Having just turned 90, Burton Cohen is still actively involved in the development of Las Vegas, though he’ll smile and remind you constantly everything he says is “off the record.”
Thank goodness for birthdays.
“I gave a few comments in an article, which I normally don’t do,” Cohen said over breakfast. “So I owe you this.”
And so we’re privileged to get a glimpse into the man who helped develop the Desert Inn and laid the groundwork for The Frontier – aptly named in describing one of this city’s true pioneers. Burton ran the operation his way and, if starting fresh in today’s Las Vegas, still would.
“I had the pleasure of visiting Las Vegas before I moved here,” said Cohen, who was an attorney in Miami. “About 50 years ago, I was invited to Los Angeles for a builder’s convention and then went to Vegas. I walked into the Flamingo lounge and there was Harry James and his orchestra. That’s what drew me to Las Vegas.”
Cohen was ahead of his time. He knew entertainment sold in Las Vegas when most just perceived casinos and gambling as the dominant drawing card.
“I had been exposed to gaming in Miami so it wasn’t unusual,” he said. “Casinos in Florida back then would rival any we had here. We had name stars and at any time could take a 45 minute flight to Havana.”
Vegas evolved with time. Initially it was the crap table that was the big draw. Slot machines, as Cohen would say, “were a means of keeping wives occupied.”
“Hotels at that time had name star entertainment,” Cohen said. “In those days we had a monopoly in Las Vegas. I was always against monopolies, unless I owned one.”
Cohen was a major force at the Frontier, Caesars Palace, the Thunderbird and Circus Circus, but it was his three different stints at the Desert Inn that set the standard for getting people interested in visiting Las Vegas for more than just a day.
“At the Desert Inn, we always stressed quality of service, quality of product, friendliness of the employees and the high caliber of our tournament golf course,” he said.
It was that plush golf course that was the driving force for hotel occupancy and, to no surprise, marketed heavily. So was the first free-standing spa built on the property.
“I went to London and Germany where some of the great spas were,” Cohen said. “The DI was not a vertical hotel as most are today, but a horizontal one. We did have a 12-floor high-rise building with luxurious suites, but our accommodations were spread out over a gorgeous property.”
It was Kirk Kerkorian who introduced the vertical hotel to Las Vegas with his 1,500 room International on the site of the current LVH hotel and casino resort. Most Vegas hotels are vertical with land being at a premium. Cohen had his own vision for the DI.
“You know, we lost a lot of great resorts like the Sands, the Dunes, the Frontier,” Cohen said. “I loved the Desert Inn. My criteria for operating it was to have a quality casino and cage, variety in food and beverage to satisfy customers, and a fairly good security force.”
Cohen made the DI a place for gourmet restaurants and the best in name entertainment.
“Production shows were not a big issue in those days,” he said. “The Tropicana had a production show (Folies Bergere) second to none. There was one at the MGM. I believed in star entertainment. We didn’t have Cirque du Soleil in five hotels.”
Cohen also gave the OK to allow the television show “VEGAS” to be filmed in 1978 on his property thanks to his friendship with the show’s creator Aaron Spelling.
“It was good publicity for the Desert Inn,” Cohen said. “I wasn’t involved with the show’s production, but was able to see the pilot. When Aaron asked me what I thought of it, I told him it stunk. He kissed me on the cheek and said that’s what I hoped you would say.”
That’s Burton Cohen, an iconic figure who won’t hesitate to give you an honest answer whether it was what you wished to hear or not. And he’s still razor sharp.
“To be 90 is great,” he said. “I would hate not to be able to go to breakfast each morning and meet the guys.”
Today Cohen remains active, serving on the board of directors at both Sunrise Hospital and MGM.
“My mother told me the mind is a muscle and must be worked,” he said. “I thank the Lord I’ve been able to stay active. Life has been good. And, now I’m off the record.”
Mark Mayer has over 35 years covering sports events and is the sports editor at GT. Reach him at [email protected].