Gaming industry icon Burton Cohen, who managed some of the Strip’s most iconic resorts during a career that spanned multiple decades, died Tuesday morning at his home in Las Vegas.
Cohen managed the now-demolished Desert Inn on three separate occasions. He also held management positions at the Flamingo, Caesars Palace, Thunderbird and Dunes. He was inducted into the Gaming Hall of Fame in 1995.
His wife of 30 years, Linda, told the Associated Press her husband died in his sleep. His death was unexpected — he had attended a meeting the day before, she said.
Cohen, 90, was a current member of the MGM Resorts International board of directors.
“The entire MGM family grieves the loss of Burton Cohen, who played a pioneering role in the early development of resorts on the Las Vegas Strip,” MGM Resorts Chairman Jim Murren said in a statement. “He was a courageous man and an innovator who quickly rose to the top of our industry ranks, and played an instrumental role in the growth of tourism in Nevada over many decades.”
Cohen was closely associated with Los Angeles financier Kirk Kerkorian, 98, the founder of what is now MGM Resorts. Kerkorian coaxed Cohen out of retirement to run the Desert Inn for a second time in the late 1980s.
“Burton was a dear friend and trusted colleague for more than 50 years,” Kerkorian said in a statement released through MGM Resorts. “I am very saddened to learn of his passing and want to offer my heartfelt thoughts to Linda and their entire family. Burt was a special person and I am deeply honored to have known him and called him a friend.”
Cohen is best known for the Desert Inn casino, where the 1970s TV series “Vega$” was filmed with his support. He is credited with reviving the hotel in the 1990s before it was closed to make way for the Wynn and Encore resorts.
Born in Philadelphia, Cohen served in the Air Force during World War II and worked as an attorney in Florida, his wife said. He came to Las Vegas in 1966 as co-owner and general manager of the Frontier casino, and he helped Jay Sarno open the Circus Circus casino.
In addition to his position on the MGM Resorts board, Cohen was a Sunrise Hospital board member.
Statements of tribute for Cohen poured in as news of his passing became public.
Former Gov. Bob Miller said Cohen’s fingerprints can be found throughout the history of the Strip because of the number of casinos he ran.
“He had no peers in his combination of charm and wit,” Miller said. “As recently as a few weeks ago he had me rolling in laughter. He was as spry and active as someone half his age. Las Vegas changed in many ways in his nearly 50 years here but Burton’s insight was always relevant.”
Gov. Brian Sandoval released a statement that also described Cohen’s sense of humor, as well as his social conscience.
“Burton was a great man who helped shape his community and had a positive impact on those he came in contact with,” Sandoval said. “He was a leader in his industry and his community, and without question will be deeply missed.”
Longtime casino industry host Gene Kilroy called Cohen, “a great man. Everyone he met, he made a better person.”
Murren said Cohen “left an indelible imprint on Las Vegas-style hospitality as we know it today.” He added that Cohen continued to share his expertise with the company as a board member.
“He came to every single meeting with a sharp sense of humor, keen operating insight and immeasurable wisdom,” Murren said.
Cohen attended the funeral of downtown gaming icon Jackie Gaughan in March, recalling how Gaughan helped him break into the casino business “as the new kid in town 50 years ago.”
In his time in Las Vegas, Cohen was always cordial and ready with a quip, but wasn’t one to share secrets. In a Review-Journal interview on his 90th birthday in January, Cohen spoke about his many casino positions.
“Testimony to my managerial ability, all except one have been blown up,” he said. “I’ve left a sea of destruction.”
In February, the UNLV Gaming Law Journal at the William S. Boyd School of Law published an oral history given by Cohen in which he chronicled his life and his involvement in the gaming industry.
The oral history can be found at: http://scholars.law.unlv.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1057&context=glj
Cohen is survived by his wife, son, two grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and two beloved rescue dogs. Funeral services are pending.
Review-Journal columnist Norm Clark contributed to this report. Contact reporter Howard Stutz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.