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Mel Wolzinger died recently at age 98. That suggests he led a good, long life, and he did. He was active to the end. And it’s a loss to our history. Indeed, he made history.
Wolzinger and his wife Ruth came to Las Vegas just after World War II. He had served in the Army Air Corps and became part of a large migration to the southwest. He saw opportunity everywhere: when he encountered abandoned military equipment near the railroad tracks, he even got into the junk business. He went into a handshake partnership with Earl Wilson, running slot routes around town and on the old Tonopah Highway in places like Cactus Springs. In 1962, Wolzinger opened Ernie’s Bar, one of the first real casinos on Rancho Drive. The area around it has grown up a bit since, and he helped start it. Ernie’s later became Wildfire, now a local chain.
Wolzinger was involved in other casinos, including the El Morocco and Foxy’s—names that longtime southern Nevadans well remember—as well as a brief run at the Tropicana. In fact, Wolzinger ended up holding forty-five different gaming licenses in his career. He and Wilson also invested in the Golden Nugget when it was a small gambling hall. In 1973, with an assist from Parry Thomas, there was another investor: Steve Wynn. A lot of growth followed. Wolzinger remained on the board of Wynn’s resort empire, and then the MGM after it took over. He was a wise old hand helping to keep things steady for four decades.
Wolzinger and Wilson invested outside of gaming as well, including in Checker Cab. This, too, was part of southern Nevada’s history. A lot of casino operators got into other businesses—Moe Dalitz and Wilbur Clark with land development, and Kell Houssels with a bus company, for example. Wolzinger’s father Dave had been active in transportation and development before him, and Mel followed in his footsteps … and carved out his own niche.
Mel Wolzinger also was busy in the community. He was involved with Temple Beth Sholom and various Jewish organizations, the Boys and Girls Club, and the UNLV Foundation. The Wolzingers and Wilsons have been major donors to UNLV, including scholarship programs, the Wolzingers’ glass art collection, and the Earl E. Wilson baseball stadium. As Wolzinger pointed out, the ballpark was an easy decision: his old partner once had played semi-pro baseball in Oregon.
A lot of longtime Las Vegans like to wax nostalgic; forgive us for that. But sometimes we get too nostalgic and need a reminder. When the Vdara opened, Wolzinger was there as an MGM board member. He said all of the places he had ever owned could have fit in there. But he also said, “Those were good days, and these days are better.” He liked to talk about the past, and had great stories, everything from characters he met to the brothel near one of his slot routes that ran an extension cord to a federal facility so that the federal government was taking care of its electricity. But he also lived very much in the present and thought a lot about the future.
UNLV gave Mel Wolzinger the President’s Medal and the regents voted him the Distinguished Nevadan award. That he was, and he distinguished us all.
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