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November 27, 2014

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Real-estate broker David Atwell, a man with a zeal for his work and life, dies at 63

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David Atwell with Frank Sinatra in the mid-1970s.

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David Atwell shown in front of a Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas sign display at LVH in August.

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A collage of David Atwell and his family.

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David Atwell shown in front of a Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas sign display at LVH in August.

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A collage of David Atwell and his family.

David Atwell was known as a major real-estate broker in Las Vegas, engineering some of the city’s most famous transactions.

But Atwell enjoyed working the mic as much as the phone. He really liked to sing.

Atwell favored “Mustang Sally,” specifically, and three years ago performed a medley of that song and “Always on My Mind” at a talent show at Stirling Club at Turnberry Place. Atwell finished the rollicking medley with a flourish, leading friends and family through the club in a joyous conga line. As it happened, Atwell's family requested the addition to "Always on My Mind" to that performance, and it was the final time they heard him sing.

It was hardly Atwell's first foray into live performance. A 1974 graduate of UNLV with a bachelor's degree in psychology, Atwell sang the national anthem before many UNLV Runnin' Rebel games. In 1996, he took the stage with Frank Sinatra during an alumni benefit concert for UNLV at the Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts. Wayne Newton, Glen Campbell and Sammy Davis Jr. also were in the show, and a crowd of 7,000 was in attendance.

But Atwell's career was making deals for famous property in Las Vegas. As recently as this month, Atwell was working the phones with his characteristic zeal, even as he was bedridden while suffering from throat and lung cancer — and pneumonia that had made it difficult for him to talk and even breathe. The man who boundlessly relished his life and work died Monday morning in the ICU at MountainView Hospital of complications from the cancer he’d fought for more than three years. He was 63.

A memorial service is set for 2 p.m. Dec. 8 at International Church of Las Vegas at 8100 Westcliff Drive in Las Vegas, with a celebration of life to follow at Piero's restaurant.

“Even up to the end, he was loving life and was full of life,” Atwell’s daughter Aubrianna said after answering her father’s cell phone today. “He went downhill quickly, but he wanted to fight, and he fought until the very end.”

Aubrianna Atwell said her father was surrounded by his family when he passed away. He is survived by his 94-year-old mother, Candy; his wife, Aletha; daughters Heather and Aubrianna; and his fraternal-twin son and daughter Taylor and Chelsea.

Atwell negotiated many real-estate transactions involving famous landmarks along the Strip. He navigated the sale of the land at Caesars Palace that would be developed as the Forum Shops. He handled the sale of the Dunes to Japanese investor Masao Nangaku, who purchased it for $155 million in 1987 after a bidding war among Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Sheldon Adelson and the Hilton Hotels that Atwell likened to “being in a dream or a movie” (years later, Wynn would buy the property himself and implode the Dunes to make way for Bellagio).

Atwell also crafted the $1.2 billion sale of the New Frontier Hotel to Israeli conglomerate El-Ad Group. The investors had planned to build a Las Vegas outpost of its Plaza Hotel in New York, a concept that was halted by the economic downturn on the Strip five years ago. A year after the Israeli group bought the New Frontier property, Atwell filed a lawsuit to force payment for initiating the transaction. He argued that he was due a 1-percent fee, or about $12.4 million. The two sides settled out of court for what was believed to be a fee less than that $12.4 million.

Those were two of his most famous transactions, but they were just a sampling of the deal-making Atwell, who founded Resort Properties of America in 1979, executed over the years. He assembled the deals that led to the sale of land in and around Las Vegas that became the Polo Towers, Stratosphere, Main Street Station, Jokers Wild, the King 8 hotel-casino (site of Wild Wild West on Tropicana Avenue), Queen of Hearts hotel-casino (now the site of the new Las Vegas City Hall), Skyline and Landmark (now the Las Vegas Convention Center parking lot).

He had a hand in the sales of the land once occupied by some of the city's most famous resorts, including the Sands, Hacienda, Aladdin, Sahara and El Rancho Vegas. His efforts to build a deal around the Caesars Palace property for the construction of the Forum Shops led to him being referred to as the "Strip Broker."

Over the past several weeks, Atwell was assisting Steve Cutler in his effort to find a suitable venue for his Casino Legends Hall of Fame. Atwell would often talk passionately of presenting the collection at a Las Vegas resort, saying that he hoped the attraction would serve as part of his legacy in the city.

But Atwell was well connected in other projects, too, and at one point said he was making a dozen business calls a day from his bed. “I’m rockin’ and rollin’ in here!” he said during a conversation in October. “I’m busier now than when I am in the office.” Atwell also was curious about how the Life Is Beautiful festival came off during its run in downtown Las Vegas, as his father, Cecil, owned the old Paradise Inn Motel.

"That's what's frustrating about being in here," Atwell said at the time. "I want to be out there experiencing things."

Nearly a month later, stripped of his ability to speak without pain, Atwell passed handwritten notes to his family. One he slipped to Aubrianna was, simply, “Don’t be afraid.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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