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SPECIAL REPORT: Las Vegas' Great Hotel Openings

An aerial view of Caesars Palace shortly after its grand opening (File | KSNV){p}{/p}
An aerial view of Caesars Palace shortly after its grand opening (File | KSNV)

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Tuesday night marks the opening of the first from-the-ground-up major resort in Las Vegas to open in a decade, with plenty of festivities planned downtown.

Grand opening celebrations have a rich tradition here dating back to the 1940s. Here are a handful of gala openings that have particularly interesting storylines, starting with the Flamingo, which opened its doors on December 26, 1946.

“This was an event that had over the first three nights, approximately 28,000 people come through the Flamingo,” says Missouri Science & Technology History Professor Larry Gragg. “As one local reviewer said, ‘You couldn't pack them in anymore with a shoehorn.’”

Gragg has written several books about Las Vegas including “Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel”. He says the 1991 movie “Bugsy” about the mobster-owner presenting the hotel’s opening as a dud didn't get it right.

“[Siegel] was there in a black tuxedo with a pink carnation and [his mistress] Virginia Hill was there with platinum blond hair. And it was an evening that everyone talked about for weeks.”

The myth of the opening as a flop may have started because not everyone on the guest list arrived.

“There were some celebrities who couldn't make it because of the weather in Southern California. But there was also word passed around Hollywood that you ought not to go. You really don't want to be associated with Ben Siegel.”

Siegel had a bad reputation not just with some in the entertainment community, but also with his syndicate bosses. The Flamingo lost money for its first couple of months and temporarily closed while the hotel rooms were completed. There had also been rumors that Siegel and Hill had been pocketing some of the money intended for construction.

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Siegel was gunned down in Beverly Hills on June 20, 1947. The murder has never been solved.

Jumping ahead two decades, the 1966 gala opening of Caesars Palace also included a man who would be taken out by the mob.

“Jimmy Hoffa through the Teamsters had arranged for about half of the financing for Caesars Palace. So he was there and he was really the guest of honor,” says UNLV Vice Provost and local historian David Schwartz.

Hoffa had extensive dealings and conflicts with underworld figures. His 1975 disappearance has never officially been solved, but is generally accepted to be a mob hit.

On that night in 1966, Hoffa was still riding high and enjoying the celebration. Caesars Palace had been designed to capture the spirit of the opulence and decadence of ancient Rome.

“The opening was something very special,” says Schwartz. “You had Andy Williams and a ton of great food, and there was a lot of partying going on for three days. I think the Las Vegas casinos have always tried to be lavish. I think this one though took it to the next level.”

Jumping to the summer of 1969, a battle of billionaires had been brewing involving hotels across the street from each other on Paradise Road.

“Of course Kirk Kerkorian owned the International,” explains Schwartz. “Howard Hughes for whatever reason did not like Kirk Kerkorian and was doing everything to try to be a thorn in his side. One of the things was to open up the Landmark.”

While Kerkorian had been overseeing construction of the International as the world’s largest hotel at the time, Hughes had purchased the partially-completed Landmark which had been languishing under previous ownership with a lack of funding.

“I think for Hughes it was just sheer hubris,” muses Schwartz. “He thought he could get it to work. He thought he could get it to be profitable, but he never did.”

When Kerkorian announced a July 2nd opening for the International featuring singing sensation Barbra Streisand, Hughes accelerated construction to open the Landmark on July 1st with a star-studded event headlined by Danny Thomas.

Which celebration was better? Let’s call it a push.

“Hughes wanted to make this the biggest grand opening in history and Kerkorian also wanted to make a good impression.”

The International later became the Las Vegas Hilton followed by the LVH and today is the Westgate. The Landmark was imploded in 1995 and today is the site of the brand new Las Vegas Convention Center West Hall, set to open early next year.

Two decades later, another grand opening kicked off the modern Las Vegas era with the first “Megaresort”.

“Today is a great day,” said magician Roy Horn at the ribbon-cutting on November 22, 1989. “A dream come true. “The Mirage has materialized.”

At 29 stories with 3,044 rooms, the Mirage took over the title of the largest hotel in the world while setting a new standard for luxury in Las Vegas.

“The Mirage was very anticipated and that grand opening was much anticipated,” says Schwartz. “Some people thought, ‘Well it's not going to work. They just can't make it run profitably having to get the $1.1 million a day in revenue.’ But it did, and I think it changed everything.”

Right next door in 1993, the pirate-themed Treasure Island debut included fireworks and a made-for-tv movie shown on NBC.

“Treasure Island was taking it to that next level with the theming,” points out Schwartz. “And certainly the opening and the TV special and the theming was a new direction for Las Vegas.”

At one point in the movie, a pirate ship in “Buccaneer Bay” fired off a cannon, with the idea that the shot was hitting the sign in front of the Dunes Hotel a half-mile away. At that moment, the Dunes tower came tumbling down in a massive implosion to the cheers of thousands of onlookers.

There were smaller properties that opened over the next decade and a half. By mid-2008, three projects were underway that promised to be larger and more glamorous than anything Las Vegas had seen before.

Fontainebleu would be the tallest hotel tower in Nevada on the site of the old El Rancho (formerly Thunderbird and Silverbird), while across the street on the former site of the Stardust the sprawling Echelon Place was under construction. A couple of miles to the south, City Center would include several hotels, condominium towers and an upscale shopping mall.

When the housing market bubble burst and the country slid into recession later in the year, both Fontainebleau and Echelon Place halted construction. Only City Center soldiered on with the deep pockets of MGM Resorts International and Dubai World along with extensive loans.

City Center opened in December of 2009. Even in good times, December had traditionally been a slow month for Las Vegas, but according to MGM, that was a good thing.

“You open during the slow time of year in order to give yourself a chance to kind of work into it,” said MGM spokesman Alan Feldman. “Not everything's going to work at first. The buildings are built when they're empty, and then all of a sudden they get a full load on them.”

“The party is rather subdued though, because the whole complex is so massive that the crowd is definitely dispersed, so it's not a real claustrophobic feel inside here,” reported News 3’s Steve Crupi at the grand opening. “Everyone in here is enjoying a good time on opening night as we get ready just a short time from now for the big fireworks extravaganza.”

The fireworks wowed the crowd and the celebration went on through the night. It was a feel-good moment when Las Vegas really needed it.

“I think City Center coming during the midst of the Great Recession really was a signal that Las Vegas was going to go on,” observes Schwartz. ”So the fact that they continued the project and opened it up was a sign of perseverance.”

Now a little over a decade later, another resort is making its debut during an economic crisis, this time paired with the international public health emergency of COVID-19.

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“I think the opening of Circa is also a bit of a sign of perseverance and a sign of endurance, and a sign that Las Vegas is going to go on after the pandemic.”

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