I can't go to Laughlin without thinking about Sam Kinison. On the day he died, he was heading up Highway 95 outside Needles, Calif., for a gig at Don Laughlin's Riverside Resort when he was hit head-on by a car travelling in the wrong lane, and there's just something wrong about that whole picture.
The media acted like it was somehow Sam's fault— fast life, too many drugs, whatever— but in fact he was clean and sober, just going to his job, with his wife in the car. Somehow they couldn't fit that image into their picture of Kinison. He didn't belong on that highway. And after spending a few days in Laughlin last week, I agree. Sam Kinison didn't belong on that highway.
What would bring Kinison to the same sleepy casino town where Shecky Greene still headlines, where Red Buttons has his picture on posters, where Debbie Reynolds and Phyllis Diller still pack 'em in, and where Les Brown and His Band of Renown is not just a nostalgia act from sixties TV but a Flamingo Ballroom dance band? One of the biggest acts in Laughlin is a guy named Charlie Prose, billing himself as the cleanest comic in America, who has a vast cult following of people who ride to Laughlin on buses listening to tapes of Charlie Prose songs all the way. "Who is this guy?" I asked.
"Oh, you haven't heard of Charlie Prose?" answers the publicist. "People take two-day bus trips just to see him. They can get the one-meal plan or the two-meal plan."
When I got to town, all the various public relations people told me that "we cater to an age 50-plus demographic." But all the 50-year-olds must have been at a keg party somewhere, having group sex, because I would say that 65-plus is closer to the mark and 80-plus is not unheard of. This is the only casino town I've ever seen where they have a 7 a.m. patriotic flag-raising ceremony— because everyone has already gotten up and eaten breakfast by 7 o'clock! And Don Laughlin's Riverside Resort is the only casino I've ever seen that has a pedestrian bridge linking the casino to an RV park.
If you ask the casino owners what they're selling here, they all use the same buzz words:
"Value," meaning it's the cheapest casino destination with the possible exception of Reno. All the hotels have huge flashing neon marquees advertising $17 room rates, and sometimes even lower. ("I've seen the neon go as low as nine bucks," said one executive.)
In 1966, the population was 4. Don Laughlin's Riverside Resort is the improbable reason that the casino town of Laughlin, Nev., exists at all. "The River," meaning it's the only casino destination in Nevada where you can launch your boat or your Jet Ski from the hotel. The Colorado River is not the prettiest body of water in the world— it's a wide lazy ditch between two brown desert banks- -but by Nevada standards it's as much nature as you're going to see from a hotel window.
"Friendliness," meaning Laughlin goes out of its way to be "the un-Vegas." No traffic jams. Easy parking. Wear your baggy shorts in any casino or restaurant or club. Ninety-nine per cent of the visitors come by car, and one of the most booked-up destinations is the Pioneer, which is a casino motel with parking right by your room.
Laughlin, in short, is the Wal-Mart of casino towns, and they're happy to push that image to the max. "The snowbirds have found their niche here," says Michele Beggs, publicist for the original resort, Laughlin's Riverside. "No big lines. No hassle. It's comfortable."
Thirty-five years ago Laughlin was little more than a jackrabbit warren on a dirt road. Then Don Laughlin buzzed over in his private plane and had an epiphany. Laughlin had just cashed out his interest in a little locals joint called Club 101 in Las Vegas, and he thought, "Why not put casinos in the only part of Nevada that has lakes and rivers?"
An hour from Vegas, just downstream from the Hoover Dam, Laughlin sits in the "V" where California, Arizona and Nevada come together. The only town there in 1964 was Bullhead City, on the Arizona side, where gambling was illegal. But there was one building on the west bank, where the scrub desert of the Mojave stretches forever into the distance. It was a bankrupt, boarded- up, eight-room motel. Laughlin put $35,000 down on it and had opened for business by 1966, renting four rooms to the public and using the other four for his family. He had two blackjack tables and 12 slot machines. His big promotion was the 98-cent chicken dinner.
By 1990 Laughlin was the hottest gambling destination outside Vegas, with high-rise resorts lining the river, and everyone wanted in. The Golden Nugget in Vegas bought the old Bobcat Club, the second casino in Laughlin. The same people who ran the Pioneer Club in Vegas bought the Colorado Club, which had opened in 1979. In the early eighties Circus Circus bought the Edgewater, right next door to Laughlin's ever growing resort, which would eventually grow to 1400 rooms. The Colorado Belle, the Ramada Express, and Harrah's Laughlin all found real estate as the "strip" developed. The Indians got into the act when the Fort Mohave tribe opened their Avi Hotel and Casino on the Arizona side in 1995.
And to handle all the traffic, Don Laughlin dug down into his pockets for $4 million and built a a new easy-access bridge across the Colorado River. "To donate a bridge to the states of Arizona and Nevada," he says, "I had to get approvals from 38 different government agencies. The approval process took four years. The building of the bridge took four months."
Today there are ten major properties lined up along the river, but the frenzy of the early nineties has been bleached out of the town. Wall Street now calls Laughlin "a mature market," with growth prospects unlikely, and very vulnerable to the new Indian casinos that are sprouting up all over California and Arizona. The big Vegas corporations are not planning any expansions in Laughlin, content to manage what they already have. There hasn't been a new casino in six years.
The Laughlin Boom is apparently over. Through a fluke in timing, Laughlin started to blossom at the very moment that eight other states legalized casino gambling. There are a lot of other casino out there now, and they all want to be the "un-Vegas."
Still, Laughlin has its diehard regulars— snowbirds in the winter, bikers in the spring (the Laughlin River Run is one of the top four motorcycle events in the country), and families in the early summer for the boating season. By August it's too danged hot to do anything— at least ten degrees hotter than Vegas— so business tapers off until the snowbirds arrive again.
The best place to stay, not too surprisingly, is Don Laughlin's Riverside Resort. It's the only family-operated casino. All the others seems sterile and corporate, similar to casinos you can find in dozens of other places. They try to carve out little niches. The western-themed Pioneer stages Old West gunfights. The Flamingo Ballroom books veteran comics like Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. Avi has a lot of live boxing, featuring mostly Latino fighters. But for the most part it's a market that fights for every penny, with discounted room rates, cheap buffets, karaoke lounges, and slot player "cashback" promotions.
Laughlin's Riverside, on the other hand, tries to be the Bellagio of Laughlin. That means charging two dollars more per room. ("We go as low as 19," says a spokesman, "but the others will go to 17.") And it means offering more restaurants, more tourist attractions (including three sightseeing boats), a sixplex movie theater, a country/western ballroom, a 900-space RV park, a classic car collection, and, my personal favorite, the Loser's Lounge, a Top 40 dance club which is lined with photos of history's biggest losers (Al Gore just went up) and features the classic Wet T-shirt Contest. (Ah, nostalgia!)
The Riverside has also been active for ten years now in trying to get regular air service that would make Laughlin more of a "destination resort." Don Laughlin contributed $9 million to upgrade the airport so that it could handle big jets, but it has remained a feeder market for Vegas. The latest attempt, a company called Air Laughlin, geared up in January, with flights to and from Phoenix, San Jose, Burbank, and Ontario, Calif.
Somehow I don't think it will work. If you walk along the river, stopping at each hotel, you don't find many people moving at jet speed. The 5 million annual visitors like to mosey. It's a slow-moving river. Don't rush me. Sam Kinison was probably going too fast.
DON LAUGHLIN'S RIVERSIDE RESORT & CASINO Laughlin, Nev. Theme: Houseboat Sleeps 4000
Known For: Being the pride and joy of Don Laughlin, who gave the resort his name by building from scratch in the sixties.
Marketing niche: Snowbirds, families from Arizona and
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Medium
Dealers: Down-home friendly
Surrounding area: Anchoring the Strip, with the Colorado
River on one side, the Mojave Desert on the other, and nine high-rise casino neighbors, none of which are quite so elaborate.
Overall rating: 75
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $30 after a half hour at a very
lonely craps table: total to date: -$416