By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"The D.I. said to itself, 'Let's do what we do best, what Moe Dalitz did best,'" says former Hacienda manager Dick Taylor. "But it just couldn't compete. It couldn't compete with the three- and four-thousand behemoths right down the street."
And it couldn't compete with Las Vegas' newest conception of luxury, epitomized in yet another Steve Wynn creation, the Bellagio. Since 1992, when Caesar's Palace opened the Forum Shops -- which not only had talking statues and a ceiling that changed from day to night in less than an hour, but stores from the world's best-known luxury manufacturers and restaurants from star chefs, including the biggest celebrity chef at the time, Wolfgang Puck -- Vegas hotels began competing in earnest for high-end consumers along with the buffet-loving fanny packers. This should have been good news for the D.I., but Wynn outdid everyone with the 1998 opening of the Bellagio, which not only had caviar and celebrity chefs, designer boutiques and pricey spa treatments, but a serious art gallery filled with Impressionist and Modern masters, and a restaurant called Picasso with actual Picassos on the wall. If brand-name luxury could be imported, why not brand-name culture?
The D.I. had only luxury itself -- and real Vegas gambling -- to offer, and as a result was losing money. Yet another shuffle of ownership transferred it to Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, whose management quickly put the lady on the auction block.
Then, in April of last year, for a bargain price tag of $270 million, Steve Wynn himself snapped up the Desert Inn -- as a birthday present for his wife. The purchase allowed Wynn, who had just sold his Mirage Resorts (including the Bellagio and Treasure Island), to quickly get back into the hotel business. But it also cast an immediate chill on the Desert Inn's future. I sat at the blackjack tables three weeks after the deal was announced, and the dealers spoke apprehensively of what was to come. Wynn had promised them at least a full year before any decision about the hotel's fate would be made. But few believed it. They knew what was at stake, and they were rattled by his public statements. "This is the most powerful piece of real estate in Nevada, possibly in the western United States," he said shortly after the deal was inked. "It's an extraordinary piece of property, with an opportunity to do just about anything."
On June 30, Wynn took formal ownership. Six weeks later he gave the Desert Inn staff 15 days' notice. The casino would cease operations at 2 a.m. on Monday, August 28, 2000. The hotel would shutter forever 12 hours later. News reports say the last gambler to hold the dice at the D.I. was veteran guest Fred Heitmann of Illinois, a man who commanded a $30,000 credit line at the casino. He had to make the number eight. But he crapped out with an unlucky seven and contributed a final $800 to the D.I.'s last "drop."
A few courageous crusaders mounted a short-lived Web site to save the D.I. from demolition. The campaign went nowhere. But right before the D.I. closed, 50-year-old Howard Klein, the self-styled "Mayor of Mandalay Bay" (the hotel where he works in valet parking), made sure he checked in for a night. And now, a year later, he proudly shows me one of his trophies. It's a form letter from the D.I. management to its registered guests, dated August 28 of last year, reminding them they must comply with the noon check-out time, as the hotel will close down two hours later.
"History turns to dust," he says. "We used to have a town called Vegas that in the old days was a real nice place. It was all 'Fun in the Sun' and 'Howdy, Pardner!' and it was all about hospitality. That's all gone now."
Klein spends hours a day on E-bay building his now quarter-million-dollar collection of Old Vegas memorabilia. His spacious, two-story suburban house is jammed with files and piles, boxes and albums. With gambling chips, post cards, ashtrays, tablecloths, menus, coasters, posters, dinnerware, glasses, wallpaper, signs, letters, even a vintage change cart. An oil painting of Paris that hangs in Klein's trophy room once graced the penthouse of Bugsy Siegel. Every hotel, every casino that ever did business on the Strip has at least one collector's album assembled by Klein. His D.I. book includes matchbooks, casino chips, canceled checks from the El Rancho Vegas to Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn, dozens of promotional brochures and dinner menus. "It's gone, all gone," Klein continues repeating as he hands me his album of Flamingo remnants. "I can even date when it happened. When we lost Las Vegas. I would put 1979 as the last year for Vegas hospitality. Back then I worked at our motel 10 hours a day, six and a half days a week because the guests were considered to be our family. Nowadays, they are numbers. Even the hotel employees no longer know what hospitality is about. To them, their jobs are just jobs. My job now is to do everything I can to bring back some of that hospitality."