Long before corporate America moved into the gaming world of Southern Nevada, Las Vegas had a personality.
Business was conducted differently and hotel executives had faces that were recognizable. While young people were busy going to college to attain degrees in business and public relations, the best PR guys were operating in Las Vegas by the seat of their pants – and establishing milestones at the same time.
Count Texas gunslinger Benny Binion among those who came to town sporting a colorful outlook on life; and convinced that the desert was the place to make money.
Long before public relations was moved to social media, masterminds like Binion strolled through casinos chatting with the common folks while handing out comps.
If you were a hotel executive, you naturally took care of the customer while thanking the patron for the business. And if you were a dealer, a pit boss or even a porter, the guy in charge knew you by your first name.
Developer Del Webb, the same guy who owned the New York Yankees, strolled into his Sahara Hotel with a big hat on his head. Webb’s long list of customers over the years in the 1970s included various members of the Bronx Bombers like pitcher Whitey Ford and homerun-hitting Mickey Mantle.
The Las Vegas Strip had a special allure to it; and so did downtown Las Vegas. The bean counters of corporate America hadn’t discovered Las Vegas yet and special assessment room taxes hadn’t been adopted to help offset the debts created by explosive growth.
Before the mega resorts began to change the face of the desert in the 1990s, Milburn Stone – better known as “Doc” from Gunsmoke – arrived at the Sahara each Thanksgiving so that he could go fishing at Lake Mead.
People dressed up to attend shows on the Las Vegas Strip to see entertainers like Don Rickles and Johnny Mathis at the Sahara; or Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. of the Rat Pack at the Sands. There were dinner shows in the early evening and cocktail shows later that night in the same showroom.
Meanwhile, as Las Vegas was slowly undergoing a change that many wish had never taken place, cagey characters like Benny Binion were working the streets of downtown Las Vegas. Before a canopy was added in the early 1992, kids cruised Fremont Street and a giant mechanical sign dubbed “Howdy Partner” greeted every car-full of onlookers that came to see what was better known as “Glitter Gulch.”
Lester Ben “Benny” Binion was an old-school individual from Pilot Grove, Tex. He and his wife, Teddy Jane, brought their Texas charm with them when they moved to Las Vegas in the 1950s.
Texas was home for the couple, but with their four children (Ted, Jack, Brenda and Becky), the family went to work on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. The family was yet another example of people with foresight seeing promise in a city in the middle of the desert especially considering that the move was made in the 1950s.
Vegas also had its level of charm and it required hard work, and dedicated people with their own level of PR (public relations) was a natural.
Nowadays, public relations seems to require a four-year degree from a university. However, Binion seemed to be born with the trait; and he probably could have taught a class on the subject long ago. At the time, Fremont Street was the center of the city and locals along with visitors found the area to their liking.
It was true Wild Wild West and the first thing many out-of-towners saw when arriving in Southern Nevada.
The Binions didn’t come to town looking for a quick score before heading back to their previous residence. In fact, they built a once-gorgeous horse ranch estate at what is now the corner of Bonanza Road and Tonopah Avenue not far from the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Truth be known, when Benny Binion arrived in Las Vegas, the dusty little town hundreds of miles from nowhere landed someone who would reach out to the rest of the world letting him know the treasure he had discovered.
Fremont Street became the home of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino and the family fit into the town like a ball in a glove.
Decades later after many big ideas created by others turned to dust, Binion is credited with landing the World Series of Poker in 1970 along with having a hand in securing the National Finals Rodeo in 1985.
If anyone ever put together a list of Las Vegas residents who turned dreams into reality, Binion would be among the most noteworthy.
Fellow hotelman Michael Gaughan, now 62, and the owner of the South Point Hotel Casino on South Las Vegas Boulevard, lauds Binion.
And while Binion helped bring the NFR to Las Vegas, it was Gaughan who kept it here when there were fears that the event was headed elsewhere.
“The Binion family has been around for a long time,” said Gaughan. “They were innovators.”
In fact, Gaughan is such a fan of the family that he relocated a giant statue of Benny Binion on a horse. Once sitting outside on grounds of Binion’s Horseshoe, Gaughan pulled off an engineering feat when he moved the statue to the inside of the South Point on Las Vegas Boulevard South.
“The statue had bird droppings all over it,” explained Gaughan. “I talked to (Binion’s owner) Terry Caudill about it.”
The bird droppings were thick, but the work to resurrect the statue was worth it. An offer was made that Gaughan couldn’t turn down and the rest is history.
Walls had to be moved to facilitate the 3,000 pound sculpture that is now proudly displayed near a restaurant in what is a true effort by Gaughan to extend the legacy of Benny Binion.
Legendary Southern Nevada publicist KJ Howe, who worked at the Mint Hotel when Binion was roaming the streets and upping the ante, has fond memories of the former Texan who left his mark in Las Vegas.
“Benny Binion was one of the most influential and colorful characters on Fremont Street,” recalled Howe, who was also the race director of the Mint 400 off road race. “I worked next door at the Mint and in 1970 when I was working at the Mint, I would venture next door to check the crowd. Benny would see me outside the coffee shop and he would invite me in for a cup of coffee.”
Howe was always amazed at how many people wanted to hang at the Horseshoe to see Binion.
“You never knew who was going to show up,” Howe recalled. “It might have been Mayor Oran Gragson; or maybe poker champions Pug Pearson or Amarillo Slim.
“Then, too, it might have been a competing casino executive or some little old lady slot player that would stop by for a chat. Benny would always share a yarn or two with them. Many people sought advice on then-downtown happenings while others simply wanted to be near him.”
Binion’s familiarity with downtown and his keen sense of competition also led him to carefully protect his events.
“He always wanted to know how business was at the Mint,” Howe explained. “Benny wanted to make sure that the World Series of Poker dates didn’t conflict with the Mint 400 race.”
Then, too, Binion was interested in the fact that Howe had spent numerous tours with the U.S. Army in Vietnam and wanted to hear about what went on over there.
“He had such a colorful distinctive twang and cadence when he talked,” Howe said. “His personality and his twang were perfect for the character that he was.
“I used to call him ‘No Limit Benny’ because he would let you bet what you brought – and he often lost. But if he did, he would get it back in future wagers.”
One of Nevada’s true gifts, Binion died Dec. 25, 1989. Considering his dedication in Las Vegas, his passing on Christmas Day seemed appropriate.
Editor’s Note: The writer Mike Henle is a 49 year resident of Las Vegas and the author of the book Through the Darkness: One Man’s Fight to Overcome Epilepsy.” +