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Station Casinos company chief Frank Fertitta Jr. dies at 70

To long-time Station Casinos employees and patrons, Frank Fertitta Jr., the patriarch of the gaming company, was affectionately referred to as "Mr. Fertitta."

It was a title that came out of respect, said his long-time friends and associates.

"He was not aggressive or loud," said attorney Frank Schreck, who represented Fertitta since the 1970s. "He was one of the most quiet and polite individuals I ever met. He had an amazing demeanor and his personality and attitude is what made him a success."

Fertitta, 70, died Friday morning in Los Angeles following heart surgery a few weeks ago. He had been hospitalized at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Funeral services are pending.

"No one called him anything other than Mr. Fertitta, and that was simply out of respect," said Glenn Christenson, Station Casinos former chief financial officer who began working with Fertitta in 1989.

"All those early employees held him in high regard," Christenson said.

Family, friends, and business associates said Fertitta's passing took away one of the gaming industry's true pioneers, a person whose career bridged the era when organized crime controlled Las Vegas casinos to the advent of corporate ownership and publicly traded casino operators.

"Frank was one of the pillars of our town," said Larry Ruvo, the senior managing director of Southern Wine & Spirits and founder of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Ruvo said Fertitta was one of the original donors to the center.

"When you say character and integrity, that pretty much describes Frank," Ruvo said. "He believed very strongly in family and friends."

Fertitta opened and expanded the Palace Station and had bought the land that would eventually house Boulder Station when he retired from Station Casinos in 1993, turning the business over to his sons, Frank Fertitta III and Lorenzo Fertitta. The company then went public.

"We learned the family business from dad," Frank Fertitta III said in a 2006 interview.

After leaving the company, Frank Fertitta Jr., privately financed the building of Texas Station on Rancho Drive in 1994. He sold the property at cost to Station Casinos before its opening in 1995.

Fertitta is credited with pioneering the locals casino market, developing a place that catered to Las Vegas residents and gaming industry employees looking to relax at the end of their shifts.

"I honestly believe that he single-handedly created one of the largest markets in the gaming industry," Christenson said. "He was also someone who was never willing to accept the recognition he deserved. That's the type of person he was. He did a lot for the community, but in a very quiet way."

Fertitta's first casino was simply called The Casino, a 5,000-square-foot building attached to the Mini-Price Motor Inn on Sahara Avenue, west of Interstate 15, which opened in 1976.

His friends weren't initially sure if the property would be a success.

"He created the buffet for locals," Schreck said. "He brought bingo to locals. It was his idea to create easy access parking. These are commonplace now at every locals casino. That's why he was a true pioneer. He was successful because he was committed to great customer service."

The Casino became the Bingo Palace and was renamed Palace Station in 1983.

By the time he parted with the property, the Palace Station had gone through 13 different expansions because the banking environment was much different in the 1980s. Frank Fertitta Jr. said he lost count of the revisions, but his sons went back and added them up.

"Even though he was making money, it was tough to get loans and expand," Frank Fertitta III said in 2006. "All the expansions were done out of cash flow. We would knock out a wall and add a coffee shop or a fish house or put in more slot machines. Dad's vision was much grander and well ahead of the times."

Boulder Station was well under construction when Frank Fertitta Jr. retired in 1993.

"The Palace Station was like my baby," Frank Fertitta Jr. said in a 2006 interview with the Review-Journal, prior to the opening of the $925 million Red Rock Resort.

"It wasn't easy to give it up," he said. "What made up my mind was that I could cash out for $265 million, which 13 years ago was a lot of money. I was really able to set up the family for life."

Born Oct. 30, 1938, in Beaumont, Texas, Frank Fertitta Jr. arrived in Las Vegas with his wife, Victoria, in 1960 from Galveston, Texas.

His first job was a bellman at the Tropicana while learning to deal. From 1960-76, he served as a dealer and held other gaming positions including pit boss, baccarat manager and general manager at the Stardust, Tropicana, Circus Circus, Sahara and Fremont.

His expansion plans for the Palace Station were stalled somewhat in the late 1980s.

Nevada gaming regulators spent nearly five years investigating allegations he was part of a skimming operation at the Fremont in the 1970s. Frank Fertitta Jr. consistently maintained his innocence and was cleared. He was finally able to complete a $55 million expansion in 1991, giving the property more than 1,000 hotel rooms and creating the company's flagship at the time.

"The Fertitta family is a tremendous success story," Christenson said. "I always admired his business sense. I really appreciated working with him early in my career."

Even after retiring, Frank Fertitta Jr., spent time at the Palace Station, eating meals in the restaurants and visiting with employees and customers. "My sons had the ideas on how to grow the company beyond what we ever thought possible," Frank Fertitta Jr. said in 2006.

After retiring, he remained active in other family businesses as well as community and philanthropic affairs. Frank Fertitta Jr. and Victoria Fertitta had involvement in the University of Nevada Las Vegas; Bishop Gorman High School; Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada; the Nevada Cancer Institute; Opportunity Village; and St. Judes Ranch.

"I'm proud of the fact that I was able to give back to the community and I'm proud that all my children are successful and have done the same thing," Frank Fertitta Jr. said in 2006.

Frank Fertitta Jr. is survived by his wife of 51 years Victoria; daughter Delise Sartini; sons Frank Fertitta III and Lorenzo; and nine grandchildren, Blake Sartini II, Lorenzo Sartini, Sandra Sartini, Kelley-Ann Fertitta, Victoria Fertitta, Frank Fertitta IV, Lorenzo Fertitta Jr., Nicco Fertitta and Angelia Fertitta. He is preceded in death by his brother, Joseph, and is survived by sisters Olivia Deppe and Linda Ramirez.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871.

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