Mel Wolzinger made a fortune in Las Vegas, but has never lost the common touchBy John L. Smith, CDC Gaming ReportsSeptember 25, 2017 at 9:22 pmThe last time I saw Mel Wolzinger he was zipping on a scooter through the lobby of the 57-story Vdara at the brand new CityCenter and marveling about the Las Vegas he’d lived to see.“Twenty-five years ago, if somebody came to us with this, we would have shot ’em,” Wolzinger said. “When they first brought it to the board, everyone was skeptical. But it’s unbelievable. Everything that Bobby Baldwin said he’d do, he did. I’m glad we did it. It will be a good thing for the city. It will put a lot of people to work. And just look at the workmanship.”That was in 2009. It was a good day for Las Vegas as it struggled to rise from the mire of the Great Recession. Captains of the gaming industry had turned out for the unveiling of the next-generation development whose future hadn’t been bright. Ever the optimist, the then-89-year-old Wolzinger was undeterred by dour headlines and soft balance sheets. His decades-long belief in Las Vegas left him little room for doubt.His body was reluctantly yielding to the wear and tear of time, but his spirit was indefatigable.If you had Google searched him in those days, he would have been known as a director of MGM Resorts International. Before that, he’d added credibility and experience to the board of Mirage Resorts. Dial the clock back a little more, and he was a key investor in Golden Nugget back at a time that Steve Wynn was not yet a high-flying member of the gaming industry’s pantheon.As steady as “The Scooter” Rizzuto, that was Mel Wolzinger.Given his remarkable seven decades of success in all aspects of the gaming industry, it comes as no surprise the now 97-year-old Wolzinger is set to be inducted in the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017 alongside to Diana Bennett, John Breeding, and Joe Kaminkow.“From revolutionizing the way games are seen and experienced, to reshaping employee operations and business development, these leaders’ achievements extend throughout the nation and even the world,” AGA Chairman and CEO Geoff Freeman said in a recent statement.All those names are deserving, and generous Bennett’s selection is truly inspired, but Wolzinger’s remarkable story is hard to beat.Before the gaming industry knew him as a savvy investor and confidant of casino kings, longtime locals will likely know him best as the man who owned Ernie’s Bar on Rancho Drive. He also had a hugely successful slot and vending machine route. He opened the place in 1962.Cowboys, construction workers and Nevada Test Site employees converged at Ernie’s to shake off the dust at the end of the day. The beer was cold and cheap, and the bar food was some of the best in town. On Friday, the place was packed with paycheck-cashers, slot players, and party animals. Ernie’s also enjoyed an expanded license that allowed more than 15 machines on the premises.Smart man, that Mel.That day at Vdara, Wolzinger reflected, “All the places I owned could fit in this spot,” Wolzinger says. “Ernie’s, the Lift … throw in my house, too. Years ago, if the space didn’t generate a profit, it was no good.”What his operations lacked in grandeur, they more than made up for in profit at the bottom line. Wolzinger could have taught a master’s class at UNLV in the gaming business from the ground floor to the penthouse. But in recent decades he may be as well-known as a philanthropist as a casino man. He is a patron saint at the university, where he’s donated much of his wealth and a large portion of his late business partner and friend Earl E. Wilson’s estate fortune. He’s been honored with UNLV’s Silver Rebel award and as a distinguished contributor to the university.Through the years Wolzinger and his late wife Ruth, who died in 2015, contributed to scholarship and library funds. They also donated their Art Nouveau and Art Deco glass work to the Marjorie Barrick Museum. The Wolzinger family’s dedication to the university continues.Reminiscing in 2009 about his early years in a smaller and wilder Las Vegas, Mel Wolzinger said, “Those were good days, and these days are better.”His faith in the town that has meant so much to him has never wavered.John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.