When listing the top movers and shakers in the history of Las Vegas gaming, Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, and Howard Hughes inevitably garner a mention. But such a list is incomplete without Bill Bennett — the Forgotten Man.
While Wynn and other resort operators catered to high-rollers, Bennett focused on middle-class Americans to fill his hotel rooms and play his slot machines. He transformed Circus Circus from a struggling curiosity into the Strip’s most successful resort.
Forgotten Man, told through in-depth interviews with family members, friends, employees, and others who knew Bennett, tells the story of a man who as much as anyone built modern Las Vegas.
Bennett got his start working in a furniture store in Phoenix, eventually taking over and expanding into a string of stores that made him a millionaire. But when his furniture business went bust, Bennett turned to Nevada’s casino industry for a second chance. Starting as a casino host in Lake Tahoe, Bennett quickly worked his way up the ladder, and by 1969 he was running all of Del Webb’s casino properties.
Then Bennett met Bill Pennington, and these like-minded casino entrepreneurs decided to make their mark in the business. Bennett and Pennington invested in Circus Circus, a struggling casino on the Las Vegas Strip, in 1974. The two Bills pursued the middle-class customer with a vengeance, and it paid off with a hotel that never had an empty room and a casino full of people eagerly pulling slot machine handles.
Bennett shared the lead with Steve Wynn in reinventing the Strip during the early ’90s. Bennett and his dream team of “Young Turk” executives built the iconic Excalibur and Luxor resorts, which stand out to this day on the Las Vegas skyline. The financier Michael Milken praises Bennett as “the Sam Walton of Las Vegas.”
One reason Bennett has not gotten his due is because the last chapter of his life was so bleak. A range of health problems altered Bennett’s behavior, which became erratic and paranoid until his death in 2002.
But historians would be wise to focus on the empire that Bennett created, which started with one failing property on the edge of bankruptcy and grew into more than half a dozen thriving hotel-casinos that have now been absorbed into the giant MGM Resorts International. Without Bill Bennett’s contributions, Las Vegas would be a vastly different and less complete entertainment mecca today. He should not be the Forgotten Man.