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Howard Hughes' Vegas Hotels
This piece comes from Peter Michel, head of exhibits for the UNLV Libraries and former director of its special collections. An historian, he has helped create a series of digital collections highlighting the wealth of materials in the Libraries and exploring the historical themes they document, including the Welcome Home, Howard digital exhibit. He has also contributed to the UNLV News Center's My Nevada 5 series, celebrating our state's 150th birthday.
Howard Hughes did not build a thing in Las Vegas; in fact he was spooked by Las Vegas. His idea of Las Vegas was the movie set for his 1952 production of The Las Vegas Story with Jane Russell, Victor Mature, and Vincent Price. He had used the Flamingo, as Alan Hess recounts, "to represent all that was glamorous and exciting about Las Vegas ... as the example of grandeur and the luxury of plush gambling on the Las Vegas Strip."
In a memo to his chief of Nevada operations, Hughes wrote: "I like to think of Las Vegas in terms of well-dressed man in a dinner jackets, and a furred female getting out of an expensive car. I think that is what the people expect here -- to rub shoulders with VIP's and stars ... possibly dressed in sports clothes, but if so, at least in good sports clothes. I don't think we should permit this place to degrade into a freak or amusement park category, like Coney Island."
That was the Las Vegas that the delusional Howard Hughes returned to in 1966, to hide from subpoenas and the media, and to build an empire in the desert. But by 1966, the glamor world of the Flamingo was a delusion from the past. Hughes was living another reality, controlled by a cohort of Mormon advisors, communicating with his lieutenants via memo.
Hughes was horrified by what he would have glimpsed from his penthouse windows had they not been permanently covered to shield him from the dangerous sunlight and germs he imagined. Circus Circus was bringing Coney Island next door, and his nemesis, the federal government was shaking his penthouse by testing nuclear devices just down the highway. To the paranoid Hughes, Las Vegas had become a place of fear and loathing.
Hughes had purchased the Desert Inn, as the story goes, because he couldn't get a room there, and took over the top floor. He then proceeded to purchase the Sands, the Frontier, the Silver Slipper, and that monument to failed dreams, the Landmark, with its space-needle saucer-on-a-stick. Hughes is credited with bringing corporate legitimacy to Las Vegas, and running out the Mafia. The state of Nevada obliged Hughes by changing its gaming licensing laws for him, thereby ushering into Las Vegas publicly traded hotel corporations including Hilton and Marriott.
Under Hughes, or Hughes' people, his hotels continued business as usual and for all intents and purposes under their previous management. Moe Dalitz still ran the Desert Inn; Jack Entratter and Carl Cohen, the Sands. The story was, that people like Dalitz and Entratter were tired of Bobby Kennedy's U.S. Justice Department's relentless investigations of their business associates and decided to sell out to Hughes. But the economic changes affecting Las Vegas hotels, which were driving the expansion of convention centers and room additions would have occurred without Hughes. How Hughes' people marketed their hotels, often together as tourist, convention, and entertainment centers, was no different than what other hotels were doing or from what Hughes properties had been doing before he took them over.
Hughes contribution to the Las Vegas Casino world was the opening of the troubled Landmark property as a casino. Originally built as an apartment building the Landmark had struggled with financing, purpose, and location, and would continue to do so under Hughes and after. Ultimately it was blown up in 1995 for a scene in Mars Attacks!, Tim Burton's sci-fi epic.
The Hughes properties turned out not to be the spectacular success that some had perhaps expected (and hoped) as inevitable of any Hughes enterprise. The Frontier, like the Sands, was already being completely revamped by 1967 (dropping its original Western theme) with a brand new sign by YESCO, joining the new Sands on a renovated Strip. The Silver Slipper remained notable mostly for its YESCO sign, a giant pop art silver slipper. A planned 4,000-room expansion for the Sands never materialized. It was for Sheldon Adelson to completely re-do the Sands, in fact; he blew it up to make way for the Venetian but kept the Sands Expo Center.
His hotels were not the most profitable part of his Nevada Operation, and were unloaded after Hughes skipped town in 1970, to die soon after. The fact that the Hughes Corp. owned significant chunks of the Las Vegas Valley, to be developed by its subsidiary Summerlin Corp., was the lasting legacy of Howard Hughes in Las Vegas: master planned communities where even Howard Hughes might have felt safe from the horrors of the Strip and the Test Site.
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