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Fifth Lady Down 

The death of the Desert Inn. Is this the end of Vegas cool?

Wednesday, Nov 28 2001
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Photo by Ted Soqui

IT'S 1:45 A.M. ON OCTOBER 23, SIX WEEKS AFTER THE WORLD TRADE Center disaster, and there's little public appetite to applaud the dynamiting of another building. But here along the nuclear-bright Las Vegas Strip, a crowd of hundreds, about a half-dozen deep, quietly, almost somberly, waits for the top of the hour. At precisely 2 a.m., a switch will be thrown, 248 pounds of explosives will be triggered, and the bare metal-and-concrete skeleton of the once mighty 15-story Desert Inn -- the fifth resort ever built in Las Vegas -- will be reduced to dust.

Compared to the hoopla and media frenzy that surrounded the blowing up of other Vegas hotels over the past decade, the demolition of the Desert Inn seems, at first blush, little more than a historical asterisk. Under any circumstances, this patch of soulless desert seems about the last place on Earth to get weepy about. Lamenting the disappearance of any part of history here is arduous in a city where a new layer of concrete and glitz seems to appear annually.

But I confess that my stomach knots as I see how the once exquisite Desert Inn was disfigured and disemboweled in the months before the implosion. Caged by a chain-link storm fence, her entire southern flank has been bashed in, her skin peeled off, her insides gutted and flayed, open to the indifferent passersby. Toothy orange forklifts and bulldozers chewed out her bottom floors, exposing the spindly I-beams that still hold her erect. The tangle of pipes, ducts, tubes and cables that I saw grotesquely dangling near the ground a few weeks ago have now been covered with a funereal black drape. The ultimate indignity? Part of her corpse has been slathered in a garish coat of rouge, a remnant from earlier this year when the elegant lady was forced to appear as an extra in the abominable film Rush Hour 2.

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Once the fuses are lit, the D.I. will join the Dunes, the Sands, the Hacienda, the Landmark and the old Aladdin on the list of imploded Las Vegas hotels. But those hotels met their end when each was tired, if not exhausted, worn down and overcome by time. The Desert Inn is different. It goes down just a few years after a glorious remodel and makeover -- after she was seduced, acquired and then hastily betrayed by the most powerful man in town. And her demise marks the end of a historic era in a city that denies there is any past, or any future beyond your arrival and departure dates -- and the expiration of your line of credit.

"Go to a European hotel, and they brag about it being 300 years old," says Dick Taylor, who managed the Hacienda when it first opened, a few years after the D.I. "But not here, man. No one cares that Sinatra lived in Room 124 of the Sands. They don't care about the Sands. They don't care about the Desert Inn. Here, when you hit age 50, they just blow you up." ä

THE DESERT INN AND I CAME INTO THE WORLD TOgether in the same year, 1950. And even before I could crawl, my parents were regularly carting me along to Vegas. But in those years my parents shifted their preferences from El Rancho Vegas to the Hacienda to the Stardust and then to the Dunes. Never the Desert Inn. And so, as an adult, it didn't occur to me until about a decade ago to check into the D.I. But once the Lady and I formally met, I fell for her completely. Since then, I have found any excuse for making the four-hour drive to spend an impromptu weekend, a night, even a long single afternoon in her fragile embrace.

The D.I.'s allure was formidable. Yes, the Mirage beckoned with her royal white tigers, her indoor rain forest and hourly erupting volcano. And there were other temptations: the Luxor and her 30-story, 2,256-room glass pyramid topped by a cyber-age siren -- a laser so bright it could be seen by orbiting spacecraft; the MGM Grand, with her 5,000 rooms and, at 171,500 square feet, claim as "the world's largest casino"; the Treasure Island, billed as an "adventure resort," with an on-the-hour "battle royale" between a 90-foot pirate ship and a replica British frigate. In later years, the Mandalay Bay tried to lure with $20 million in sharks. The Bellagio with $300 million in art. The Paris with an Eiffel Tower and New York New York with a scale model of a different lady -- Liberty. Even the somewhat august Caesar's built a shopping mall that awed the crowds with talking statues.

The D.I. had none of the above. She was the last refuge, the final holdout of understated elegance and class left on The Strip. Indeed, with no special effects, no shtick -- no bullshit -- the Desert Inn immersed you in the most intoxicating of all Vegas fantasies: Las Vegas itself. I don't know about you, but if I'm taking the trouble to drive 300 miles through the desert to a place designed exclusively to separate me from my money, then I know what I want out of the deal. I don't want to pretend I'm a pirate, or a Roman archer, or a medieval knight or some sort of zookeeper. And I certainly don't want to hand my money over to a fresh-out-of-correspondence-school dealer wearing a balloon sculpture on his head. I'll leave all that for when the visiting cousins want to graze the Venice boardwalk.

I go to Las Vegas -- or at least I went to Las Vegas -- because I loved Las Vegas. Only in Vegas could I dare to imagine that I was a Friend of Frank. Or that I was throwing the dice at Dino's favorite table. Or that I could sip bourbon with Rickles after his last lounge show. That's the heady fantasy that oozed from the D.I. The kind of Rat Pack cool that Hollywood's trying to channel in its remake of the upcoming Ocean's Eleven. (Instead of Frank Sinatra and his gang trying to pull off a New Year's Eve heist on the Sahara, Riviera, Flamingo, Sands and the Desert Inn, George Clooney and his crew go after the Mirage, the Bellagio and the MGM Grand . . . hmm.)

Once inside the doors of the D.I., I knew I was safely delivered from the swelling, heat-stricken herds of shorts-clad schleppers outside, fanny packs around their waists, cottage-cheese containers rattling with quarters, one eye fixed on the video-cam viewfinder, the other on the pulsating Circus Circus sign that reeled them in with 99-cent shrimp cocktails.

At the D.I., most of the fanny-packers were kept out by the mere absence of slot machines. Only a few dozen of them sat off in a corner, and even those were gagged and muted. The result was the two most rarefied of modern Vegas commodities -- lots of quiet, and lots of actual gambling tables. Which meant that if you were going to gamble, then at least you had to sit down, talk to a human, pull out enough money to crank up your heart rate and damn well better remember at least a few rules of craps or blackjack. If you preferred instead to plop down and blithely pump nickels into a video machine that paid off when you lined up the proper configuration of animated bunny rabbits, squirrels, squashes and carrots, then please, just keep on moving toward Circus Circus, or take a left toward the Palace Station.

At the D.I., I wouldn't dare come to the table without a suit and tie. Anything less formal could offend the seasoned dealers who stood behind their tables in starched white shirts and perfectly knotted black bow ties. Mostly middle-aged men and women, usually with 20 years of dealing behind them, their wrists and pinkies flashing with gold and ice, they would call you by your name, and listen to you with at the least the feigned interest of a therapist. When the occasional rube walked in and blew a stack of $25 green "quarter" chips by splitting tens and hitting dead hands when the house was showing a 5 or 6 up, the dealer would inevitably share a knowing glance with the more experienced players. And there I would sit at one of the 21 tables, hours at a time, drifting toward dawn, often straight into the morning, sometimes winning, more often not. But who cared? The treatment was so tender that even at the frayed end of a losing binge, I almost had the urge to stand up, straighten my tie, and shake the dealer's hand, thanking him -- or her -- for spending this time with me.

All that, now about to collapse into rubble at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Desert Inn Road, where nostalgia and memory intersect and finally collide with the corporate bottom line.

IN APRIL 1950, WILBUR CLARK, A SOUTHERN CALIfornia gambler, opened the Desert Inn -- 300 rooms trimmed in pink and cactus green. Crowned by a spectacular Sky Room Lounge, this "fifth lady" among the Vegas resorts was the grandest yet. Within a year, Sinatra made his first Vegas appearance in the D.I.'s Painted Desert showroom.

"Its opening spurred the big building boom of the '50s," says Frank Wright, curator of the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society. "From its first days, the D.I. maintained a constant identity as a venue with class."

And that was the whole town's appeal as it began to mushroom. Any notion that the Old Vegas was a cowboy town with saloons and sawdust floors, says Wright, is just myth. "The whole cowboy theme was consciously concocted in the '50s as a marketing strategy by the Chamber of Commerce," he says. "From its origins, Las Vegas was fueled by gamblers fleeing places they had been chased out of. Mostly from Los Angeles. It was worldly, sophisticated and cosmopolitan from the first day." (It wasn't so much Bugsy Siegel but Guy McAfee who was the motor force in pumping up the original Vegas. McAfee was himself an L.A. product, and claimed that it was the Sunset Strip that inspired him to baptize the then-barren stretch of Nevada desert as the new "strip.")

Clark's early gambling career took him from San Diego to Manhattan Beach and most probably to the infamous Rex gambling boat that once sat off the shores of Santa Monica. "The D.I. is a whole story like the Flamingo," Wright says. "Its inspiration came from a Californian who eventually had to turn to the mob." Indeed, Clark didn't have the $3.5 million to complete his Vegas dream hotel on his own and quickly brought in a crew of Cleveland-based angels as his partners, including underworld figure Moe Dalitz of the so-called Purple Gang. At one point, Frank Sinatra mulled over the possibility of taking over the property. But it was Dalitz, floated by Teamster union pension money, who completed and was soon running Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn, and whose casino made a juicy $3 million in its first year. But Clark remained as an effective front man and lent credibility to Dalitz, who came to be revered by locals as a generous philanthropist. "The truth is that within a year after the D.I. opened, Clark's role was reduced to checking that his name was still on the matchbooks and napkins," says Hal Rothman, a historian at the University of Nevada.

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.

"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."

LAS VEGAS WAS ALREADY IN A LULL BEFORE SEPtember 11. Whispering about a saturated market is taboo here, but after a frenetic building boom that added 60,000 new rooms in 12 years, pushing it ahead of either Los Angeles or New York in sheer lodging capacity, Las Vegas seems to have reached a critical plateau. No new major hotels, except for Wynn's D.I. replacement, are on the drawing boards. They can't build schools fast enough to serve the 5,000 new residents who move in every month. And the same two-lane, already overcrowded highway still connects it to its major feeder point, Los Angeles.

"Way back in 1955, Life magazine ran a big cover story asking if Las Vegas had been overbuilt," laughs gambling industry historian Bill Thompson. "But we have always found we can build more. Always have, always will. And the demographics support us. Every day in the U.S., 10,000 people turn age 50. These baby boomers are affluent, they have fewer obligations, their houses are being paid off, their kids are leaving home, and they are at the peak of their earning power. Just as all those diaper companies made money in the 50s off this same generation, so will the Las Vegas casinos in the years still to come."

Or will they? The last recession in the early '90s had no visible impact on Vegas revenues -- neither did the Gulf War crisis. But this war and this recession do seem to be affecting business. A white tent has been set up next door to the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino so that the Culinary Union can tend to the hundreds of Vegas workers laid off since September 11. Employment figures fluctuate as much as room rates in this town, but best estimates are that 15,000 or more workers have been pink-slipped since September 11 as tourism and air travel retracted nationwide. Now, nearly two months later, many casinos report weekday traffic to be down by as much as 30 percent from normal levels. And with the national economy officially in recession, Vegas' nerves of steel are weakening.

But Steve Wynn is playing the long odds. In the hours right before the detonation, he finally broke a long, self-imposed silence and spoke in some detail of his plans for the Desert Inn to one local Las Vegas reporter and again during a public speech at a casino trade exposition. First, he insists, any downturn in entertainment or gambling appetites is merely transitory. And just a few weeks from now, in December, Wynn says, he will commence construction on his new $2 billion resort, Le Reve -- in French, "The Dream" -- named for the Picasso painting, which he, of course, owns. With at least 2,500 rooms, 42 stories and a series of man-made lakes, the hotel will take approximately 30 months to build. And in some faint recognition of the tradition of the Desert Inn, the new hotel will have no theme -- other than elegance. "It's time for Las Vegas to have its own hotel," said the man responsible for demolishing the last great landmark hotel in town. Says Wynn of Le Reve: "People are going to come from everywhere to see it and marvel at it."

IT'S NEARLY 2 A.M. ON THIS TUESDAY MORNING IN October, and as Steve Wynn himself -- safe on the northern end of the D.I. property -- prepares to push the appropriate detonation button, an anticipatory hush falls over the crowd. Suddenly, it's 2 a.m. on the dot, the button is pressed and a staccato series of a half-dozen booms are sound out. A rat-a-tat of a dozen more pops resonates off the concrete canyon walls of the Strip. The Fifth Lady momentarily shimmies and shudders in a macabre death rattle and then, less than 20 seconds after the fuses ignite, implodes. From her gravesite rises a towering cloud of dust that in the still night air drifts ever so slowly toward the darkness of the desert.

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