At 87, The Duck drives, lovely Frances prays

May 29, 2001 10:24 AM

"THE TOWN HAS LOST ITS CHARM!" That’s what Don McKinney says. And he should know. The youthful 87-year-old gambling character came to Las Vegas seeking a job building Boulder Dam. The Great Depression was hard on the common man. There were 2,500 people camping out on the lawn where Jackie Gaughan’s Plaza now stands. Although McKinney, fondly known as The Duck, loved the odds, 2,500-1 was too much even for him. He moved farther west to Hollywood, where he ended up in a number of "B" flicks.

The Duck - as usual - was all aglow when I called him at his home outside of Boston.

"I nearly made it big-time in Hollywood. I was under contract to Paramount. They were making ”˜The Outlaw.’ One day, on shooting location, I got the word of a big party in town. I snooped around the production people. They assured me that my part would not be shot that day.

"I love a party. I still do. But this one was a costly one. The star fell ill and the production schedule was changed around. I wasn’t there to do the scene. Filmmakers hate to lose money. I cost ’em a few shekels that day and they did what they were used to doing in those days - they blackballed me in the industry."

The Duck said he wasn’t worried at all. He had a bankroll now and he had honed his horse-picking skills. He returned to Las Vegas, this time with some bullets.

"Those were great days for horse players. Pari-mutuel wagering had not yet arrived and stable information flowed freely. The trainer - once he was down - didn’t care who knew about the horse because it would not affect his odds.

"Those were the days. The town played up to gamblers. There were plenty of well-heeled guys that I could put the bite on whenever I got broke. Wilbur Clark was one of them. I don’t think he ever said no to me. Gamblers had a lot of class in those days. Whenever they made a score they paid their markers off first. It was a good policy for the days when the pickings were slimmer.

"The town ran on glamour and glitz. There were plenty of beautiful women who dated for a living. There were a few who got rich and never had to go to bed. One girl in particular was a bombshell. Gamblers tried to impress her. They bought her expensive gifts. This one lassie ended up with a couple of fur coats a week. She was sharp as a tack. She had made a deal with the stores. They’d take a healthy discount, return some cash to the lady, and get the coat back to re-sell."

Despite being a character, The Duck really was a family man. He and his late wife, Cherrie, had two offspring and a houseful of grandchildren.

"When you have all those mouths to feed you have to play lucky. I always dressed in fancy suits and collars. I always wore a fancy gold stickpin in my neckties. I’m convinced that if you want to be a winner you’ve got to look like one."

The octogenarian still practices what he preaches. I don’t think I ever saw him without a suit and tie. The Duck even dresses up in the humid weather during the Saratoga meeting in upstate New York. He has been going to Saratoga for the races for the past 60 years.

"If I had to pick one track as a favorite, it would definitely be Saratoga. Before the tote machines, bookmakers were the gentlemen of the track. They took book on the lawn," The Duck said. "It was great fun to shop for a price. And," he continued, "as I explained before, if a stable connection knew something about the horse they were running, they had no problem smartening up their friends once they had gotten down themselves."

McKinney and his lovely Frances have been an item a long time. They go everywhere together from their home in New England. They winter in Florida, just as they did this season. And, believe it or not, Don McKinney still drives his car to and fro Boston and Miami.

"Fran has become good at praying. I drive and she calls upon all the saints in heaven to protect us!"