"The D.I. was considered to be the best in Las Vegas, Everyone was taught to talk to the guests and smile, whether winning or losing. You could just feel the warmth."
Don Borax, Security Chief, 1979 interview.
In the early 1960s, the Desert Inn was keeping pace with all the new resorts that were opening on Highway 91 better known as the Las Vegas Strip.
Keeping faith with the town and its growing population, in 1963, the Desert Inn went skyward and built a nine story tower, the St. Andrews, complete with high roller penthouse on the top floor. The Riviera had been the first hotel to be built with a tower and people had complained when it was being built that there would never be enough coming to Las Vegas to fill it. Well, the Riviera proved everyone wrong and in the 1960s the majority of the original hotels on the Las Vegas Strip were remodeling and renovating to add hotel towers to their properties. The iconic cactus neon sign was moved to atop the new tower. The tower replaced the motel wings originally designed by Wayne McAllister.
In 1964 an era came to an end when Wilbur Clark sold his remaining interest in the hotel to Moe Dalitz, Morris Kleinman and their associates. The Painted Desert Room was remodeled and renamed The Crystal Room.
Despite the loss of Clark, the Desert Inn management under Dalitz continued to make the hotel profitable. The Crystal Room became home to one of Donn Arden's early revues, "Hello America". Arden was busy trying out different story lines and dramatic pieces including the sinking of the Titanic, that one day all come together as "Hallelujah Hollywood" at the original MGM Grand Hotel. By the middle of 1964, the Desert Inn was being advertised as a 272-acre resort with something for everyone.
In 1965. the Sky Room was once again remodeled, this time by the original designer, Jac Lessman. Hoping to accommodate more late evening dancers, a larger dance floor was installed. Also, Lessman added a new circular bar as well as a piano bar around a concert grand piano. Lessman also added two more rooms that could be rented for private parties.
An era was passing, however. Wilbur Clark died of a heart attack on August 27, 1965. The outpouring of love and grief was almost immediate. Clark had brought the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Las Vegas. Clark and his wife had entertained world leaders such as Winston Churchill and presidents such as Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson at the D.I. over the years. Over 1,000 people turned out for the funeral. Honorary pallbearers included Senator Alan Bible, Senator Howard Cannon, Congressman Walter Baring, Governor Grant Sawyer, Lt. Governor Paul Laxalt, Attorney Harvey Dickerson and Mayor Oran Gragson. Former Desert Inn publicist, now Las Vegas Sun publisher, Hank Greenspun delivered the eulogy:
"Wilbur helped shape the character of Las Vegas. He was not looked upon as an exponent of the gaming industry but more as a Horatio Alger who walked half-way across a nation at a young age, practically penniless, to find his fame and fortune in the true tradition of the American Dream. Clark was a dreamer who could never keep pace with his dreams because he never stopped dreaming up to the moment of his death when he was continuing plans for a large string of hotels bearing his name across the country."
Entertainers who attended the services included Jimmy Durante, Sonny King and Pepper Davis. Other notables included Irv Kupcinet, Sheriff Ralph Lamb, Jack Entratter, Carl Cohen, J. Kell Houssels, Milton Prell, Moe Dalitz, Chester Simms, Harley Harmon, Mahlon Brown, Sr, Major Riddle, Ben Goffstein, Ed Levinson, Art Ham, Sr, Sam Boyd, Merv Adelson, Irwin Molasky, Beldon Katelman, Jerry Mack, Stan Irwin, Ross Miller, G. William Coulthard and W. E. Leypoldt.
Still the town was not prepared for the guest that quietly arrived on Thanksgiving Eve in 1966 nor the impact he would have on not only the Las Vegas Strip but Southern Nevada as well.
Arriving in town via train and then transported to the Desert Inn via ambulance, Howard Hughes arrived in Las Vegas very quietly. Robert Maheu, Hughes' right hand man, had made arrangements with Moe Dalitz for Hughes to stay in the ninth floor penthouse. Hughes' entourage took over the eighth floor of the hotel. Dalitz always claimed it was with the understanding that Hughes would be out in time to accommodate the high rollers expected between Christmas and New Year's Eve.
Hughes, who was born Christmas Eve, 1905, had been coming to Las Vegas since the 1940s. He would fly into town landing at either the Sky Haven Airport out on the old Tonopah Highway (today North Las Vegas Airport)or at Alamo Airways located near where McCarren Airport is today. Hughes was often seen dining and enjoying the shows at the El Rancho Vegas and other Strip properties in those days. Long time residents still talk about how quiet and unassuming Hughes was back in the 1940s and how recognizable he was in his tennis shoes.
He was seriously injured in an accident testing an experimental, amphibian plane over Lake Mead in 1943. In 1946, he crashed into a house in Beverly Hills while test piloting his experimental plan, the XF-11 The crash left him disfigured and addicted to prescription drugs for the rest of his life. Hughes had been showing signs of obsessive compulsion disorder since the crash. In the late 1950s, he was diagnosed with neurosyphillis, a venereal disease that attacks the brain. Symptoms included irritability, delusions, and carelessness about personal hygiene and grooming, which plagued his later years. His fear of contamination led to his insistence on living in a "germ-free zone." Hughes became reclusive in the early 1960s when he moved into a highly guarded mansion in the wealthy Bel Air section of Los Angeles along with wife Jean Peters whom he had married in Tonopah, Nevada in 1957.
The settlement of a lawsuit with Trans World Airlines, which Hughes owned at one time, left him even wealthier. He received $500 million for his shares in the company. Not wanting to pay taxes on his windfall he was ready to leave Bel Air (leaving Peters behind) and had Maheu find him lodging in Las Vegas with, according to writer Jeff Burbank, the idea of "becoming the largest, single property owner in the gaming capital.".
Thus, Hughes arrived in Las Vegas on November 27th, 1966. He was taken by stretcher via a service elevator to the ninth floor penthouse.
As the Christmas holidays drew near, Dalitz began to worry that Hughes would not leave in time for Dalitz to be able to accommodate the expected high rollers. Dalitz told Maheu that it was time for Hughes to go. Maheu told Hughes that Dalitz wanted them out. Hughes told Maheu to buy the hotel.
Moe Dalitz, though not the owner of record, had gained majority control of the Desert Inn in 1949 when Wilbur Clark needed his financial help to finish building the hotel. Dalitz enjoyed the reputation around Las Vegas of being philanthropic and almost everyone tended to look the other way at reports that Dalitz under-reported the casino winnings and was skimming off the top. With Clark out of the picture, the FBI developed a very big interest in the way that Dalitz and his crew ran the hotel. Dalitz and the hotel were more often than not, under FBI surveillance.
Maheu asked for a price and Dalitz reportedly replied "$13.2 million" to buy the hotel. Though very over-inflated for what it was worth, Hughes paid the $13.2 million and became the owner the following Spring.
Did the government ask for Hughes's help in ridding Las Vegas of the mob? Much has been made of that but the bottom line was that Hughes and his employees did not have any experience in running a successful hotel and casino and many of the same people who were loyal to Dalitz stayed on to work for Hughes but they didn't necessarily change their counting habits.
Hughes would go on to buy the Silver Slipper, the Frontier, the Castaways, the Landmark and the Sands. He was attempting to buy the Stardust when the federal government finally stepped in due to monopoly and restraint of trade concerns.
In 1966, the last Tournament of Champions was played. The event had done quite a bit to help promote not only the hotel but the town itself. The purse had grown to $75,000 (in 1960s dollars!!) and the list of participants included Arnold Palmer who would win the Tournament that year.
As the 1960s music gave way from the traditional crooner to pop rock, the Desert Inn hoped to stay current by hiring Tom Jones to headline the Crystal Room for two weeks. Connie Stevens, Jimmy Webb and a host of younger names were soon added to the marquee. In addition, Pzazz '68 replaced the more wholesome Hello America!
Jerry Lewis also headlined during the late 1960s and was often chauffeured to Garwood Van's Musicland store where he would purchase sheet music and reminisce with the former bandleader who was also from Newark.
On Thanksgiving Eve, 1970, four years after he arrived and changed the face of the Las Vegas Strip forever, Howard Hughes left town as quietly and stealthily as he arrived. Robert Maheu had gotten into an argument with his boss and was fired just before the exodus. In the four years that Hughes had lived at the Desert Inn, he had never left his penthouse and was never seen by anyone but his closest aides. He was spirited away to the Bahamas and left his Las Vegas empire under the control of Bill Gay.
For the 20th anniversary on April 24th, 1970, Edgar Bergen was invited back to the hotel to perform. DebbieReynolds signed a million dollar contract to appear at the resort through 1973. Louis Prima and Sam Butera and the Witnesses anchored the lounge.
With Hughes now owning so many properties, headliners were able to play other hotels under the Hughes banner. Robert Goulet signed a three-year, $3 million deal to appear at the Desert Inn, the Frontier and the Sands.
Even though Howard Hughes passed away in 1976, the Desert Inn (and his other properties) remained part of the Summa (formerly Hughes Tool Company) Corporation. Before Hughes died, he had authorized an expansion of the hotel. While not as opulent and expensive a renovation as Hughes had okayed, the Summa Corporation did go ahead with the expansion. The 14-story Augusta Tower was built with an all glass facade. The room total was now at 825.
Burton Cohen was hired as General Manager and would oversee the Desert Inn throughout the 1970s. Cohen had worked at many of the other resorts on the Strip including the Frontier. He had been General Manager there when Hughes had Robert Maheu call and complain about the light from the rotating Silver Slipper sign keeping him awake. Cohen, who had worked for other stubborn visionaries including Jay Sarno, had refused to turn off the sign. Hughes bought both resorts. Cohen encouraged the filming of the television series "Vega$ on the property. Cohen figured it was good advertising to have star Robert Urich as private eye Dan Tanna showcasing the resort on the small screen.
By 1978, the resort was advertising that most of the original 1950s structures were gone and had been replaced by more modern buildings. By the 1980s the hotel boasted an 18,000 foot spa, a championship Golf Course that included a driving range, pro shop, restaurant and a cocktail lounge. Ten outdoor tennis courts were overseen by pro Marty Hennessy giving lessons to patrons. The Monte Carlo Room was a small, intimate restaurant. The Portofino Room was the Gourmet Room and sported modern glass and marble. Ho Wan was the Chinese restaurant located loft-like above the casino. The casino had 460 coin operated gaming devices including traditional slots, video poker, 21 and Keno.
In 1985, to celebrate its 35th anniversary, a time capsule was buried on the property to be opened on April 24, 2020.
In 1986, the Summa Corporation sold the Desert Inn to Kirk Kerkorian. The sale was finalized in 1987 and for a while the resort was known as the MGM Desert Inn though no one really called it that. It was still the D.I.
The PGA added the Desert Inn Golf Course to its Senior PGA tour which brought back many former players and winners of the Tournament of Champions.
By 1991, the Crystal Room had a rotating showcase of Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Willie Nelson and Steve Lawrence and Edye Gorme. The showroom was dark on Monday and Tuesdays. Buddy Hackett decided to try an idea of appearing in the Crystal Room on Monday and Tuesday evenings without an orchestra or an opening act. Despite front-office skepticism, Hackett was a sell-out.
In 1992, the hotel was rebranded the Stars Desert Inn. Didn't matter, no one called it that. It was still the D.I. to those that loved it. A smaller showroom, the Starlight Theater, opened. Another time capsule was buried on the property to honor Frank Sinatra's birthday. It was to be opened on Dec. 12th, 2020. It is now, like the other one from 1995. buried under the Wynn Resort.
In 1993, the ITT-Sheraton Corporation purchased the resort from Kerkorian for $160 million. There was immediately talk of plans for renovating. A private casino for high rollers was opened. Hoping to capitalize on the Desert Inn's reputation as a sanctuary for high rollers, the Sheraton offered a $50 Sunday buffet that included three different types of caviar. The Starlight Theater became part of the casino. The Starlight was moved to where the pool was and the pool was relocated and made more exotic.
Hoping to get some of the Classic Las Vegas glamour back, Keely Smith and Sam Butera were signed to play the new Starlight Theater. The duo worked wonderfully together, evoking memories of their days with Louis Prima and their show became one of the hottest tickets in town.
On December 19, 1997 the grand opening of the $200 million expansion took place. Going for more luxury, the Sheraton had reduced the number of rooms from 821 to 715. The Augusta Tower was revamped by architects Tate and Snyder with Hirsch Bedner Interior Design Associates.
The St. Andrews Tower was revamped by architect Paul Steedman. Steedman also oversaw the building of the 9-Story Palm Tower.
A Grand Lobby was completed as well as a new Golf Shop and Country Club. Both were overseen by Tate and Snyder.
In 1998, the Auto Club of America gave the resort a Four Diamond rating as well as the Monte Carlo Room restaurant. The Monte Carlo Room was the only Four Diamond restaurant in Nevada at the time.
But it was not to last. Starwood Hotels and Resorts bought ITT-Sheraton and acquired the Desert Inn in 1998. Starwood Chairman Barry Sternlicht put the resort on the auction block because despite the high-priced renovation, the hotel was losing money.
Hoping to keep moral from plummeting among the employees Starwood held an award ceremony honoring Employee of the Year Philip O'Reilly the captain of the Monte Carlo Room. They also awarded a number of Back of the House employees as well as Front of the House employees. Management was honored as well.
In 1999, Sun International Hotels agreed to buy the Desert Inn for $275 million cash. Sun, which operated hotels in the Bahamas, Atlantic City and the Indian Ocean, finally had a hotel in Las Vegas. Sun Chairman Sol Kerzner was likened to Mirage chairman, Steve Wynn.
Kerzner and the other executives had to be investigated by the State Gaming Board. The closing was expected in the second quarter of 2000. There was talk of yet another renovation. The 715-room hotel now sat on 25 acres of prime Strip real estate. The deal also included the 140-acre Desert Inn Golf Course and Country Club Estates and another 32 acres of vacant land on the Strip south of the resort and along Sands Avenue across from the Venetian Hotel and the Sands Expo and Convention Center.
In 2000, the Desert Inn was 50 years old. She had survived numerous renovations and numerous owners. With the exception of Burton Cohen, none seemed to treat the hotel with the love and care that Wilbur Clark and Moe Dalitz had.
By March of 2000, Kerzner announced that Sun International was pulling out of the $275 million deal. Starwood immediately put the resort up for sale. There was a poison pill in the agreement. If the Desert Inn sold for less than $275 million, Sun would pay 50% of the difference up to $15 million.
The resort had a 50th Birthday party that lasted a week from April 24th - 30th. The festivities began with a celebrity golf tournament on the Desert Inn Golf Course, the last remaining 18-hole championship course on the Las Vegas Strip. There was a black-tie party in the Crystal Room that evening featuring Lorna Luft in a tribute to her mother, one time Las Vegas headliner Judy Garland. There was a fireworks display launched from the Golf Course.
Toni Clark, Wilbur's widow, and in failing health, sent a letter to the employees of the Desert Inn.
To My Dearest Friends,
It is with the greatest pleasure that I am able to write this letter to all of you. As I had done for many years at Wilbur's side, I would love to shake your hands, welcome you to our beautiful resort and thank you again for your patronage and friendship. Wilbur was a man of his word. When we married in 1944, he vowed to me a world of love and excitement, I must say my life was so very full of both. When he opened the Desert Inn, he promised the staff and guests an unparalleled, first class property. Again, he succeeded in keeping the promise. I must add that throughout the years, each group that managed the DI has gone to great lengths to maintain Wilbur's legacy of quality.
We were all so very proud to be a part of the Desert Inn in those days. And, I can see the same sense of pride and dignity with the people that work here now. The Desert Inn is an integral part of my heart and I can proudly say, my heart has never been broken.
April 24th, 2000 is the Desert Inn's fiftieth birthday. I recall two remarkable grand openings a half century ago. My husband and I hosted a gala for VIPs and then a second function for the general public. They were both marvelous events. I can still to this day recall Wilbur's pride and magnificent smile that was so contagious for all of us. We had a marvelous time.
The Desert Inn holds many memories and fulfilled dreams. It is my wish that our Desert Inn will continue to provide happiness and joy for you."
To commerate the occasion a third time capsule was buried in a custom-designed granite burial chamber on April 25th. Items placed in the capsule included the employee photo that appeared in Life Magazine, a recreation of that photo from 2000, a special section of the Las Vegas Review Journal commemorating the 50 years of the resort, a sales video, television commercial, current menus and photographs of the resort, a security badge and a media kit. It was to be reopened on April 25, 2050.
On April 28, 2000 during the week-long birthday celebration, Steve Wynn bought the hotel for $270 million. Wynn and his wife, Elaine were the only shareholders. Wynn said the resort was a birthday gift to his wife.
Fat Jack E. Leonard performing at the Desert Inn in 1971
Promotional Brochure 1975
Promotional Brochure 1975
Pzazz '68 produced by Donn Arden
Special Thanks to UNLV's Special Collections, Eric Lynxwiler and As We Knew It for letting us use these images.
Up next: Steve Wynn and the Desert Inn