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Ed Koch

Pioneer Casino Boss Simmons Dies

28 February 2005

From working at the Desert Inn under Moe Dalitz and then the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, casino manager Cecil Simmons oversaw a major transition in Las Vegas and helped make golf one of the town's selling points.

"Cecil brought big business to Las Vegas in the days when the town was developing and really needed it," said John Ensminger, first cousin of Simmons' late wife, Katherine Simmons, a noted Las Vegas socialite.

"He knew the historic significance of Las Vegas and he was just happy to be a part of it."

Cecil Simmons, who played a major role in the growth of the Tournament of Champions golf event in the 1950s while carving out a career as a leading casino host and manager, died Friday at his home at the Las Vegas Country Club. He was 95.

Services for the Las Vegas resident of 49 years will be 2 p.m. Tuesday at Palm Mortuary, 1325 N. Main St. Visitation will be from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. at that location. Burial will be in Dallas.

For 15 years Simmons was casino manager at the Desert Inn, where he regularly brought in celebrities including Bob Hope, John Wayne, Joe Namath and Jack Nicklaus and high rollers.

He left the gaming industry to co-operate local liquor, meat and recreational businesses.

Larry Finuf, husband of Toni Clark, the 89-year-old widow of Desert Inn founder Wilbur Clark, said Simmons was "one of the key people to get things going at a time when Las Vegas was transitioning from a little gambling town into a major resort area."

Ensminger's wife, Glady Belle Ensminger, watched Simmons' career develop over several decades and said he was able to attract celebrities and high rollers to town "because he was a very charismatic man who knew how to treat people well."

Born Aug. 18, 1909, in Fayette, Miss., Simmons was the youngest of five children of blacksmith Samuel Monroe Simmons and the former Mariah Butler.

Simmons graduated from high school in Mississippi, but did not go to college. It is believed he received his gaming education by working gambling establishments in Jackson and Vicksburg, Miss., and Monroe, La., where he met his future wife.

In the 1930s, the couple moved to Texas, where Simmons invested in oil exploration in Dallas.

He served as a military police officer during World War II and came to Las Vegas in 1956, when he took over casino operations of what would become one of the premier resorts on the Strip. The soon-to-open Wynn Las Vegas now stands on the old Desert Inn site.

During Simmons' tenure at the Desert Inn, the resort's Tournament of Champions golf event drew the game's biggest names, including Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, as well as Super Bowl champion quarterback Namath and Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale.

Such sports notables often would be seen hanging around the Simmons home on the Desert Inn Country Club, rubbing elbows with Simmons' celebrity neighbors, including Harry James and Betty Grable.

Simmons later sold the home to billionaire hotel developer Kirk Kerkorian.

In 1966, after Hughes checked into the Desert Inn, taking over a floor of suites reserved for high rollers and refused to leave at the scheduled end of his stay, Simmons, Dalitz and other hotel officials tried to have him evicted.

Instead, Hughes bought the property, which started a hotel-buying spree that ushered in the corporate gaming age of Las Vegas.

Despite locking horns with Simmons because Hughes overstayed his welcome, Hughes kept Simmons as casino manager because of his ability to bring in the players that made money for the resort, John Ensminger said.

In 1967 Simmons took over as casino manager of the Frontier for Hughes while also serving as casino manager for the Desert Inn.

Simmons left the Desert Inn in 1971. At an age when many consider retiring, Simmons instead invested with longtime local businessman and boxing judge Art Lurie in WonderWorld Liquors, which became one of the town's largest retail liquor outlets.

Simmons was also an investor in Old Vegas, a re-creation of an Old West town built near Henderson as a tourist attraction. It had a small, loyal following but eventually failed.

Simmons was a co-owner of the Radner Meat Co. in Las Vegas as well.

Simmons was a longtime member of the charitable organization, the Las Vegas Variety Club, and was a founding member of the Las Vegas Country Club.

Friends said that despite all he had done in his long gaming and business career, Simmons would remember a round of golf in 1995 as one of his fondest memories. In 1995 he hit a hole-in-one -- his first ever -- on the 17th hole of the Las Vegas Country Club.

His wife, Katherine, died in 1997. The couple had no children.