Don Laughlin's Desert Dream : From a Run-Down Bait Shop on the Colorado River, He Built a Gambling Mecca. And While He Dances the Night Away, His Town Just Keeps Growing.

Eric Goodman lives in Altadena. His third novel, "In Days of Awe," the tale of star pitcher Joe Singer, who's been banned from baseball, was recently published by Alfred A. Knopf.

ON A FATEFUL DAY 25 YEARS AGO, DON LAUGHLIN, AN 8th-grade dropout from rural Owatonna, Minn., flew over a dot in the desert known as South Pointe. In local history, this was like John Sutter's arriving in gold country.

The tiny town was a parched nullity beside the Colorado River, 150 acres surrounded by vast Bureau of Land Management tracts. But because South Pointe was Nevada, where the southernmost tip of Clark County extends to California, there were a few shabby motel rooms and humble casinos--four bars with slot machines--on land Mormon pioneers had used as a watermelon patch.

One of the "casinos," the Riverside Bait Shop, recorded daily temperatures for the U.S. Weather Service. Summer highs regularly hit 120 degrees; South Pointe was often the hottest spot in the country. The main drag, the only drag, the once and future Casino Drive, was unpaved. According to I. S. (Bud) Soper, who arrived in South Pointe a year after Laughlin and now owns the Regency Casino, "You could fire a machine gun down Casino Drive at noon and not hit a dead jack rabbit."

Years before, Laughlin's junior high principal had discovered that young Don owned a string of slot machines--then quasi-legal in Minnesota--from which the 14-year-old was earning $500 a week. Sell them or leave school, the principal decreed, and Laughlin chose the slots.

Seven years later, already a father, Laughlin moved to Las Vegas. He tended bar, attended night dealers' school and saved his money, eventually buying a North Las Vegas bar and restaurant. Then a friend told him about a run-down property in South Pointe.

Flying over, Laughlin realized that within a 30-mile radius of South Pointe were Kingman, Ariz., Needles, Calif., and 15,000 people who needed a place to gamble. Their numbers could only increase. And being a gambler and a man of vision, or maybe just possessed of enormous cojones, Laughlin cashed out in North Vegas and made a down payment on the Riverside Bait Shop and its six riverfront acres. Asking price: $245,000.

In May, 1966, Laughlin moved his wife and three kids to South Pointe to dream, scheme and wait. About the same time, Nevada acquired a large parcel of federal land, which it turned over to the Colorado River Commission (CRC) to administer. (Subsequent release of CRC land has swelled the township to 2,500 acres.) In 1968, the area needed a post office, and a postal worker suggested the name Laughlin. Don Laughlin's gamble had started to pay off.

Today, as our small commuter plane traverses the Mojave Desert, crosses the Colorado River and turns north, the lights of Laughlin--which last year passed South Lake Tahoe to become the fourth-largest gaming center in North America--appear below us, glittering on the mighty river. Ten casinos, 12 to 18 stories high with more than 6,000 rooms, rise up in the middle of nowhere.

The six other passengers see the lights, and the excitement level in the cabin soars. Casinos, ho! The Colorado Belle, one of two Circus Circus properties in Laughlin, is a 1,200-room neon riverboat. There are a Ramada Express, Harrah's Laughlin, Sam's Town Gold River, the Golden Nugget, the new 2,000-room Hilton and, at the north end of the strip, the great granddaddy of them all, Don Laughlin's Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino, with 750 RV spaces and 660 rooms on 92 acres. We land and taxi to the small Bullhead City terminal. The fastest-growing metropolitan area in Arizona, Bullhead City grew from 10,000 to 25,000 during the 1980s; property values have boomed much as in Laughlin. Don Laughlin operates the airport, as he will the new jetport set to open in about a month. He also owns the gas station and convenience store next to the terminal. In the departure lounge, a monitor shows excerpts from a video detailing Don Laughlin's story.

I rent a red Mustang convertible. With the top down and the soft desert air whooshing by, I drive north to the bridge, cross into Nevada and pull into the first casino parking lot: Don Laughlin's Riverside. The trip takes a minute or 90 seconds tops, and if you think that's an accident, you don't know Don Laughlin.

ALTHOUGH MOST AMERICANS HAVEN'T HEARD OF LAUGHLIN, THIS once-sleepy town received 2 million visitors last year. Its appeal? A PG-rated Vegas with nature. Tourists devote days to water-skiing, parasailing and fishing on the Colorado River and on Lake Mojave, five miles north. There are no topless bars; most hotels don't even stage shows.

But there is gambling, and at night the folks gamble mightily. Gaming revenues for fiscal 1990 topped $366 million. The permanent population, which stood at 95 in 1984, now approaches 6,200, with estimates of 15,000 by the year 2000. Riverfront land values have soared 10,000% in the past decade; homes and condominiums have been appreciating 20% to 25% per annum since 1985, and all this before the new airport, capable of handling 737s, opens. In fact, Laughlin has boomed so much in recent years that it can no longer keep up with its own success; there are now fights over water, sewage plants, expansion and political manipulations.

But the tide of gambling dollars seems endless, even in the recession. Robert Bilbray, who developed much of Laughlin's scarce residential housing--he also owns the local convenience store, the local bar, the only warehouse facility and 420 of Laughlin's 2,500 total acres--has another version of the town's success. "In my mind, the biggest day in Laughlin's history wasn't when Don Laughlin arrived; it was in 1983, when Bill Bennett, the head of Circus Circus, bought the Edgewater."

As the first publicly traded company to own a casino in Laughlin, Circus Circus was the first obligated to disclose profits. In fiscal 1985, Circus Circus earned $9 million on total revenues of $38.5 million for an impressive profit margin of 23.5%.

The weasel was out of the bag. Major gaming corporations began bidding up Laughlin property; several years ago, the Golden Nugget paid $40 million for 8.5 riverfront acres. Bilbray, who bought his 420 acres in 1978 for $2 million, admits: "I grab the carpet every morning to make sure I don't float too far away from it. Laughlin is a snowball going downhill."

And the snowball--an odd metaphor for a desert town, but Laughlin's an odd town--is rolling faster and faster. Until recently, Laughlin was a semi-secret known only to RVers. Advertising was word of mouth. High season was winter; May through September, the codgers went home. The Laughlin gambling scene was perceived, by those who knew it, as older low-rollers: retirees playing slots.

That's changed. Although a substantially greater percentage of Laughlin's gaming revenues comes from slots than on the Vegas Strip or in South Lake Tahoe (last year, 79% of Laughlin's revenues were derived from slots, as opposed to 47% and 49% for the Strip and Tahoe, respectively), the average age of visitors has fallen and is sure to tumble when the airport opens. Micki Hollien, 42, a secretary at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, has been to Laughlin six or seven times in the past 2 1/2 years. "I like it there because it's low-key, everything is cheaper, and the people are friendlier." According to Bilbray, "Now summer is high season, with an average age 15 years younger than the other season. The number of kids goes way up. All of a sudden you've got every 35-year-old contractor with a flat-bottom boat or an all-terrain vehicle. In a two-week period, you're moving out the Chivas and putting in the Albertson's gin, putting away the Polident and putting out the condoms."

THE FIRST TIME I SEE LAUGHLIN, HE IS GIVING AWAY A NEW CAR, one every night for a month on the casino floor. Tonight's winner, an old lady with orange hair, waits near the antique-slot display. To the music of clinking silver, Don Laughlin in the flesh glides across the smoky casino in white shoes, monogrammed shirt and checked jacket, past a life-size Don Laughlin cardboard cutout. Laughlin puts his arm around the old lady. A flash explodes, and I suspect--and later confirm--that Laughlin will be there all month having his picture taken.

The energy, ego and shrewdness that compel a man as rich as Laughlin personally to give away cars are reflected in his decision to build, then donate to Nevada and Arizona the first and to date only bridge in Laughlin. Laughlin calls the bridge, completed in 1987 at a cost of $3.5 million, "probably the smartest thing I ever did. Or the luckiest. People always say, 'You're lucky,' so I go along with it. The harder you work, the luckier you get."

The Riverside is at the extreme north end of Laughlin. All new developments are at the south end, and most casino workers live at the southern end of Bullhead City. When bridge sites were proposed by authorities on both sides of the river, those sites were always at the south end of town. Laughlin built his bridge next to his hotel.

"If we'd have sat around and waited for someone else to do it, we'd have been at the end of the street instead of the front," he says. "This way, everyone has to drive right past us. Eventually, there'll probably be another bridge, but I think we're looking at five or 10 years."

That sort of enlightened self-interest--the area did need a bridge--underscores the current airport controversy. After completing a tri-state study several years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration recommended a Nevada site. Then, for reasons no one will discuss on the record, elected officials from Arizona informed their Nevada counterparts that unless the airport was in Arizona, they would push legislation to establish gaming on Indian land directly across the river from Laughlin. Nevada officials and casino executives--who'd lobbied hard for a Nevada airport--caved in.

As part of the arrangement to site the airport in Arizona, Laughlin donated 433 acres of his land in Bullhead City to Mojave County, Ariz., for the airport. Then he financed a major flood-control project, which he extended to include much of Bullhead City. Total cost to Laughlin, including the land: $9 million.

But consider this: By Laughlin's own estimates, after the jetport is in operation, each of the 4,800 acres he owns near the airport--land he did not donate to the project--will be worth $75,000. Not bad when you consider that he paid about $10,000 an acre.

Laughlin often talks about himself in the first-person plural, as in, "We grew with the area. Although we didn't envision the growth that is here today, we could see great possibilities. We're worth two to three hundred million dollars." Del Newman, general manager of the Riverside and Laughlin's right-hand man, believes that "Don Laughlin's the last Howard Hughes in America": a sole proprietor in absolute control. Like Hughes, Laughlin is an airplane pilot, but unlike Hughes, Laughlin delights in publicity. The Riverside showroom is Don's Celebrity Theater; the new dollar slot tokens have Laughlin's face on the front. Laughlin says the tokens were Del Newman's idea, adding: "It's kind of a nuisance to have the town named after me. People sometimes get the opinion that we've got a lot of political clout and a lot of ego, and that's not the case at all."

IT'S NOW 12:30 IN THE MORNING, AND I'M WATCHING LAUGHLIN and Ramona, a slender dance instructor in her 30s, practice the merengue in the Riverside's Starlight Room.

Other than making millions, Laughlin's great passion is ballroom dancing. He practices every night around midnight with one of several young teachers on the Riverside payroll and often stages dancing exhibitions--with one of the instructors--for hotel guests on Sunday afternoons.

At 60, Laughlin is trim and fit, with white hair, and skin so pale and smooth it almost looks as if he's had a face lift. Or maybe it's his daunting nervous energy that has beaten back Father Time and the desert sun. He's up every night till 4 or 5 a.m. and later, circulating through the casino, taking notes for the salvo of memos he'll fire off in the morning.

In fact, Laughlin loves dancing and working so much that he's hoping to come back to both after he dies. He recently joined Alkor, a California cryogenics group that freezes people after they die, awaiting medical breakthroughs. Why? "I'm a gambler, and I don't like the options. One's rotting in a box, the other's being cremated. I don't see how I can lose."

The music starts up, a sensual Latin beat. Laughlin's a fine dancer, well-practiced. A little stiff in the hips, maybe, but we all should move so well at 60. The music becomes a Western swing. Laughlin winks and begins twirling Ramona this way and that, playing to his very small audience, which is better than no audience at all.

LAUGHLIN HAS OUTRUN ITSELF, THE BOOM OVERWHELMING THE town's infrastructure. There's a severe shortage of schools, social services and, most critically, affordable housing for the more than 11,000 primarily low-paid casino workers. They are forced to live in Arizona, thereby forfeiting a prime benefit of Nevada life--no state income tax. "You're not only taxed, but it costs $300 a month to air-condition your trailer, while they build $300,000 homes in Laughlin, and who in hell can afford that on five bucks an hour?" a casino worker complains. In the next breath, many swear that they're anti-union till they die.

There have been three attempts to organize the casinos, including one last summer when two-thirds of the Colorado Belle's 1,100 workers signed cards requesting a union election. According to David Wikstrom, head of Las Vegas Teamsters Local 631, Circus Circus hired Mark Garrity, one of the country's top anti-union consultants. "Union-buster, I call him," Wikstrom says, "and he kicked our ass but good. They reached down into the bottom of the barrel and turned it over. Innuendo and intimidation."

Circus Circus President Richard Banis says the company did nothing but tell the truth about Local 631, which he calls "the all-time gang that couldn't shoot straight." A month after workers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for an election, less than one in seven voted union.

They play hardball in Laughlin, and not just at Circus Circus. In a Bullhead City bar, a retired Orange County businessman who's owned property in Bullhead since the mid-'70s rails at Laughlin and the other casino owners. "You should see the traffic jams. Don Laughlin controls Bullhead City. He has the town council--I call them the Seven Idiots--in his back pocket."

Laughlin's freewheeling ways have attracted the attention of gaming officials. Two years ago, the Riverside's casino manager, Don's cousin, was arrested for aiding and abetting cocaine trafficking in the casino (he was acquitted). Another time, the state Gaming Control Board asked Laughlin to explain inaccuracies in the Riverside's ownership records after he bought his wife's shares.

Although Laughlin denies having much political influence in Bullhead City or Laughlin, he does have vast holdings, primarily in Arizona. In addition to the Riverside on the Nevada side, Laughlin owns the River Queen Hotel (97 rooms) in Bullhead City, a fleet of boats that transports workers and gamblers across the river, a bank in Laughlin, local bus lines, a 60,000-acre ranch in Kingman where he raises beef for his restaurants and the large tract surrounding the new airport. His empire's annual revenues exceed $100 million.

Yet even such incredible riches don't make a town. The only sewer-treatment plant is equipped to handle just two-thirds of Laughlin's current allocation of 10,000 acre feet of Colorado River water, and there is no money to build a new facility. Why should money be a problem in a cash cow like Laughlin? The answer is politics and more money, which, in Nevada, circles back to gambling and water rights. Although Laughlin sent nearly $36 million in gaming-tax revenues to the state of Nevada in fiscal 1990, the state returned just $800,000.

Nevada allocates monies on the basis of the 1980 census--when Laughlin's population was only 95. According to Clark County's appointed town manager, Mike Cool, Laughlin runs at a $4-million annual deficit and will likely remain an unincorporated township until the 1990 census loosens state purse strings.

An overloaded infrastructure is only one symptom of a boom town that is facing its first bust cycle. Within the past year, the Golden Nugget postponed plans to build a 1,200-room hotel. Paradise Bay, a major resort complex, was put on hold, and John Midby, Laughlin's largest landowner, stopped construction on the proposed Emerald River complex: 400 riverfront acres, 5,000 hotel rooms, casinos, a golf course and condominiums, with total construction costs estimated at $890 million. In midwinter, the Emerald River project declared bankruptcy. The golf course is open, but the hotel tower is nothing more than a depressing shell.

Midby's problems don't seem to faze Don Laughlin, who's talking about adding 500 rooms to the Riverside later this year if he can procure the necessary sewer hookups. The town of Laughlin faces many of the classic problems of boom development, but Laughlin, who's fiscally conservative despite his thriving business, is banking on the future.

"I'm a gambler," he says. "But I don't bet more than I can afford to lose."

AFTER I WATCH HIM DANCE FOR AN HOUR, LAUGHLIN INVITES ME to his 12th-floor penthouse. The view from the living room is fabulous: east across the river, north to the dam, south to the other hotels.

Although he's been married to Elizabeth (Betty) Laughlin since the '50s, they've been legally separated for more than 20 years. Betty lives in a suite on the floor below. Earlier, Laughlin had explained, grinning: "It's a great insurance policy. She doesn't want to be a divorcee; I don't intend to remarry. So why get a divorce? Besides, we save a lot filing joint returns."

Laughlin points to the view. "When I first flew over 25 years ago, this side of the river was a swamp," he says. "Not much on the Arizona side, either."

"So what's it like," I ask, "to be so rich in a little place like this, to be proven so right? Do you feel like Ben Cartwright on the Ponderosa?"

"I'm not rich," Laughlin replies. "I'm land poor. I just think about paying my bills and meeting my payroll."

Then he grins, as if to say, believe that and I'll tell you another one. Laughlin leads me indoors to a telescope trained-- through an enormous picture window--on the convenience store in front of the airport. He focuses the telescope and says, "You can read the numbers on the gas pump."

So now I know: Laughlin really doesn't miss a trick. He's worth a quarter of a billion dollars, and he keeps track of gas sales with his telescope.

THERE'S TIME TO KILL. I drive to the Regency, the lone unreconstructed casino in town. Walk in the door, and you could still be in South Pointe. The entire staff--except for a pregnant dealer--appears to qualify for Social Security. In the small bar overlooking the river, a septuagenarian blues guitarist looks out at the crowd of mostly locals, no one dressed up, with eyes that have lived those blues.

The Regency's $6.95 one-pound prime rib special is as fine as any I've eaten anywhere, served by a waitress who assures me: "We ain't got no red wine, but we do have burgundy." Outside, on the river, I'm reminded again of how absolutely Laughlin is not Vegas. Laughlin is much too low-key and wholesome, with young lovers holding hands and old-timers clutching cups of quarters, heading home to their RVs; there's not a suit or tie or mink stole among them.

At 4 a.m., I'm cruising Casino Drive in my convertible. Maybe it's because it's come so far so fast; maybe it's because Laughlin's destiny is controlled by so few individuals and corporations, or maybe it's just the odd and forbidding scenery--a desert with a river running through it--but Laughlin inspires big dreams. In a world that's closing in on most of us, Laughlin remains a mythic Western landscape where the night air whispers "Money, money, money," and men can dream of building empires.

Me, I'm dreaming of winning back the $200 I dropped at a Riverside blackjack table.

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