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November 21, 2014

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Longtime gaming executive Burton Cohen dies at age 90

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Mona Shield Payne

Long-time friends of Jackie Gaughan arrive for the memorial mass for John Davis “Jackie” Gaughan held at St. Viator Catholic Church in Las Vegas on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2014. From right to left are Burton Cohen, Gene Kilroy and an unidentified man.

Updated Wednesday, May 7, 2014 | 3:33 p.m.

Burton M. Cohen grew with Las Vegas and, over the last half century, he did his best to push the glittering gaming capital’s growth to unexpected heights.

Despite his decades at the helm of some of Las Vegas’s most vital hotels, Cohen admitted to the Sun in 2005 that he did not foresee just how much and how quickly Las Vegas would grow.

“If you had told me this would be happening 40 years ago, I would have had you committed to an institution,” Cohen told the Sun in a Feb. 27, 2005, story about the Nevada Gaming Commission’s approval of MGM Mirage’s historic $7.9 billion buyout of rival Mandalay Resort Group.

Cohen, the former three-time president of the Desert Inn and a member of the MGM Resorts International board and Sunrise Hospital board of directors, died in his sleep today at his home at Regency Towers. He was 90.

Services for the Las Vegas resident of 48 years will be at 3:30 p.m. Friday at King David Mortuary at 2697 E. Eldorado Lane.

Cohen, who is enshrined in the Nevada Gaming Hall of Fame, is perhaps best remembered for his second and longest tenure at the Desert Inn — 1978 to the mid-1980s — where he brought to town major events including several Ladies Professional Golf Association tournaments.

“My husband golfed a little bit, but the reason he brought major golf tournaments to Las Vegas was because they were good for Las Vegas — and anything that was good for Las Vegas, Burton supported,” said Cohen’s wife, Linda Cohen.

The LPGA tournaments at the DI featured some of the game’s greatest stars, including Nancy Lopez and Donna Caponi Young, and drew thousands of locals and tourists each year.

Despite his advanced years, Cohen had been in generally good health, so his death came as a shock to his closest friends.

“I liked Burton because he was a handshake kind of guy,” said longtime Las Vegas businessman, banker and former Nevada Gaming Commission member Art Marshall, a friend of Cohen’s since the mid-1960s.

“He was generous, kind, totally trustworthy and very smart. When I served on the commission, I could always call Burton, ask him a question about gaming and know I would get a straight-up, honest answer,” Marshall said. “He was very well liked in the industry and loved by those who worked for him.”

Bill Bible, former president of the Nevada Resort Association and former chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, said Cohen was “a gaming pioneer who was very knowledgeable about the industry and was a man with a great sense of humor.”

Years earlier, Cohen held the same post at the Resort Association as Bible held in the late 1990s.

Bible, who served on the Mirage Resorts International board with Cohen, also remembered his longtime friend as a man who was especially kind to animals.

“Burton was a regular in the breakfast crowd at Bagelmania (on East Twain Avenue) and after every meal, he would break half a bagel into tiny pieces and feed the pigeons under the canopy on the sidewalk outside the restaurant,” Bible said. “He even named some of the pigeons who showed up every day for those scraps.”

Residents at Regency Towers knew Burton as the kind, elderly gentleman who daily walked his two little mixed-breed dogs, Izzy and Moe, along the sidewalk in front of the posh condominium complex.

Izzy, a schnauzer/terrier mix, and Moe, a poodle/bichon frise mix, are both 14 and today showed signs of depression over their master’s departure, Linda Cohen said.

Cohen, who initially retired from active management of gaming resorts in 1995 and for 15 years did mostly consulting work for gaming companies, accepted the offer to serve on the Mirage Resorts board on April 13, 2010.

But it was at the Desert Inn where Cohen left his most indelible mark in Las Vegas. His first tenure at the DI in the early 1970s was a brief one as he left to develop other properties.

Cohen began his third stint at the Desert Inn in 1992 as its president and chief executive officer and stayed on as president and managing director when ITT Sheraton Corp/ acquired the property in 1993. Cohen oversaw the sale of the hotel he often called “my first love” to gaming giant Steve Wynn.

The Desert Inn was imploded to make room for the Wynn Las Vegas and Encore.

“It seems that almost every hotel I have worked for has been demolished,” Cohen often mused.

Cohen also held key executive posts in the Frontier, Thunderbird and Dunes — all imploded or otherwise destroyed to make room for new structures.

In the mid-1960s, Cohen was part of a team that financed construction of the Frontier and was its co-owner and general manager.

Cohen left the Frontier and helped Jay Sarno open the Circus Circus.

Cohen also was a top executive at the Flamingo — he was executive vice president in the late 1960s and president in 1973 — and Caesars Palace. He served as president of the Thunderbird in the mid-1970s.

Cohen, who was president and chief operating officer of the Dunes in 1986 and 1987, is credited with bringing the Dunes out of bankruptcy and selling it to Japanese investor Masao Nangaku for $153 million — one of the biggest turnarounds in gaming history. Today, the Bellagio stands on the spot of the old Dunes.

But Cohen may be most remembered by non-gaming enthusiasts for his role on the 1978-81 TV show “Vega$” starring Robert Urich.

Although Cohen only appeared as himself in three episodes during the 1980 and 1981 seasons, the DI public address system could be heard loudly blaring several times during almost every episode: “Paging Mr. Cohen, Mr. Burton Cohen.”

In actuality, fellow Southern Nevadan Tony Curtis played the Cohen character “Roth” in “Vega$.” Linda Cohen said that Curtis claimed he modeled the Roth character after her husband.

Burton Cohen also played himself in the 1987 made-for-TV movie “Glory Days.”

Born Aug. 23, 1923, in Philadelphia, Cohen moved with his family to Miami when he was just 6 months old.

During World War II, Cohen joined the Army Air Corps and trained as a pilot at a base near Biloxi, Miss. The war ended as he was about to be sent overseas.

After his stint in the service, Cohen returned to Florida and graduated with a law degree from the University of Miami in 1948. Shortly thereafter, Cohen entered the resort industry and oversaw the construction and development of hotels in Miami and along costal Florida.

Cohen came to Las Vegas in 1966 and almost immediately established himself as one of the town’s most highly visible casino executives.

In addition to his wife, Cohen is survived by his son Stephen Cohen and Stephen’s spouse, John, of Washington, D.C.; a grandson, Jeremye, of Philadelphia; a granddaughter, Nyssa, and her spouse, Steve Herz, of Philadelphia; and 5 great-grandchildren.

Ed Koch is a former longtime Las Vegas Sun reporter.

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