Las Vegas Sun

July 25, 2014

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Artist, former casino owner Pettit dies at 62

Don Pettit did not come to Las Vegas with the intention of becoming a gaming legend.

After earning an art degree from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1959, he accepted a job teaching art and coaching football at Boulder City High School. He soon, however, became disillusioned because students took his class not to share his great love for art but because they thought it would be an easy A.

The next year, he switched to the gaming industry, where he utilized his artistic talents and came up with innovative publicity gimmicks that made Pettit a successful businessman and allowed him and his Las Vegas-born wife to raise their four Las Vegas-born children in unique and comfortable surroundings.

Donald W. Pettit, the founder of a small gaming empire that included the Money Tree, Coin Castle and Jolly Trolley casinos, and a respected artist whose pencil caricatures are displayed in the homes of prominent Las Vegans, has died. He was 62.

Pettit, who also built the 7,000-square-foot Rancho Circle mansion that resembles a medieval castle, died Sept. 5 at Valley Hospital after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Services for the 39-year Southern Nevada resident were last Wednesday at Palm Mortuary-Jones. Interment was in Memory Gardens.

"My father saw in Las Vegas a great opportunity for business," said Jeffrey Pettit, of Boyton Beach, Fla. "He never stopped coming up with new and successful ideas."

Among Don Pettit's many accomplishments were:

* In the late 1970s, he brought the first totally nude show to the Las Vegas Strip when he hired porn star Marilyn Chambers to perform her one-woman play "The Sex Surrogate" at the Jolly Trolley. When Chambers refused to wear a g-string because she said it would compromise the artistic integrity of her performance, Pettit supported her to the point of standing up to city fathers who tried to shut down the show.

* He opened the Library Buttery and Pub in his Enchanted Village shopping center on Sahara Avenue. At one time the gourmet restaurant featured the world's largest menu -- 29 pages -- and served meals on fine china and drinks in pewter mugs.

* Pettit converted one-armed bandit slot machines into reel poker machines -- the forerunner of video poker.

* He established one of the first dealer-training schools in Las Vegas near the old Nevada Club, where he got his start in the gaming industry, first as a commercial artist and later as the casino's personnel director.

"My father knew that to get people to come in the door he had to come up with unique promotions -- he was a visionary," said Stephanie Stallworth, public information officer at the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

"One of his innovations was giving five free lucky nickels to customers. Another was paying cash incentives to cabbies and bus drivers to bring people directly to the Jolly Trolley."

Still another was his Jolly Trolley hamburger, which was regarded by many as the largest and finest burger in town at the time.

Born July 20, 1936, in Marshalltown, Iowa, to farmer Stephen Pettit and his wife Ila (nee Wyatt) Pettit, Don grew up on the farm and played football and honed his artistic skills at Coe College before moving to Las Vegas at age 23.

"He took the teaching job here because he wanted to get away from the cold weather," said native Las Vegan Sharon Pettit, Don's wife of 36 years.

"But it didn't take long for him to decided that teaching was not for him, especially because of the low pay. So he went to work at the Nevada Club where his best friend, Andy Tompkins, was general manager. Andy became his mentor and lifelong friend."

Tompkins, a reclusive millionaire who built the Lady Luck into a major downtown casino, hired Pettit as his general manager after buying that property.

In the mid-1960s, Tompkins encouraged Pettit to buy the Honest John's newsstand at Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard. From there, Pettit eventually bought the entire northwest corner, including the Money Tree Casino and later the Jolly Trolley, which featured strippers who performed behind a curtain in the back of the casino.

Pettit also purchased the assets of the old California Club casino on Fremont Street in the mid-1970s and redesigned it into the Coin Castle, much like he had done with his famous home, which he had purchased in 1969.

Pettit's house for many years was a popular tourist attraction before Rancho Circle was closed to the public and became a gated community. Prior to that, tour buses made the castle home a regular point of interest on their Las Vegas route.

In the late 1970s, Pettit worked as a guest political cartoonist for the Sun, where his works lampooned local and national events.

By the mid-1980s, Pettit sold his casino interests and, along with friend Pepper Hailey, opened the Casino Coin Machine Co., which for years maintained a successful slot route and gave Pettit an opportunity to develop new casino games.

"After dad sold the last of his casinos, he told us the day of the small casino operator is over," Stallworth said. "From then on, casinos would have to be operated as major resorts if they were going to be successful. And he was right."

Five years ago, Pettit was diagnosed with cancer and his doctors gave him six months to live. But the cancer went into remission for a while and Pettit spent his retirement years concentrating on his art and playing golf.

At the time of his death, Pettit was working on a series of sports scene pencil sketches.

Pettit's other survivors include Stephanie Stallworth's husband, Steve, of Las Vegas; Jeffrey Pettit's wife, Valerie, of Boyton Beach, Fla.; another daughter, Nicole Rigoni, and her husband, Tony, of Las Vegas; another son Trevor Pettit of Las Vegas; a brother, Richard Pettit of Montgomery, Ala.; and three grandchildren, Brittney Rivkind Pettit, Savannah Stallworth and Stetson Stallworth.

DONATIONS: In Pettit's memory to the American Cancer Society, 1325 E. Harmon Ave., Las Vegas, NV 89109; or Coe College, Attn: Development Office, 1220 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52402.

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