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Zip in his step, zest for life in his heart


LAUGHLIN —

If the smile on Don Laughlin’s face became any broader –– if it was elastic it would break –– you suspect he’d have to make an emergency landing at a nearby hospital to receive treatment for a dislocated temporomandibular joint.

And then, seemingly just in time, this grin of grins dissolves into laughter, loosening the grip on his TMJ and allowing him to declare his exuberant support for a natural high.

“Cocaine could never make you this high,” the 81-year-old Laughlin whooped into his headset mouthpiece as he banked his helicopter over the Colorado River that separates this unincorporated town in Nevada from Bullhead City, Ariz.

Just 90 miles south of Las Vegas off U.S. Highway 95, this town of less than 10,000 people carries his name. So does his business: Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort and Casino, the first in a long line of casinos that dot the Nevada side of the river’s shoreline.

The more time you spend with Laughlin, the more you wish you could bottle his enthusiasm for life so you could take a nip now and then –– we need a picker-upper when terrorists kill kids and you learn an insurer directed patients to Dr. Dipak Desai.

I’ve long been fascinated by the vitality of this man who looks like a white-haired James Cagney, who’s always hustling and taking notes at his resort –– talking to employees and customers at a bowling alley, nightclub, movie theaters, restaurants, car museum, swimming pools.

In the dance club, he works to improve his tango.

Six years ago, I started taking some weekends here. To read a book sitting on a balcony high above a river, well, I find that relaxing. At prices half those of Las Vegas, it also isn’t too taxing.

Not until recently, though, did I speak with the 5-foot-7, 160-pound no-fat Laughlin and ask for his secrets to a healthy and vital life.

Staying high on life was his answer.

To help do that he says he eats sparingly, drinks a glass of wine every day and does 50 pushups, 60 leg lifts and 50 side leg lifts daily. He rubs on testosterone cream daily and also takes 19 supplements, ranging from vitamins D and C to zinc and selenium.

While all that helps, he said he knows without a doubt that work and flying actually keep him high.

“I love making vacationers feel better through my work,” he said. “I feel good when they feel good so I work 12 to 14 hours a day. I only take off 10 days a year.”

You can’t escape Laughlin’s life story at his place –– his marketers share it on menus and on TV –– and you really don’t want to. You hope at least some semblance of the opportunity he grew up with in America still exists.

From a poor Minnesota family, he trapped enough mink as a teen to buy slot machines that were installed in local pubs, earning him $500 a week. When Congress passed a law in the 1950s largely prohibiting slots, he moved to Nevada, then their only legal haven. As a bartender in Las Vegas, he saved money to buy a North Las Vegas club.

Ten years later, he had enough money, $35,000, for a down payment on a dream that then came in the form of an eight-room boarded-up motel –– his family would live in four rooms –– and six acres of riverfront land that a U.S. postal inspector said would be easier to have mail delivered to if it was called Laughlin.

In 1966, the Riverside Resort opened with 12 slot machines, two gaming tables and four unoccupied rooms.

Now Laughlin drives a Rolls-Royce, has 2,000 employees and more than 1,400 rooms, and lives either in his hotel’s penthouse or in an Arizona mountain estate 10 minutes away by chopper.

And he flies whenever he can.

It is after 6 p.m. when Laughlin pulls his helicopter out of the hangar and we take off from the airport just across the river from his resort. Earlier, passenger jets carrying vacationers arrived at the airport that sits on land donated by the entrepreneur.

We zoom above the Colorado River and the $3.4 million bridge connecting Nevada and Arizona that Laughlin completely funded.

“I just bought a lot more Arizona land,” he said, pointing. “A developer might want it for condos.”

Laughlin grins and waves as we fly over a home belonging to one of his sons.

“I know I can’t fly forever, but I sure would like to. Isn’t this great?”

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.