Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas gaming legend Jimmy Newman knew how to fish for whales in Las Vegas.
When he was senior vice president of gaming for the Las Vegas Hilton, he championed the construction of three luxury megasuites on the hotel’s 30th floor, where the biggest whales — Vegas jargon for the highest of high-rollers — swam in opulence.
In the years that followed the 1993 opening of Newman’s Sky Villas, the whales kept coming. As a result, Newman helped usher in the megaresorts era and boosted international gaming, crowning his 58 years in the local gaming industry, during which he was characterized as the most powerful executive at the Hilton company aside from Barron Hilton.
Despite Newman’s longevity and his industry innovations, including promoting gambler junkets and popularizing signed casino markers to track gamblers’ debts, few people outside of gaming have heard of him. His death at age 87 on Feb. 8 went virtually unnoticed.
A celebration of the life of James “Jimmy” William Newman, a Las Vegas resident of 66 years, will be held at 2 p.m. March 23 at the convention center of the LVH — Las Vegas Hotel, formerly the Las Vegas Hilton.
Newman, whose gaming career began in 1947 as a blackjack dealer at the old Monte Carlo Club in downtown Las Vegas and ended as a consultant for Caesars Palace in 2005, got the idea for his megasuites while overseeing another remodeling project at the Hilton.
While nine 1,500-square-foot-plus suites on the 29th floor were being remodeled to attract the ever-burgeoning list of Asian whales, Newman dreamed even bigger and more luxurious. The Sky Villas was a $40 million project to renovate 40,000-square-feet of living space for the wealthiest of gambling guests.
In early 1993, Newman presented his Sky Villas plans to Hilton Hotels Chairman Barron Hilton, who, after much thought, gave his longtime friend and employee the green light.
Newman put work crews on a blistering construction schedule to complete and open Sky Villas by that New Year’s Eve.
“Caesars had the Forum Penthouses and in 1989 Steve Wynn opened the Mirage with suites for high-rollers, so Jimmy had to come up with something pretty spectacular for the Hilton to compete with Strip resorts,” said longtime friend Jon Jaggers, president of international marketing for Caesars Palace.
“And he did. In their time, the Sky Villas were among the most exceptional suites in Las Vegas.”
From there, a new era of whale hunting was launched in Las Vegas.
That the Sky Villas became so successful was no surprise to Jaggers, who called Newman a hard-working gentleman — “a high-class individual and one of the wisest men in the business.”
“Jimmy was a workaholic who cared very much for the people who worked for him and for his customers, paying attention to every detail,” Jaggers said. “He spent many hours on the resort property. His employees and players loved him.”
Deke Castleman, author of the 2009 book, “Whale Hunt in the Desert” summed up Newman’s influence over gaming in one sentence: “From the 1970s to the 1990s, Jimmy Newman (was) the most powerful executive at the Hilton company aside from Barron Hilton.”
Newman’s wife of 26 years, Bunny, described her husband this week as “charming, handsome and personable.” She said Newman “had many friends and admirers. He had a dry wit and loved to tease and laugh with friends. Once you were his friend, you had a friend for life.”
Guy Hudson, senior credit executive at the Wynn, echoed that sentiment.
“People who went to work for Jimmy tended to stay with him for years and years. He had that quality to pick good people and take care of them,” said Hudson, a longtime golf buddy of Newman’s. “Jimmy was a great friend who also was a great teacher. He taught me the business. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for Jimmy Newman.”
Comedian Bill Cosby, in a 2009 interview with the Sun, recalled Newman’s biting wit.
Cosby said he arrived at the Hilton a day before his engagement began and went to see Newman at his office. Newman was happy to see the comedian because Cosby typically drew a large crowd of gamblers who enjoyed the casino amenities both before and after his shows.
Newman confided to Cosby that when it came to casino profits he wasn’t exactly thrilled with the current headliner, country-western singer Johnny Cash and his then-all-Christian music show.
“'Cash is selling out to standing-room-only (audiences) every show, two shows a night,'” Cosby quoted Newman as telling him. “'(But) the people who come to see him bring two things with them — a $10 bill and the Ten Commandments. And they don’t break either one of them!'”
Born in Amarillo, Texas, on Nov. 7, 1925, to poker player/farmer/barber William Newman and his wife, Lillian, the young Newman graduated from Dalhart High School in Texas and earned a football scholarship to the University of Texas.
That summer, however, Newman got into a motorcycle accident that shattered his left leg, putting him in a series of casts for a year. He lost the scholarship and decided instead to move to California in 1947 and seek his fortune at age 22.
During a brief stop in Las Vegas, Newman fell in love with the town, took a dealing job and never left. He quickly climbed through the ranks to shift manager, pit boss, floor man and finally casino manager.
In the late 1960s, when billionaire Kirk Kerkorian bought the Flamingo Hotel, he set out to hire a virtual gaming executive all-star team, led by Fred Benninger, to run the resort. Benninger hired then-Sahara Vice President Alex Shoofey, who was named the Flamingo’s president; Shoofey hired fellow Sahara co-workers Bill Miller, the entertainment director, and Newman, the casino manager, who got those same posts at the Flamingo. Shoofey, Miller and Newman later teamed up to bring Elvis Presley in to headline the International Hotel — later the Las Vegas Hilton — and sign the superstar entertainer to a long-term contract that ended with Presley’s 1977 death.
After Kerkorian sold the International Hotel and Flamingo to Hilton in the early 1970s, those top executives stayed on with the new company.
After retiring from the Hilton, Newman took an executive position with Caesars Palace in the early 2000s.
Newman was an old-school casino boss who called many of the Hilton’s gamblers by their first names. He quickly learned their tastes in casino games and other amenities and sought to accommodate them at the highest level.
But Newman also was a no-nonsense casino boss, who took a hard-line stand against card counters at his blackjack tables.
Although there is no law that prohibits players from counting cards, casino officials have long frowned upon the practice as a form of cheating. Casino bosses have tossed out gamblers who were caught counting cards and banned them from ever again playing in their resorts.
In 1970, Newman revealed that his subordinates “bar four or five counters a week” from the Hilton’s 21 tables.
In his off hours, Newman flew his own Cessna and Piper airplanes, snow- and water-skied, and was an avid golfer who played on major courses throughout the world.
In addition to his wife, Newman is survived by a son, Michael, a stepdaughter, Jamie, and five grandchildren.
The family said donations can be made in Newman’s memory to Nathan Adelson Hospice, 3391 N. Buffalo Drive, Las Vegas, NV 89129, or the Cancer Research Foundation at www.cancerresearchfoundation.org.
Ed Koch is a retired Sun reporter.