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The Spirit hit us!We stood up, shouted!

Sep 24, 2002 8:30 AM

   THOSE WERE THE DAYS! Oh what memories flooded my mind at the AGA Gaming Vision Awards Luncheon last week when AGA CEO and personal friend Frank Fahrenkopf mentioned how he remembered our first affiliation when he “was a young lawyer in Reno” and I had come up with the idea for simulcasting horse races into the state’s race books.

   That was just a few years after my first effort to bring casino journalism to Las Vegas with the publication Sports Form. The year was 1976. Yes, the Spirit of ’76 was alive and well at the time of our publishing birth.

   The way it was? The USA was celebrating its 200th anniversary of independence . . . The Olympic games were played in Montreal . . . ”˜Rocky’ was the movie blockbuster . . . Howard Hughes left us. He was a man who changed Las Vegas into a corporate “good thing.”

   Gross taxable gaming revenue was $1.2 billion. Just think, it was this spirit that made it possible for our newspaper, Sports Form/Gaming Today, to become an integral part of this community and for that we have you, our readers, to thank. You made it happen and we are grateful.

   Table games ruled supreme. In 1976 about 63% of total win was from the tables with only 37% coming from slots. Then they fell victim to slots and the flip-flop came into play. Last year nearly 65% of total win was from slots and the rest from table games. In 1976 a TV show named “Family Feud” debuted. It took a few years, but when the MGM Grand unveiled a new high-tech video slot machine named “Family Feud” the trend continued with slot machine games such as “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.”

   Horseplayers, hungry for action, had 12 places to place bets, but only two of the sites were at hotels ”” Stardust and Union Plaza. The others were smaller non-casino shops throughout the city. Legendary places such as Sammy Cohen’s Santa Anita and the Rosebowl, both on the Strip, were the rave. Today, there are 143 bet shops taking race and sports bet.

   Bill Walters and his pals put computers to good work and put manners on sports book operators. As a gambler, Bill was always ahead of the curve. He tracked one of Steve Wynn’s roulette wheels so well that he took the Golden Nugget for $3.8 million.

   The store with the most reputation was the Stardust. That’s where legendary Lefty Rosenthal operated. And, Allen Glick ran Argent Corp. (Stardust, Fremont, Hacienda and Marina hotels); at least until he admitted he was duped by organized crime figures.

   Other pioneers at the time ”” Jay Sarno, Carl Thomas, Bobby Stella, Al Sachs, “Peanuts” Nick Danolfo and Yale Cohen. Eddie Torres was running the Riviera.

   On the other side of the coin, Henry Gluck and Terry Lanni ran the best store in town, Caesars Palace. The Sands handled good action, but couldn’t keep up with the Palace.

   It was a time to be around. It was also a great town to get lucky in. Ask Paul Lowden. He came to town in 1965 with a U-Haul toting his Hammond organ and about $7,000 in his pocket. Little did he know that his career as a lounge act would propel him to the top as a casino owner (Sahara and Hacienda).

   The showrooms featured the biggest headliners of the day: Frank Sinatra, “The Chairman;” Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Peggy Lee, Alan King (who is appearing next weekend at Texas Station), Debbie Reynolds, Wayne Newton, Ray Charles, Bill Cosby, David Brenner, Joan Rivers, Engelbert Humperdink, Robert Goulet, Tom Jones, Joey Bishop, Bob Newhart and the beat went on. The lounges were the spot to be. Louis Prima and Keely Smith, together with Sammy Butera, did their shtick. And, what about the Mary Kaye trio, Chris Fio Rito, Sonny King and many more?

   Production shows began popping up in 1976. Lido de Paris, Folies Bergere, Hallelujah Hollywood, Hurray ’76, Country Music USA, Bare Touch of Vegas, Spice on Ice and many others.

   Vegas was a different place then. Its operators were mainly gamblers from other parts of the country who knew the business inside out. They lived by the rule ”” “Give them anything they want!” I can remember one casino host at a Strip hotel who upped a player’s limit by $10,000 when the player begged for more credit. After the player lost the extra $10,000, the host erased the debt by ripping up the marker.

   Ken Uston was just coming on the scene. Some casinos feared his skills. Looking back, I think he’s the best thing that ever happened to the game of blackjack. He attracted new players to the game ”” professional people who admired Uston from his days in high finance and wanted to emulate his skills at 21.

   Most of the memories center on days before the corporations moved in. Since there weren’t enough experienced gamblers to man the casino pits, they changed the rules into a mathematical formula that can never compare to the way it used to be. But, in fairness, they reach out to far more people than just gamblers.

   Those were the days, my friend. And, believe it or not, they haven’t ended. The faces have changed. The antics are different. But, the spirit, the spirit lives on!