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As the '50s passed, an avalanche of building transformed Vegas and provided stiff competition for the D.I. But it continued to prosper and profit into the next decade. In 1966, the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes took up residence on the D.I.'s top floor. And after several gentle suggestions from management that he move out, Hughes plunked down $13.5 million the next year and bought the hotel. Hughes died in 1976, but his Summa Corporation retained ownership, and in 1978 it rebuilt and expanded the D.I., achieving a world-class standard of elegance.
By the mid-1980s, the D.I. was still second or third in the Vegas market, and though no one could discern it at the time, its eventual fate was already being cast. Las Vegas had already massified its appeal by lowering the bars of formality in the casinos and offering $4.99 dinner buffets. By the time computer technology livened up the slot machines, showrooms began operating more as movie houses than nightclubs, and Vegas became a low-roller heaven.
To keep its high-end niche in the market, the D.I. began recruiting players from overseas. For much of the '80s, Roy Kawaguchi headhunted the Asian market for the D.I. "We were feeling the squeeze from the other hotels," he remembers over lunch at the Mirage. "But we had a great golf course, a good spa, our casino was quiet and elegant with high ceilings. And on the weekend, the table bets were kept at $25 minimums." Kawaguchi would block out strings of rooms to comp the international high rollers who would be flown in on gambling junkets.
But just as Summa sold Wilbur Clark's original property to entrepreneur Kirk Kerkorian in 1988, a marketing earthquake was coming that would rejigger Las Vegas, expunge its lingering past as Sin City and eventually take down the D.I.
VEGAS' MIRAGE AGE COMMENCED WITH A DEAFENing boom -- the dynamiting of the Dunes to make room for Steve Wynn's mega-resort, the most extravagant theme hotel the town had ever seen. Every hotel built since the Mirage has somehow reflected its image.
"Las Vegas' strategy has always been the same," says historian Rothman. "Give the middle class a luxury-class experience at middle-class prices." But Wynn took this formula to its highest expression. "He brought a certain kind of genius," says Rothman. "He brought a script that made you feel that you were right at the center of this luxury experience."
Wynn learned the gambling business as a young bingo manager -- his father was a bingo operator on the East Coast. After acquiring an interest in the downtown Golden Nugget, and successfully renovating it, Wynn dreamed up the Mirage. And instead of turning to traditional casino funding sources, Wynn, a true businessman of the ä '80s, raised much of the $700 million investment with junk bonds. The Mirage opened in 1989 and was immediately making more than $1 million a day in profits. Disneyism had come to the desert -- and it worked.
"The Mirage changed everything overnight," says Bill Sou, who worked alongside Kawaguchi at the D.I. at that time and who is today a vice president at the Mirage. "As soon as Steve opened the Mirage, it sucked off all the big players. It hit us at the D.I. very hard. It rocked Caesar's. It killed off everything high and low." Says Kawaguchi flatly: "I lost all my players from one day to the next."
As a string of Disneyfied resorts opened -- the Luxor, Treasure Island, the Excalibur, etc. -- the staid, Rat Packera properties were brusquely pushed from the spotlight. Vegas, which had doubled its size in the '80s, doubled again in the '90s. Twenty-five, 30 and then 37 million visitors a year flocked in, but most wanted to experience the spectacle of the "new" and "family-friendly" Las Vegas. The D.I. ownership shifted to Sheraton, but it eschewed the new populism and stuck to the high road. As the other hotels pandered to the lowest common denominator, the D.I. came up with a $50 Sunday buffet that offered three types of caviar.
And then what can only be called a miracle occurred. In 1997, the hotel's owners put the property through a $200 million remodel. Initial rumors were that the D.I. was to add thousands of rooms and become the biggest of the new breed of resorts. But somehow, against all odds, at the precise moment when Vegas was bathed in schlock, the D.I. emerged gracefully updated, starkly elegant, and -- in what must be the only case in Las Vegas history -- smaller than before. The hotel had shrunk from 821 rooms to 715. Downright cozy by Mirage Age yardsticks. The D.I.'s. new seven-story, marble-floored, and palm-lined atrium lobby evoked the golden age of Palm Beach in the 1930s. Its casino remained uncluttered by slots, and had the solid wood-and-brass feel of Monte Carlo. Its tables were still the quietest, most dignified, classiest swaths of green felt in town. The new Desert Inn was much like the old. It proffered no "attraction," no "adventure," no spectacle other than itself and its rich historic tradition.