LAS VEGAS — Frank Fertitta Jr., a bellman turned gaming mogul who pioneered the concept of neighborhood casinos in fast-growing Las Vegas, died Friday. He was 70.
Fertitta, who founded Station Casinos Inc., which was publicly traded for more than a decade, was being treated for a heart condition at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles when he died, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
Fertitta opened his first neighborhood casino -- simply named the Casino -- in 1976. The 5,000-square-foot gambling hall, attached to the Mini-Price Motor Inn and a short drive from Las Vegas Boulevard, gave the Strip's dealers and cocktail waitresses their own after-work hangout.
"It was pretty much desert," son Lorenzo Fertitta told the Las Vegas Sun in 2005. "People thought he was crazy."
In 1977, Fertitta added bingo and renamed his business Bingo Palace. The casino, which was rechristened Palace Station in 1983 and expanded numerous times, became synonymous with cheap buffets and customer giveaways -- both still hallmarks of neighborhood casinos.
"The best thing about him was the culture he started," son Frank Fertitta III told the Review-Journal in 2006. "As the Bingo Palace grew into the Palace Station, people always wanted to come work for him. They liked the work environment, and that's the thing we've tried not to screw up."
By 1993, when Fertitta turned his business over to his sons, who took it public, development had begun on Boulder Station. The casino -- on the so-called Boulder Strip of local betting houses east of the Strip -- was among those that served as de facto community centers in rapidly growing southern Nevada.
Fertitta developed another neighborhood casino, Texas Station, which he sold to his sons' company in 1995. Eventually, Station Casinos was involved in more than a dozen gambling operations, including upscale Green Valley Ranch in Nevada and Thunder Valley Casino near Sacramento.
The company went private in 2007 but, hobbled by the recession and massive debt, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this year.
Fertitta was born Oct. 30, 1938, in Beaumont, Texas, and moved to Las Vegas with his wife, Victoria, in 1960. He climbed from the gaming floor -- as a bellman, blackjack dealer and pit boss -- to managerial roles at various pillars of old Las Vegas.
In the late 1980s, Nevada gaming regulators spent years investigating whether Fertitta as general manager had been involved in skimming cash at the Fremont casino. He denied the accusations and was eventually cleared.
Over the years, Fertitta and his wife championed a number of philanthropic causes, particularly involving education.
When the Clark County School District was trying to pass a bond measure in the late 1990s, the Sun reported, Fertitta had "Vote Yes" posted on every marquee at Station Casinos. In 2003, the school district opened Fertitta Middle School.
In retirement, Fertitta ate meals and visited with employees at his beloved Palace Station. "No one called him anything other than Mr. Fertitta, and that was simply out of respect," Glenn Christenson, Station Casino's former chief financial officer, told the Review-Journal.
Along with his wife and two sons, Fertitta is survived by his daughter, Delise Sartini; his sisters, Olivia Deppe and Linda Ramirez; and nine grandchildren.
Funeral services are pending.