Watch Desert Wars September 25, 2006 at 8 pm on KUED Channel 7
Interviewer: You've lived in Las Vegas for the last thirty to forty years, what's great about Las Vegas? What do you love about it?
Burton Cohen: What's there not to love about Las Vegas? We've got great weather twelve months out of the year. We've got a good college. We've got performing arts and a philharmonic orchestra. We have ballet. We've got the largest Boy Scout District in America. We've got great religious backgrounds and great tax basis. And we've got all of the things that have attracted the entire population of Southern California.
Interviewer: Tell me about Las Vegas back when…
Burton Cohen: Obviously it was over forty years ago, so it was quite small. You knew everybody in town. It was a self-help community. I think we had one movie house and that was downtown on Freemont Street, but the hotels were growing—they were small and in those days it was the casinos that drove the bottom line. Today it's room, food, beverage and entertainment. Fifty-seven percent of the revenue today comes from those items, not from the casino. So, in growth we've lost a lot of the personal contact that existed. In the early days if you had a hotel that was 400-600 rooms, it was considered a monster. Today the hotels are 3,000, 4,000 and 5,000 rooms because economically it makes a lot of sense. You've got this broad base of expense supporting a small number of rooms so if you're in a position to turn that so that base of cost of operation supports a large number of rooms, your rooms division can make anywhere from 60-70% profit factor.
Interviewer: Is growth inevitable in Las Vegas and for most of these cities in the West?
Burton Cohen: I think the best testimony of that is what you see. It seems like what started forty to fifty years ago is still going on. People who live in the East are waking up to the fact that they don't like to sludge through the snow in the four seasons and the West opened up for them an opportunity to own their own home and maybe buy one set of clothes instead of four. So the population growth has swung to the West and to a degree to the South.
Interviewer: What's the biggest change you've seen over the course of the years?
Burton Cohen: Well if anybody would have told me that we would have the residential base that we have, I would have told them they were certifiable. The only "local" casinos that were there was downtown. Today you have local casinos in every residential area. By that I don't mean that there are hundreds of them, but they're strategically located in the developing areas to capture that population that is there and they've been built with such attractions that they are now capturing a lot of the tourists who would prefer to stay out there, like the Green Valley Ranch, instead of coming downtown to the strip--that I never believed would happen.
John Howe: How has the population changed? Who lives in Vegas these days?
Burton Cohen: I think I said that half of Southern California lives here because they got tired of paying their tax base there and a lot of the screwball laws that they have, so a lot of those people were able to sell their homes and come out with a fairly good profit, come to Las Vegas, buy a home and have a bigger home and still have money in their pocket. We also are getting new retirees, not of the peanut butter and jelly type retirees, but more of the people with substance and funds are coming to Las Vegas because again, the weather. You can eat out in Las Vegas for less than what it would cost you to eat at home and you have bingo and you have movies and all of the attractions. My mother, may she rest in peace, who lived to 89 lived with me and my wife at the Desert Inn and on Saturday nights she would get all dressed up. She looked like she was going to a ball and they had one twenty-one table that they saved and put a plaque there, "reserved for Black Shack Lil" and she would play two-dollar blackjack and I asked her one day, "Mom, what is there that attracts you?" She said, "First of all it give me an opportunity to get dressed, second of all I'm communicating with people, I'm using my brain, and I'm not vegetating." And to a degree, that's an example of some of the things that are going on in Las Vegas today.
Interviewer: Do you get nostalgic for the Vegas of thirty or forty years ago?
Burton Cohen: Well everybody would like to have the time when eggs were twenty-five cents a dozen, but unfortunately a lot of us didn't have a quarter in those days. Of course the good 'ol days, we look back on those, but you can't stand in the way of progress. What we had then was one thing, and what we have today is a completely different thing. I think that the growth of Las Vegas and the West will continue, unfortunately you can't stop growth. You don't need a passport or a visa to move from New York to Nevada or from California to Nevada. That's part of our country. People today are more flexible. You know, thirty to forty years ago the majority of the people were born, went to school, got a job, lived and died in their same neighborhood. That doesn't exist today to a great degree. We had one guy who we called "Suit-case Murphy." "Suit-case Murphy" was the beneficiary of a very big trust. In other words his family had set up a trust for him and "Suit-case" was a degenerate gambler but he also was a squirrel. "Suit-case"" would come to the crap table with a Spanish gourd that normally held wine, and in it he would have malox and if the dice were passing, "Suit-case" would squeeze that Spanish wine gourd and malox would come out all over him. He also ate oatmeal through a straw, so at the Desert Inn we made "Suit-case" a beautiful brass straw and put it in a velvet box. You would think that we gave him the hope diamond. "Suit-case" got mad at Jay Sarno, who was building Circus Circus at the time with me, so what did he do? He went out and he bought the land under Circus Circus so that Sarno would have to pay him rent, and he hoped Sarno would miss a rent payment so he could evict him. "Suit-case" is no longer with us, but he was one of our great characters.
Interviewer: Can you talk a little bit about the politics of Vegas in terms of who runs the town and power—who has it and wants it?
Burton Cohen: Well in my opinion, the power-structure of Las Vega is run by the Mormons. We have a big Mormon base. They control most of the elected offices, and if they don't control the office that is elected, they control the office below the elected office. A lot of the federal judges are from the Mormon faith and next to them come the Catholics. One time when I first came here the Mormons and the Catholics controlled the entire political structure, not only of Las Vegas but of the state. And it's a good thing because the Mormon base created a great family base. They take care of their own. They're charitable and giving and they are a part of the community, and they gave a lot of stability to what possibly could have been a problem in Las Vega as it was growing. And it's still a major, major force. I remember one man who gave up a month a year to come and collect little pieces of soap that are left in the showers and so on so that the Mormons could reconvert it and give it to the Indians. They're very industrious.
Interviewer: What did the strip look like then, and compare it to now.
Burton Cohen: Well when I first came here the strip had the Sahara, then the Thunderbird, which was a very old ranch-type house hotel. Then came the Riviera, which was just completed. Stardust was here. Across the street was The Desert Inn. It was very small, not like it was before Mr. Wynn bought it. The Frontier was not here. Caesars had just completed construction and the Flamingo was still the remnants of Bugsy Seagal--it was small. You had the Hacienda all the way out opposite the airport. That was it.
Interviewer: Tell me about your dealings with Howard Hughes. Is there any story?
Burton Cohen: In my career I was at the Desert Inn three different times. The first time I went there was after we had built the Frontier Hotel and Mr. Hughes was living on the top floor of the Desert Inn and we turned on that great big Frontier Hotel sign that is still there, and it reflected into his suite, so we got an offer from Mr. Hughes that he wanted to buy the Frontier Hotel. Well we had worked very hard to get it opened and it wasn't for sale. Unfortunately every human being that came into the Frontier happened to beat us. In those days when you opened up a new hotel, you got a courtesy lay-down from all of the owners—the old casino people—and it was closed to the public. We had some crap games of the likes of which you never saw, but we didn't produce any losers, we produced a lot of winners. So Mr. Hughes finally wound up with the Frontier. When that happened, he (they) took and transferred me from the Frontier to the Desert Inn, and the man from the Desert Inn to the Frontier, so Mr. Hughes was upstairs at the time. Did I ever speak to him? No. Did I ever see him? No. Did I ever speak to the people around him? Yes. Did I ever speak to his waiter that went up there? Yes. But anybody that tells you that they saw Howard Hughes, don't you believe it.
Interviewer: Talking about growth. In your opinion is that growth well planned and what might happen in the future?
Burton Cohen: It's not well planned. It was impossible to well plan. You show me a metropolitan area that has been well planned anywhere in the United States where you had an explosion to the point that we now have here. We now have 1,700,000 people in Greater Las Vegas, so we couldn't plan for it. But they're doing everything humanly possible to catch up to it. Cedar City… when the Mormon Tabernacle in Cedar City was dedicated many years ago, they opened it up for re-dedication. I went up there to see it because there was an opportunity to see something for somebody who is not a Mormon does not get a chance to see. And I said to myself, "What a gorgeous little town this is. Some day maybe I'd like to live up here!" It was beautiful. Cedar City is exploding today, absolutely exploding. Did they plan for their growth? I doubt it. Are they going to be able to maintain it? It will be nip and tuck.
Interviewer: Over the course of time that you've lived in Vegas, what has water meant to this city and where do you think this water should come from in the future?
Burton Cohen: Where the water will come from? I don't talk to God. I'd like to. At night when I say my prayers I try to talk to him, but I don't know if he listens or not, so I don't know where the water is going to come from. All I know is the people are going to come and we're going to have to establish conservation, science is going to have to lend a hand on the better use of the facilities that we have. I know that the hotels today, the ones that are being constructed and the ones that are already constructed are being constructed with the idea of economic water use of gathering the water from the showers and so on so that it can be used again. If God would stop this drought that we're having in the West—look at Phoenix, they haven't had rain in over a hundred days. It's growing, and it's going to continue to grow. Where will the water come from? I don't know. Maybe someday, not in my lifetime or yours there may be giant desalination plants in California with pipelines pumping water to the West, not just to us. But who knows.
(More on Howard Hughes)
John Howe: Thank you very much.