around

Bill Bennett’s path to Las Vegas and great wealth was more circuitous than Parry Thomas’.

While he had made an early fortune in the furniture business in Phoenix, some bad decisions led to that career going bust. But one of Bennett’s good customers, real estate developer Del Webb, saw that Bill’s people skills and intelligence could be applied to the gaming and hospitality world.

In 1964, L.C. Jacobson, the president of Webb’s Nevada gaming operations, offered Bennett a job as a casino host at his Sahara Hotel in Lake Tahoe. Although Bill had been just a casual gambler himself, he immersed himself in all the casino games: blackjack, craps, and roulette. At 40 years old, he sensed early in his new profession that he could rise through the ranks quickly,  

He did just that. In a short time, he was promoted to assistant manager of the Mint Hotel in downtown Las Vegas. By 1969, Bill was running all three Webb properties in Nevada, including the Sahara Hotel at the Strip’s north edge.

To rise from a gaming novice to the company’s key executive in five short years was a feat that caught the attention of everyone in the gambling industry, in particular Parry Thomas.

Thomas had several meetings with Bennett in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, discussing different buying opportunities that existed for a bright executive with revolutionary ideas about how best to run a gambling property. Finally, in 1974, Thomas steered Bennett and his partner Bill Pennington toward the troubled Circus Circus, which had opened six years before under the hand of a colorful and controversial entrepreneur named Jay Sarno, whose backing had come primarily from Jimmy Hoffa’s Central States Teamsters pension fund.

Sarno had built the dazzling Caesars Palace to much acclaim in 1966 and had then parlayed his Caesars’ profits into an unlikely and bold second property two miles to the north. By the early 1970s Circus Circus was hemorrhaging money badly, and the Nevada Gaming Control board let it be known in industry circles that qualified new owners would be welcomed.

While many of the Strip’s casino owners were in constant competition for high-rolling gamblers, Bennett aggressively pursued the middle-class customer, and it paid off with a hotel that never had an empty room and a casino full of people eagerly pulling slot machine handles. There was even an arcade with games for children, so mom and pop could brings the kids with them on their Las Vegas vacation.

The brilliant financier Michael Milken, whose junk bonds provided needed capital for several Strip properties, says, “Don’t we have to regard Bill Bennett as the Sam Walton of Las Vegas? He showed the middle class and the blue-collar people that Las Vegas was open to them, too.”

Bennett’s company in subsequent years built the Excalibur and the Luxor and Mandalay Bay. Although in his later years, Bennett left the company and acquired the Sahara Hotel, which he had managed some 30 years before, he deserves credit for the vision to take over a failing hotel headed for bankruptcy and parlaying it into a mega-company and Wall Street darling.

In Thomas’ biography he tells a funny story about the first time he met Bennett.

“Sometime in the 1960s I invited Del Webb and L.C. Jacobson to look at an opportunity to buy the Thunderbird Hotel, which was nearby their Sahara Hotel,” he said. “We met in the penthouse of the Sahara, and they brought a man with them to serve drinks.

“I didn’t learn until later that the man waiting on us was Bill Bennett, a bright guy in their organization whom they’d brought with them to secretly listen in on the meeting. It’s kind of funny that Bill Bennett, who years later was in Forbes Magazine as one of the wealthiest men in America, was first introduced to me as a bartender.”

Parry Thomas’ biography is titled, “The Quiet Kingmaker of Las Vegas,” and Bill Bennett’s is, “Forgotten Man.” Both of these corporate giants deserve a spot on our city’s Mount Rushmore as the city grows in prestige and respectability. Neither of them wavered for a minute in their belief that Las Vegas could become as great as it has. 

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