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Sam’s Town celebrates 40 years as community gathering place

For Jon Avery, Sam’s Town was the setting for a memorable retirement party. For Ginger Glass-Trotter, it’s the place where she sang professionally and then, as a cocktail server, met customers whom she now considers friends. For Audrey Bucci, it was where a moving memorial service for her husband was held.

Locals-oriented casinos around Las Vegas can be more than just places to gamble — for many, in fact, they become like community centers, neighborhood bars, diners or even secular worship spaces. Over the past four decades, Sam’s Town Hotel & Gambling Hall has been all of those and more.

Sam’s Town celebrates its 40th anniversary Monday, with a cake-and-champagne party at 2 p.m. And although the area around it has developed enough over the years to earn the unofficial moniker “Boulder Strip,” its roots lie in what four decades ago was open desert.

The idea

Bill Boyd, son of gaming icon Sam Boyd and executive chairman of Boyd Gaming Corp., notes that in 1979, the Boyd family had ownership in the California Hotel in Las Vegas and the Eldorado in Henderson. Earlier, while driving along Boulder Highway one night, Bill Boyd passed property that he and partners owned.

“I called my partner who was in the real estate business and said, ‘I’m passing our property, our five acres out here, and we only have one payment left on that and we’re going to own it. Why don’t we do something to develop it? Build a hotel or something?’

“He said, ‘That’s a great idea. I just got a listing this morning on 13 acres right on the corner of Nellis Boulevard and Boulder Highway. It’s $635,000.’ “

When Boyd pitched the idea to his father, Sam liked it, too.

“We were sure that about 90 percent of people who lived on the East side … went downtown for their entertainment, and we said, ‘Why would they go downtown if we put a nice place closer to them so they didn’t have to drive as far?’ ”

Not everyone agreed.

“It appeared in the paper we were building at that address, and my dad and I started to get calls from friends and contemporaries saying, ‘You guys are so out of it … What are you doing, going out to the middle of nowhere where you’re going to go broke?’ ”

The opening

Boyd says Sam’s Town was packed on opening day — April 1, 1979.

Sam’s Town wasn’t the first locals casino, but “it was, really, one of the first full-scale, what we called local properties” and helped to start a trend.

The goal was to offer entertainment amenities that would make Sam’s Town more than just a gambling hall but also a destination casino.

“We had a nice coffee shop. We had an upscale restaurant called Diamond Lil’s. We had a nice lounge, Roxy’s Lounge. On the second floor we had a Western dance hall,” Boyd says. “Within a year, we built a 56-lane bowling center downstairs, and it wasn’t long after that we started bingo.”

In 1994, indoor park Mystic Falls opened. Many customers say, ‘I love bring- ing kids to see the show,’ ” Boyd says. “So we opened and we never looked back. We’ve expanded it eight times”

A gathering place

Boyd is gratified that Sam’s Town has become a gathering place for local residents. “We have a tremendous number of retired people who live here now and come to Sam’s Town … six days a week.”

Jon and Barbara Avery started coming almost daily after moving here in 1979.

“We get up in the morning, come to bingo, have lunch with our favorite waitress,” Barbara Avery says. Then, it’s more bingo or “sometimes we go home for a couple of hours, then we come back again.”

When Jon retired from his airline job, Barb, a retired teacher, arranged a party at the casino. “Sam’s Town set it up for me,” she says, and “an executive from the office called a week before and said, ‘Do you have a picture of him?’ “

She sent it along, and both were surprised to see the photo flashed on the hotel’s marquee with a congratulatory message.

Barbara also remembers that during a hospital stay several years ago, “they sent me a bouquet of flowers. When I got home, I got a fruit basket, all from Sam’s Town.”

Audrey Bucci has been coming daily for 35 years. When husband Henry died in 2011, the casino hosted a memorial service on a balcony overlooking Mystic Falls.

“Seventy-five employees came up that day to say hello and tell me how sorry they were,” says Bucci, known by regulars and staff as “Miss Audrey.”

“It really made you feel very special, because what other casino now, when somebody dies, they’re going to go to all that trouble to come up and say hi? I still have a little book at home that they all signed.”

She pauses. “I’m going to tear up.”

Sense of belonging

There’s a sense of family here, says Ginger Glass-Trotter, a cocktail server at Sam’s Town for 25 years. “We are the only family some of these folks have. We’re the only ones who say, ‘How are you doing today?’ “

Glass-Trotter sang at Roxy’s Lounge for several years. Her daughter, who has special needs, had a medical condition at a time when “insurance could discriminate against pre-existing conditions,” she says.

A manager suggested that she come on as a full-time employee and be covered by the company’s medical plan. By the time she was hired, “Boyd Gaming was putting specialists on the plan just for my daughter.”

All consider Sam’s Town a part of their daily lives. Jon Avery can think of only one thing Sam’s Town can’t do: “Make us 30 years younger.”

Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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