Paging Burt Cohen:  A Look into the Legacy of a Las Vegas Icon.

On the heels of its big arena ground breaking, MGM lost one of its oldest, and dearest board members.  Legendary Vegas pioneer Burton Cohen passed away in his sleep Tuesday, May 6th. While most will remember him for his strong presence at the Desert Inn, his career in Vegas began in 1966, and in over 40 years he ran some of the city’s best known casinos.

According to his inductee page at the Gaming Hall of Fame, Mr. Cohen had his hands in almost every large casino during the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s.  His vision started at the old Frontier Casino which he left after the eccentric Howard Hughes took over. He did a quick stint at his first love, the Desert Inn before being wooed by Jay Sarno to help open Circus Circus.

Vegas, before the Vegas we know about now.

Vegas, before the Vegas we know about now.

He bounced through the Flamingo, Caesars, Thunderbird and Dunes before settling back down again at the Desert Inn.  With the help of Aaron Spelling, Mr. Cohen helped increase Vegas tourism by bringing the glitz and glamour of Sin City to everyone’s living room with the hit series Vega$, even making special guest appearances playing himself.  By the time the show fizzled out in 1981, the entire nation knew about the world’s largest playground. 

Now on DVD.

Now on DVD.

Even after a short-lived attempt at retirement, Burt was lured back to the Desert Inn during the ‘90’s when he was able to bring the sagging hotel and casino back to the forefront.  There he stayed until Steve Wynn came along and turned it into the Wynn Las Vegas.  Mr. Cohen was able to laugh about his history on the strip, reminding his peers and admirers that all but one of the many hotels he managed has since been blown up.  He has been quoted saying: “I’ve left a sea of destruction.”

More like a sea of admiration.  Since the news of his passing broke, friends and colleagues have been gushing over the kind faced visionary.  This includes 98 year old MGM resorts founder Kirk Kerkorian, who through his resort issued a heartfelt statement about his friend stating that it was an honor to have known him.  Current MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren concedes that Cohen’s ingenuity has had a lasting imprint on the hospitality based Vegas we know and love today.

A face of Vegas history.

A face of Vegas history.

It was Burt Cohen who had the insight to broaden the casinos horizon and bring top quality entertainment to the strip.  By introducing 5 star dining and the biggest names in Hollywood to the Desert Inn, he was able to tap into a new market of Las Vegas vacationers.  In a rare interview less than a year ago with Gaming Today, Cohen talked candidly on how quality drove the success of the Desert Inn.  It goes without saying that his insights have made a huge contribution to the Las Vegas experience a guest will get today.

According to his wife, Burt Cohen’s passing was unexpected.  He was still a very active member of the MGM Grand board of directors and had just attended a meeting the day prior. A consummate professional to the very end, his family and friends can find some comfort knowing that his legacy has, and always will, left an undeniable mark in Las Vegas.

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