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October 30, 2014

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Happy birthday, Eldorado! Henderson casino turns 50

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Leila Navidi

Bingo at the Eldorado Casino in downtown Henderson on Friday, June 22, 2012.

Eldorado Casino's 50th Anniversary

Eileen Brown of Henderson plays the machines while waiting for bingo to start at the Eldorado Casino in downtown Henderson on Friday, June 22, 2012. Launch slideshow »
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Bill Boyd, founder and executive chairman of Boyd Gaming, shares some stories of early days at the Eldorado Casino during an interview at Boyd Gaming corporate offices Thursday, June 21, 2012. The casino in downtown Henderson, opened in 1962, is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Bill Boyd was arrested at the first casino he ever owned.

Local police had stopped at the Eldorado in Henderson to check exotic dancers’ work permits. One of the strippers didn’t have her papers, and police arrested Boyd.

He fought the charge in court, and a judge ruled the law unconstitutional. But in the years following, as he partnered with his father, took over the family business and built a nationwide company, Boyd always faced the question on gaming license applications: “Have you been arrested?” He had to mark yes.

“I got laughs from the gaming commission over the years for that,” Boyd said.

The history of the Eldorado, however, goes well beyond the arrest of its owner. The casino turns 50 today.

The Eldorado marked the beginning of Boyd Gaming, which now owns 17 casinos. It was one of the first casinos to market itself to locals. And it was among the first casinos in the valley to hire women dealers.

When the Eldorado opened in 1962 on Water Street, it had 41 slot machines, two blackjack tables and one craps table. The bulk of its customers came from the nearby Basic Magnesium Plant.

“They would come in and cash their paychecks on Thursdays and Fridays,” Boyd said. “We had dancing every day but Tuesday.”

The male factory workers liked the female dealers, who weren’t yet allowed in Las Vegas casinos. To this day, Boyd credits hiring the women as a key strategy that led to the growth of his family’s business.

In fact, after seeing its success at the Eldorado, Boyd and his father Sam brought women dealers downtown when they opened their second casino, the Union Plaza, in 1971. The Plaza, as it is now known, hired Las Vegas’ first all-female dealing staff.

“The men said, ‘You’re giving all our jobs to women, who belong at home with the kids,’” Bill Boyd said. “Dad always said it was just the right thing to do.”

Today, the Eldorado features many of the blinking casino signs that hung on its walls during the 1960s. Antiques emblazoned with the casino’s logo decorate shelves. Old-fashioned mechanical slot machines line the main gaming floor. They no longer work, but they remind visitors of the casino’s history.

Boyd has pumped $2 million into renovating and expanding the casino, which now includes 426 slot machines and four table games. But a large part of the Eldorado’s charm remains its intimate setting and family feel.

Many employees have worked there for 20 years or more, General Manager Guido Metzger said.

The Latin-themed steakhouse is named for Boyd’s daughter, Marianne Johnson, who is now executive vice president of Boyd Gaming.

A café offers daily spaghetti dinners for $2.99, and table bets run $2.

The bingo room fills up quickly. Just about everyone calls each other by their first name. They notice when a stranger walks in, but the newcomer can easily join conversations.

“The dealers are sociable, and everybody knows you here,” said Larry Utter, who has been visiting the Eldorado since he moved to Henderson in 1970. The cocktail waitresses know he doesn’t like a straw in his drink.

“This is such a friendly place, like family,” said Kenneth Spurlin, who lives in Las Vegas but drives to Henderson to play at the Eldorado. “That’s why I come here.”

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