It Was a Real Crapshoot, but Don Laughlin Took a Desert Dive and Turned It into a Blue-Collar Vegas

updated 03/03/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/03/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

They come from as far as Maine and as close as California, as though their RVs had homing devices set for dusty, overheated Laughlin, Nev. Tourists, who number 40,000 on a good weekend, don't seem to care that Laughlin has only two stores, two gas stations and two paved streets. They don't mind that Frank Sinatra's name never graces the marquee, as it does 90 miles northwest in Las Vegas, or that the menus tend more toward fried chicken than steak au poivre. Laughlin may have no doctor, no school and no church, but it has everything some people need: six jam-packed casinos and no jackets, rhinestones or pinky rings required. With their love handles tucked into polyester pants and jeans, one fist on the slot handle and the other gripping a cup full of quarters, just plain folks go for big money without a big deal. "We like the friendly, down-home atmosphere," raves one first-timer. "No need to dress up or pay outlandish prices."

Naturally somebody's raking in the dough. He is Don Laughlin, 54, who in 1966 took a large gamble on a fishing outpost with a population of 20 on the Colorado River. Laughlin paid $250,000, with $35,000 down, for six acres of desolate land between the river and the desert, plus a bait shop, an eight-room motel and a six-stool bar. Last year Laughlin earned $60 million from the Riverside Hotel and casino he built on that spot. He now owns 92 acres and another hotel across the river, and 6,000 people work in his and the other casinos. Still somewhat amazed that the town bearing his name (it had none when he bought it) covers 1,000 acres and earns the fastest-growing gambling revenues in Nevada, Laughlin says, "I just wanted to make a living for my family."

Don Laughlin has made gambling into an American family pastime by avoiding the Vegas sleaze and accentuating the great outdoors. He knew swimming and waterskiing in the Colorado River would attract kids, while fishermen would come for the striped bass and rainbow trout. To cut down on traffic, Laughlin and other owners give round-the-clock free ferry rides to and from parking lots across the river. They also show first-run movies for $1.29, serve $1.29 all-you-can-eat chicken and provide video arcades for kids. The crime rate is so low that only one cop patrols the one-mile casino strip at any given time. "There's always those old wives' tales about the Mob being connected with casinos," says Laughlin, "but the business is probably a lot cleaner than any other because it's always under scrutiny."

In winter the temperature falls from around 115°F to 70°F or 80°F. "We get quite a few cardiacs here," fireman Ed Crocker says offhandedly. "They get out of their RVs on that hot tarmac and they aren't prepared." That's another incentive to head for a cool casino and drop some cold cash. No wonder Don Laughlin is rich.

The working stiff's mogul developed his golden touch in junior high school. In ninth grade in Owatonna, Minn. Laughlin earned enough money trapping mink and muskrat to buy slots, pinball machines and jukeboxes, which he rented to bars and restaurants. His mother, who "could always find a slot machine somewhere," encouraged her son's $500-a-week sideline. When his principal demanded that Laughlin "get out of gambling or get out of school," the decision was easy. "That was my last day of school," Laughlin says. He worked as a watchmaker for a few years, married at 21 and moved to Las Vegas, where he trained as a bartender and became a blackjack dealer. In 1954 Laughlin, then 23, bought the 101 Club, a small workingman's bar, and sold it before he moved to the no-name town. By 1976 he had 300 slot machines and a 100-room motel. By 1984 profits had multiplied so much that he opened the 14-story, 350-room Riverside, which also houses the post office and the Town Board (wife Betty is a member). Laughlin works there from 10 a.m. till near dawn every day, training many of his 1,600 employees. "I tell them we don't have elections," he says. "This is a dictatorship."

In the penthouse suite above his 1,000 slot machines and 42 gaming tables, Laughlin looks down on his neon kingdom with tranquillity—although these days he lives surrounded by security guards. "You never know when someone is going to try to throw you in a closet for four months and hold you for ransom," he says. He also owns two planes, a helicopter, a 560-acre hay-and-grain farm and a 61,000-acre cattle ranch in Arizona, where he raises the beef for his restaurants. "The town has only scratched the surface," says Laughlin. His children have stayed in town: a son and daughter to work at the casino and one son to run a restaurant supply business. With a planned elementary school, an expansion of the airport across the river (Don Laughlin has a 33-year lease on it) and even a shopping mall in the works, the town is likely to become even more of a middle-class mecca. "I can watch the river go by for two, three hours at a time," says visitor Jack Harris, 62, a retired appliance salesman from Atlanta. "You sure can't do that in Las Vegas." You bet you can't.

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