Bill Bennett, casino pioneer, dead at 78

Dec 24, 2002 5:44 AM

   Gaming legend Bill Bennett, who changed the face of casino gambling in the mid 1970s, died on Sunday at Desert Springs Hospital after a lengthy illness. He was 78 years old.

   Most recently, Mr. Bennett was confined to a wheelchair as he oversaw the operations of the Sahara Hotel and Casino, which he purchased in 1995.

   Since then he embarked on a renovation plan that brought grandeur to one of Las Vegas’ pioneer resorts. Currently, the Sahara features fresh entertainment, dining, an exquisite porte cochere, new hotel rooms and many other amenities.

   But Mr. Bennett will be most remembered for changing the face of gaming in 1974 when he and a partner, Bill Pennington, purchased Circus Circus.

   At the time, the property’s original founder, Jay Sarno, had gone bust trying to sell the idea of a circus theme hotel on the Strip.

   Nevertheless, the two men revolutionized the industry by increasing the role of slot machines and providing quality food, lodging and entertainment with a premium on value.

   “When he and Pennington took Circus Circus to run, they immediately changed all the minuses into pluses and never looked back,” said former GamingToday columnist Dick Odessky in an article profiling the casino magnate. “When they finally went public, they quickly became the darlings of Wall Street.”

   Odessky said Bennett came to town with no actual gaming experience.

   “He had been an appliance wholesaler in Arizona for many years and wound up coming to Las Vegas when the Arizona building boom cooled,” Odessky said. “He hooked up with Del Webb at the original Sahara and then became general manager of the Mint, where he put in place many innovations.”

   Odessky added that even though Mr. Bennett was at the helm of the Sahara, he will always be remembered for creating the Circus Circus — now Mandalay Resorts — empire.

   “Without him, there would have been no empire and no record earnings and no regular Las Vegans made rich by he rise of Circus Circus stock,” Odessky said.

   During his 20 years as chairman of Circus Circus Enterprises, Bennett opened, among other properties, the Excalibur Hotel and Casino and Luxor Las Vegas. With the success of the Excalibur and Luxor, Bennett helped create the southern end of the Las Vegas Strip as we know it today and broke new ground in themed entertainment.

   In addition, Circus Circus Enterprises grew to include Silver City, Slots-A-Fun, Circus Circus Reno, and the Edgewater and Colorado Belle in Laughlin.

   “Our priority is, and always has been, to provide quality and value to our customers — and to listen to what they really want,” Bennett once said. “We will continue to bring modern entertainment and provide the amenities today’s traveler expects with the nostalgic flair only the Sahara can deliver.”

   The Sahara Hotel and Casino opened on the Las Vegas Strip in 1952, and quickly established itself as one of Las Vegas’ most exciting destinations. Bennett sought to combine the amenities and services expected by today’s travelers with the glamour, style and charm that established the property as a Las Vegas icon. Today, the Moroccan-themed hotel and casino features 1,720 guest rooms, an 85,000-square-foot casino.

   The Sahara property will continue under normal operations, hotel officials said.

   Along with his wife Lynn, Bennett is survived by a daughter, Diana, a son William A., a step-daughter, Laura Lynn, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

   Funeral arrangements at press time were pending.

   In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Bennett Foundation, an organization that supports charities throughout the Las Vegas community (i.e., UNLV and other educational development foundations). Donations may be mailed to the Bennett Foundation at 2535 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, NV 89109.