LAS VEGAS -- Three powerful women who carved out roles in Nevada’s gaming industry as it moved away from gambling halls to megaresorts shared their stories at the Mob Museum on Wednesday, riveting an audience with their substance and humor.
Patricia Becker, the first and so far the only woman appointed to the Nevada State Gaming Control Board Gaming Commission, described how she was dubbed “Pretty Patty” by a writer when she was appointed 20 years ago, yet casino owners were fearful she would be too tough on them.
Jan Jones Blackhurst, who came to Las Vegas to boost her family’s grocery store sales, became the first female mayor of Las Vegas in 1991 and is vice president of communications and government relations at Caesars Entertainment Corporation.
Elaine Wynn moved to Las Vegas in 1967 as a wife and mother and created the “Wynn lifestyle” with her ex-husband at The Mirage, Treasure Island, Bellagio, Wynn Las Vegas, Encore and Wynn Macau.
Moderator Marybel Batjer, a powerhouse in her own right with a slew of top government jobs with Republicans and Democrats, asked the trio about the evolution of gaming where women were viewed as “boobs, butts and no brains,” to the point where their roles were owners, regulators and executives.
All three women gave credit to the first generation of women in gaming in Las Vegas, particularly the late Claudine Williams, who transitioned from running gambling halls with her husband, Shelby, to becoming the first woman to operate a Strip casino, the Holiday Inn-Holiday Casino. Wynn said whether she had personal or professional challenges, the first person she called for sage advice was Williams.
Blackhurst described how Frontier Hotel owner Margaret Elardi wanted to settle the nation’s longest strike over the objections of her sons, but feared “if she crossed them, she’d lose her grandchildren.” The strike lasted 6½ years before ending in 1998.
The three women acknowledged it was easier for women like themselves, who had power and titles, to be treated with respect in the world where men dominated, than it was for most women working in gaming.
Becker, the daughter of a Las Vegas shoe store owner, called herself “a public school girl who made good.” She worked for Harrah’s Entertainment for nine years and recalled the day she was on maternity leave and was called to come in by CEO Phil Satre to talk about “reorganization.” She figured she was about to be fired. Instead she was promoted to senior vice president and given a raise. As she drove home, she said she thought, “I just got a promotion, I’m going home to an adorable baby, does it get any better than this?”
Wynn described how the company’s entrance into Atlantic City opened the doors to capital, allowing the couple to conceive of The Mirage, which opened in 1989 and set a new standard for the Strip. It was the first of a new generation of public companies.
Blackhurst interjected, “Everyone was betting Steve was going down.”
Instead The Mirage was quickly profitable and created the demand for megaresorts.
Yet Wynn acknowledged its model of luxury didn’t work with the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. “We overbuilt in Biloxi, Miss.,” she said. Not enough people could afford the luxurious resort that opened in 1999. Wynn Resorts sold the hotel-casino to MGM Grand International.
Holding a gaming license in Nevada doesn’t guarantee a license anywhere else, Wynn said. The image of gaming as “corrupt and vile” is prevalent elsewhere, citing Boston and Philadelphia, where officials have eyed Las Vegas gaming operations with suspicion.
Wynn is renowned for her impassioned speech to the Nevada Gaming Commission when Steve Wynn wanted to hire poker player Bobby Baldwin as president of the Golden Nugget. The Gaming Control Board split on whether he was suitable because of his “colorful life and colorful friends,” as Wynn put it. To make it happen, Baldwin had to have a unanimous vote of approval. Attorney Frank Schreck made his pitch, followed by Elaine Wynn’s vivid defense of Baldwin. Steve Wynn was supposed to be the closer. But when his wife was finished, he said he had nothing to add, she had said it all. Baldwin was approved in 1984 and after a career with the Wynns is a top gaming executive with MGM Resorts International.
Wynn, whose reputation is as much a philanthropist as a gaming executive, talked about the difference in Nevada now that “we don’t have the homeboys” but instead have CEOs who don’t live in Nevada and don’t feel the same commitment to improving the community. There are families and children in dire need who have struggled for survival the past five years, she said.
“For us to pretend we’re taking care of the needs of our citizens is shortsighted,” she said, receiving the loudest applause of the evening.
“Or does government need to fund the state’s responsibilities?” said Blackhurst, to slightly less enthusiastic applause.
The program is scheduled to be aired repeatedly on Vegas PBS in May, with the first airing at 7:30 p.m. May 6.
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