The Quiet Pioneer

Last month the Nevada casino industry lost one of its pioneers when William N. “Bill” Pennington died at the age of 88. He wasn’t a household name in Las Vegas, but he had a hand in the creation of today’s Las Vegas Strip by helping transform a struggling, scandal-plagued hotel-casino into the keystone of what was, for a time, the most profitable gaming company in the world.

In the early 1970s, Jay Sarno’s Circus Circus was in trouble. A major skimming operation hindered whatever chance the casino had to be profitable. Although Sarno contemplated selling, he owed far more on it than it was worth, and he looked for someone to lease the operation from him.

In late 1973 he met Bill Bennett and Bill Pennington. Bennett had been an executive with Del Webb’s casinos, and Pennington had been involved in designing and selling slot machines in Northern Nevada. Pooling their savings, they made Sarno an offer he couldn’t refuse, and they began leasing Circus Circus.

Together, they built a new kind of Strip resort, one that catered to masses of low-rollers instead of vying for the action of a few premium players. It was a lower-margin business but one with less risk. There were more people willing to pay $20 a night for a room and play quarter slots than there were high-stakes baccarat players. And the low-rollers didn’t demand comped suites.

The new approach turned the Strip on its head; Circus Circus performed well during the recessions of the late 1970s and early 1980s and became the talk of the town. Baccarat parlors were out, RV parks were in, and family-friendly, value-oriented Las Vegas was born. Circus Circus was a decade ahead of its time, and it continued to serve the mass market better than anyone else in town.

Although Bennett and Pennington shared a keen eye for business and the vision of mass-market-oriented casinos, they had dramatically different personalities. Bennett saw business in mathematically precise terms and insisted on a rigid formality; very few executives were allowed the luxury of addressing him by his first name. Pennington was just as astute, but his more easy-going demeanor helped him smooth over many of the feathers that Bennett ruffled.

A proud Reno resident, Pennington refused to move to Las Vegas, even once his fortunes were tied directly to Circus Circus. Instead, he flew down once a week to take care of business. He and Bennett trusted each other implicitly, and when Bennett found himself forced to make a snap decision without consulting his partner, he was usually on the phone soon after explaining the situation. Although he wasn’t on site, Pennington was nonetheless deeply involved in running the casino.

Pennington’s love for Reno prompted him and Bennett to open a Reno Circus Circus in 1978. Initially housed in a converted department store, it eventually added a hotel and became a fixture on Virginia Street. It was one of the first Vegas-casino spinoffs—Harrah’s had had a Tahoe outpost since 1955—and it helped establish the idea that a casino’s “brand” could be packaged and re-created in another city. The strategy would become a major part of the nationwide casino expansion of the 1990s.

In 1983, Bennett and Pennington bought out Sarno, becoming full-fledged owners of Circus Circus. Flush with money after taking the company public, they expanded existing properties and opened casinos in Laughlin.

Pennington, who retired in 1988 following a boating accident on Lake Tahoe and sold all of his remaining shares in Circus Circus Enterprises a few years later, was just about written out of the Circus Circus success story. Much of the credit for the company’s triumphs went to Bennett, who remained at the helm of the company until a 1995 shareholder revolt. Pennington wasn’t there for the opening of Excalibur in 1990, which was followed by Luxor in 1993, Monte Carlo in 1996 and Mandalay Bay in 1999. But if not for his tempering Bennett’s hard edges in the early days—and contributing his own ideas as well—the company wouldn’t have been in a position to build any of those resorts. And the Strip would look much different today.

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