"Wilbur Clark gave me my first job in Las Vegas. That was 1951.
For six bucks you got a filet mignon dinner and me.".
Frank Sinatra, 1992
The first hotels on the Las Vegas Strip were known by their names, El Rancho Vegas, the Hotel Last Frontier, etc. A visionary with a sense of early branding decided that his new hotel would be more and thus, Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn was born and would become world famous, even long after Clark himself had shuffled off this mortal coil.
Wilbur Clark had come to Las Vegas in a roundabout way. He grew up in Keyesport, Illinois but longed to go west. At 19, he decided to hitch-hike to San Diego in search of new adventures. When he finally got to there, he found work at the Knickerbocker Hotel as a bellman.
Clark was a shrewd businessman with big dreams. Always a resourceful fellow, he soon owned 13 bars in the San Diego area. In 1938 he traveled to Las Vegas for the first time. He was not impressed with the business opportunities that the small dusty railroad town had to offer.
Six years later, however, Las Vegas was a growing town thanks to World War II. When Clark returned in 1944, the town offered more to dreamers like Clark and he saw the possibilities that Highway 91 had to offer those tourists arriving by car from California. Tommy Hull was looking to move on from the El Rancho Vegas and Clark bought in becoming a majority owner. He also invested in the Players Club.
Clark also realized that Fremont Street was also growing away from its community roots and was reshaping itself to be a tourist destination as well. He leased the old Northern Club from owner Mayme Stocker and re-named it the Monte Carlo Club.
Clark dreamt of designing and owning a major resort on the Las Vegas Strip that would cater to high rollers and provide the best in entertainment. He knew that once the War was over, that Americans would want to travel again after years of rationing and supporting the War effort. He looked at this oasis in the desert and saw a future that he would help build.
His dream resort would become the Desert Inn, named after a hotel that he liked in Palm Springs. In 1945 he bought the land across the highway from the Last Frontier and in 1946 he sold the El Rancho Vegas for $1.5 million.
In 1946, the Strip was showing growing pains. Billy Wilkerson and his partner, Benjamin Siegel were building (and fighting over) the Fabulous Flamingo and Cliff Jones and Marion Hicks were planning to build The Thunderbird.
In 1947, construction began on Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn. However, Clark was soon short of funds due to the high costs of building materials and construction costs in the Post-War era. Wilkerson and Siegel had the same problem but Siegel was able to talk his East Coast friends such as Meyer Lansky and others to help foot the bill.
Clark was forced to stop construction and the partially built resort sat vacant and incomplete. Locals would ride their horses out to the property to see if Clark had gotten lucky and started back up. As the months dragged on, Clark's folly in the desert became the butt of jokes told around town.
In December 1946, Siegel (having muscled out partner Billy Wilkerson) debuted the Fabulous Flamingo and laid claim to opening the first modern hotel in Post War Las Vegas.
Clark realized that his dream would not become a reality without some help. He approached Moe Dalitz and a group of investors that included Morris Kleinman, Sam Tucker and Tom McGinty. They were all from Cleveland, part of the Mayfield Road Gang and all had bootlegging and gambling experience. Clark sold them 75% of his interest in return for the funds to finish the hotel.
Construction finally started back up again in 1949. Designed by Wayne McAllister and Hugh Taylor, the weeping mortar and native stone were, according to Alan Hess "composed in a clean-lined modern design, half ranch house, half nightclub." The fanciful neon sign was designed by Yesco's Hermon Boernge and featured a saguaro cactus, a species not found in Southern Nevada but in Arizona. "But it was a pretty cactus." recalled architect Hugh Taylor.
The interiors were designed by Jac Lessman, who Dalitz had recommended. As both Clark and Dalitz wanted more glamour than Old West charm, McAllister was replaced by Hugh Taylor. Taylor and Clark traveled around the country to different resorts to get ideas. Clark was particularly fond of the Desert Inn Hotel in Palm Springs with is Spanish-style bungalows, thick adobe wall and ornamental beams. Dalitz insisted that Clark and Taylor visit the Beverly Hills Club near Cincinnati to see how a real casino operated. The Club catered to a well-heeled crowd and offered a spacious dining room, a lavish showroom and casino. In Cincinnati, the casino had to be well-hidden as gambling was illegal. In Las Vegas, though, the casino could be front and center.
Hugh Taylor took a lot of notes and took the ideas that Clark and Dalitz wanted most and incorporated them into the design features of the Desert Inn and in doing so, raised the bar even higher than Siegel had with the Fabulous Flamingo.
Clark continued to travel always on the look-out for new ideas. According to Alan Hess after a trip to San Francisco's Mark Hopkins Hotel with its Top of the Mark lounge, Clark returned wanting a similar lounge for the Desert Inn. Thus, the Sky Room was born. The three-story tower dominated the facade of the new hotel and was, for awhile, the tallest building on the Strip. "Glass enclosed on three sides, this lounge is reminiscent of an airport lookout tower. The surrounding desert, mountains and far reaching tropically landscaped grounds are clearly visible at all times. At night, tiny electric stars twinkling in the ceiling of the lounge make it seem one with the surrounding desert." was the review in Architect and Engineer. The twinkling sky at night gave patrons the feeling of floating in the sky. "Meet me at the Sky Room" became a popular saying around town. The Sky Room overlooked the "Dancing Waters" a series of rising and falling fountains in the figure-8 shaped pool that were set to pre-recorded music and lit by colored lights.
Clark may not have owned a controlling interest in the hotel any longer but he was determined to have his name attached to the hotel. He and his wife Toni along with a small group of friends had lived in a small motel while Clark had searched for the financing to complete his dream. They would vist the site regularly and give Clark pep talks that kept him going. They celebrated holidays, birthdays and anniversaries in that small hotel never letting Clark give up on his dream.
At the street entrance was an old fashioned ranch sign that said Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn in script across the top. A circular drive led up to the entrance which was a broad porch lined with ashlar pillars and lounge chairs. In the middle of the lawn was a fountain that sprayed water sixty feet into the air.
The stone was Bermuda pink with green trim. The hotel wings were interspersed around the pool patio with the parking lots behind the main building. While Clark, Dalitz and Taylor never planned for the Desert Inn to be anything but a hotel, the majority of the clientele came by automobile. The cinder block structure had a sandstone veneer quarried in Arizona and Nevada. Redwood was used throughout the interior and the flooring was flagstone. The entire resort was air-conditioned with the innovation of individual thermostats in each room.
Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn opened on April 24th and 25th, 1950. It had cost $4.5 million to build and sported 229 rooms. New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling called it a "moderately gigantic temple of chance." Clark's dream of a "chic resort and a glamourous mecca for the rich and famous" was finally a reality.
Flowers were everywhere, even around the figure-8 shaped pool. Clark, himself, stood in the middle of the lobby greeting guests and passing out flowers from a large Joshua Tree placed in the lobby just for the grand opening.
Entertainment was provided by Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Vivian Blaine, the Donn Arden Dancers and the Desert Inn Orchestra conducted by Ray Noble.
Clark had hired Hank Greenspun as his publicity director. Greenspun sent invitations to all the major newspapers and magazines. The budget for transportation and lodging of the media guests was over $5,000.
Clark himself, according to George Stamos, sent out 150 invitations to VIPs he knew personally and who each had $10,000 credit limit. Dalitz and his crew also sent out personal invitations to the grand opening.
A chef from the renowned Ritz Hotel in Paris, Maurice Thominet, oversaw the Gourmet Room. Allard Rosen, who worked for Dalitz, managed the casino.
Guests entered through the shady porch. Turning left would lead them to the Hotel Registration desk. Turning right would take them to the 80 x 60 foot windowless casino. The casino held five crap tables, three roulette wheels, four black jack tables and 75 slot machines. Sixty people worked in the casino. A full service race book was also part of the casino.
There were two bars,. A rawhide bar decorated with sylized steer heads and raw leather straps dominated the Celebrity Room Bar. The Lady Luck Bar, at 90 feet, was the longest bar in the state. It offered an innovative form of gambling embedded in the bar itself. Before each patron, according to George Stamos, was a circle of numbers resembling a roulette wheel. A corresponding roulette wheel was displayed in the center of the bar area n the wall located above a nude figure representing Lady Luck. Every hour the wheel would spin and the patron whose light flashed would win the shower of silver dollars falling from the nude's hands.
There was a drugstore with a soda fountain, dress shops including Fanny's a well known lady's shop in Las Vegas. Owned by Fanny Voss, she was good friends with Wilbur and Toni Clark and was determined to help make their hotel a success. K-RAM radio broadcast from the grounds. There were apparel shops, curio shops and both a barber and a beauty shop. Clark was determined that his guests have all the comforts of home.
"A tremendous wood-burning fireplace, set corner wise, adds to the warmth, but in no way interrupts the view of the center patio and landscaped gardens through one entire glassed-in wall." gushed Architect and Engineer.
Beyond the casino was the coffee shop, a dining room that overlooked the pool and the Painted Desert Room, the 450 seat showroom with hand-painted murals by Charles Cobelle. The Painted Desert Room boasted a "band car" that mechanically whisked the orchestra on and off the stage in one motion. The lighting was soft and indirect. The lighting board for the stage performances cost $35,000 from Kligel Brothers and tied into 10,000 different lighting effects.
The menus all featured western flora and fauna. A complete New York Steak dinner cost $5.75 while a hearty omelet and asparagus-tip breakfast was only $2.50.
The turquoise blue figure-8 pool was ringed by the motel wings with cabanas at the edge of the pool. Inner tubes all had Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn emblazoned on them. At the north end of the pool was the Kachina Doll Ranch with a daycare center staffed by a psychologist. The daycare center had murals, also done by Cobelle, that taught lessons in manners. There was a playground adjacent to keep the kiddies occupied.
The hotel rooms were all decorated in western motifs with individual touches. There was a series of "Hollywood Suites" which were spacious and lavish in design. These suites offered a large living room and two separate bedrooms, private showers and a patio. The room rate was $5.00 and up.
The famous neon sign, designed by Hermon Boernge, was made of sheet metal and seemed to grow organically out of the tower it sat upon. In script it said, Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn. it immediately caught your eye. The cloud shape was captured in sheet metal and "poised with perfect artificiality against the real clouds and real desert. At night it was outlined in neon. (Alan Hess, Viva Las Vegas: Architecture After Dark). Clark used this imagery from everything from matchbooks to menus to other souvenirs to help promote his hotel.
By all accounts, the hotel was a success from the beginning. The first week's profits are said to have been in excess of $750,000 (in 1950 dollars). The first month's profit from the Celebrity Room Bar was over $90,000. The only part that didn't seem to work was the dining room/showroom which struggled with a $50,000 overhead. Clark was paying Edgar Bergen $25,000 a week to perform.
In 1951, Clark started to build a $1 million dollar, 165-acre, eighteen hole golf course and country club. Locals called it "Wilbur's Folly" and predicted that no one would want to play golf in the Nevada heat. In 1953, Clark sponsored the Tournament of Champions, a professional charity golf event, that brought golfers and celebrities from around the world to compete. In addition it brought high rollers to the hotel. The proceeds went to the Damon Runyon Memorial Fund for Cancer Research, a charitable organization chaired by the then powerful Walter Winchell. Golfers such as Sam Snead, Cary Middlekopf, Julius Boros and Jimmy Demaret came out into the Nevada sunshine to participate. The other hotels contributed $25,000 the first year.
Al Besserlink won the first place prize of $10,000 by shooting a 280 over the 18-hole championship course. The prize money was awarded in silver dollars. Gene Murphy, who had taken over the publicity from Hank Greenspun (who went onto found the Las Vegas Sun newspaper), helped turn the Tournament of Champions not only into a showcase for the Desert Inn but for all of Las Vegas as well. The Tournament was soon receiving extensive national television coverage and Las Vegas, as an extension, was getting national exposure.
Newspaper man, Bill Willard, who was a stringer for Variety magazine reported on the Desert Inn for its first anniversary. Willard listed all the stars who had performed at the Desert Inn. Names included Ben Blue, the Ritz Brothers, Jimmy Durante, Pearl Bailey, Billy Eckstine and gave credit to the floor shows designed and choreographed by Frank Sennes and Donn Arden.
The D.I., as it was becoming known as, attracted many well-known and famous guests. Perhaps it was the opulence, perhaps it was the service, perhaps a bit of both. But regular guests in that era included: Duke and Duchess of Windsor , Winston Churchill, Adlai Stevenson, then US Senator John F. Kennedy and former president, Harry Truman.
Performers who would grace the Painted Desert Room in the 1950s included Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Betty Hutton, Noel Coward, Chico and Harpo Marx. The Mary Kaye Trio, often cited as the first major lounge act, would often play for ailing stars.
As more hotels began to be built on the Las Vegas Strip and challenge the D.I's reputation of opulence and fine service, the owners did what was necessary to keep up. When the D.I. had opened its large pool, the Last Frontier across the highway had filled in its old roadside pool and built a heated one of AAU dimensions with a subsurface observation room at the deep endand a deck-side bar according to Dick Pearce in Harper Magazine in 1955. The Desert Inn replaced their original pool with one even bigger only to have the Sands create a thing of free flow design large enough to float a cruiser. The Tropicana would ultimately counter with underwater Muzak.
Into this mythic era of Las Vegas history, a cloud appeared on the horizon. Senator Estes Kefauver was investigating organized crime and its influence on America. His crime hearings were all the rage and Kefauver was scheduled to conduct hearings in Las Vegas in 1950. Almost certain to be questioned were guys like Moe Dalitz. Kefauver arrived in town on November 15, 1950. After almost six months of hearings, they were tired. Many of the high profile casino owners, such as Dalitz, that they had subpoened had left town rather than go before the committee. Kevaufer and his committee only interviewed six men before heading back out of town a little more than a day later.
While the Kefauver hearings had shed a bright light on illegal gambling and the men and organizations involved, many of the illegal operations that were going on throughout the country were closing down and moving to Nevada, especially Las Vegas, where they would not run afoul of the law as easily.
In 1955, long-time Las Vegas gaming figure, Tony Cornero who was in the process of building his dream resort, the Stardust, came into the D.I. one summer night in July. He was playing craps when died of a massive heart attack.
Wilbur Clark was a tireless ambassador not only for the hotel that bore his name but for the city of Las Vegas as well. From his second story office that overlooked the pool (and was just below the Sky Room), Clark publicized on the radio, in newspapers and magazines and on television his love for his hotel and his home. Wilbur and Toni Clark were one of the premiere couples in town. Invitations to their home for dinner and/or drinks were some of the most sought after. After years of living in the small motel while trying to finance and build his dream resort, Clark pulled out all the stops when he had his home on the Golf Course built. It had an early security camera. Guests would ring the doorbell and inside the home, Clark could see them on closed circuit television and talk to them.
There was an indoor pool that resembled the large pool at San Simeon. Clark had a personal tanning bed in his work-out room. The large living room had a fireplace in the middle so that entertaining was easy. It was mid-century dream of a home with all the modern conveniences that money could afford.
Wilbur and Toni Clark traveled the country and the world promoting Las Vegas and Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn Hotel and Casino.
In 1956, Wilbur Clark suffered a stroke. A harbringer of things to come, the stroke forced Clark to slow down.
The Entrance to Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn
Publicity Photo for the Hotel
The Figure-8 Swimming Pool
(That's Wilbur's office below the Sky Room)
The iconic sign being assembled
Yesco's Hermon Boernge's iconic sign at night
The Painted Desert Room Menu
Wilbur and Toni Clark
Special Thanks to UNLV's Special Collections, YESCO, Jim Boernge and As We Knew It for letting us use these photos.
Special Thanks also to author Alan Hess and writer George Stamos.
Up next: The Desert Inn in the 1960s and 1970s