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September 16, 2014

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Desert Inn celebrates its golden anniversary

In retrospect it seems so small. Three-hundred rooms? A lodge, really. Merely quaint, like La Quinta.

Even today, as a stately and gleaming resort of 700 rooms, it is literally overshadowed by its behemoth neighbors. Plainly and ominously visible from the the Desert Inn's main parking lot are the Treasure Island, Bellagio, Venetian, Mirage, Paris Las Vegas and a revamped, muscled-up Caesars Palace.

But there is something to be said for the venerable, half-century-old Desert Inn. The Bellagio might have a multimillion-dollar water show, "O," and a dazzling art gallery. But Howard Hughes never held its entire top floor hostage for nearly six months.

Treasure Island has its faux-pirate show. But the Desert Inn was navigated by a true swashbuckler in Mo Dalitz. The replica Eiffel Tower, the assorted talking statues at Caesars, "Mystere," and Siegfried & Roy can send visitors home dizzy with amazement, no question.

But the Desert Inn gave us Dan Tanna rumbling up the Strip in his blazing red convertible T-Bird, chatting on a space-age car phone.

Steadying under the wave of mega-resorts that have largely stripped it of its Strip supremacy, the D.I. serves up a reminder Monday of its fruitful Las Vegas heritage when it turns 50. An invitation-only party that will be brimming with dignitaries is set for that night, and heavily embellished memories will flow as freely as the champagne.

"The place is full of memories, the very best memories in Las Vegas," Duke Vincent, supervising producer of TV's "Vega$," featuring the aforementioned Dan Tanna character, said. "I'm going to love coming back."

In a city that celebrates its famous structures by stuffing them with explosives and razing them for fun, the Desert Inn refuses to buckle.

"There isn't any place like us," Desert Inn Chief Operating Officer Mark Lefever said during a recent interview in his plush D.I. office. "In the last 18 months each of the new places are all must-see resorts. Don't get me wrong, they're awesome, but they all have 3,000 rooms or more. Nobody's got 700 rooms with 130 acres of grass right behind it (in the form of a championship-caliber golf course)."

Of all the innovative ideas to bloom on the Strip or elsewhere in the Las Vegas Valley, Lefever says he's confident that the Desert Inn will remain unique -- on the Strip, at least.

"I don't know if anyone would want to build this today in this location," Lefever said. "I don't know if anybody could. We're different than anywhere else in town."

Such flattering dissertations can be expected of a firecracker 35-year-old executive with a year in the top seat. The same attitude could also be expected of any executive operating a hotel bearing a "For Sale" sign, as is the Desert Inn. Despite occupancy rates that, D.I. spokeswoman Caroline Coyle says, are hovering at a quite respectable 90-percent range, parent company Starwood Hotels Resorts Worldwide Inc. is seeking to shed the D.I.

Yep, for around $275 million you could own the Desert Inn. That was the number Sun International Hotels Ltd. pulled off the table a couple months ago. But just days ago D.I. employees were murmuring about a visit from Steve Wynn, who spent four hours touring the hotel with Lefever.

The assumption is that Wynn wasn't there to play video keno.

"All I can tell you is on Saturday I toured Steve Wynn on the property for four hours," Lefever said. "Anything after that, I can't say. He has been here."

Still, with all the talk of the present and future propositions for the Desert Inn, there is plenty upon which to reflect.

Wilbur and Mo

Jack Butler vividly remembers walking his soon-to-be-wife home from school 70 years ago. But he doesn't remember too much about the night the Desert Inn opened.

"It was spectacular, I can tell you that," the 89-year-old former D.I. bell captain said. "As for who was here, I'd be lying if I said I could remember. But from the day I started until the day I left, especially when Wilbur had it, I always looked forward to coming to work. It was very special. It was the good old days."

The brainchild of Wilbur Clark, the D.I. began construction around the time Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo in 1946. By then Clark had sold El Rancho on the Strip to secure property across the street. But he soon encountered financial troubles stemming from the high cost of building materials in the aftermath of World War II.

Consequently, Clark was forced to sell three quarters of his interest in the project to a collection of nefarious Cleveland investors led by Dalitz, a stridently private man with reputed mob ties and a background in bootlegging. The hotel (still bearing Clark's name on the illuminated sign as the managing partner) opened April 24, 1950. Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden partner Charlie McCarthy were the featured performers in the 450-seat Painted Desert Showroom that evening.

The D.I.'s total cost was a then-whopping $3.5 million. At an impressive three stories high, the hotel looked down on its competition, which on the Strip included El Rancho, the Flamingo, Tropicana, Last Frontier and Thunderbird. The 300 rooms topped all the new resorts' capacity, and there was a wonderful figure-eight swimming pool, a spa, a couple of restaurants and even an 18-hole golf course.

"All the other bosses from the other hotels came to play at the D.I.," said Butler, whose job was "dissolved" in 1989 after 38 years of service. "I think the personality of the place made it so different. We had an open hand to the guests, and in the first 15 years I worked there we never had a staff meeting. Didn't need one."

The hotel thrived from the start, turning a $750,000 profit in the first week.

"Nobody went to bed," Butler said. "At 5 o'clock in the morning the place would still be packed. Wilbur would shine a light on a chair every hour and whoever was sitting in the chair would get a drink. People loved that."

But in 1964 Clark, the man who envisioned the entire D.I. project, sold his remaining interest in the hotel to Dalitz and associates Morris Kleinman, Thomas McGinty and Sam Tucker. A year later he succumbed to a heart attack. Clark is survived by wife, Toni, who is in fragile health and suffering from symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

"Wilbur was the greatest guy," Butler said. "Without him this town never would've got off the ground. Everyone came into the club just to see him and he was all over the postcards. He was the only boss who would agree to have his picture taken."

Although Clark had passed on, the fascinating legacy of the D.I. was reaching its apex.

Here comes Howard

Arriving by train on Thanksgiving eve, 1966, was an eccentric billionaire with haughty plans for Las Vegas.

"We took him off the train five miles outside of Las Vegas," Bob Maheu, Hughes' right-hand man at the time, said. "He was coming in from Boston with big plans for Las Vegas. I saw him fleetingly."

Maheu, a former FBI agent, makes the final point for a reason. In 13 years serving as Hughes' alter-ego, where he held the billionaire's power of attorney and spoke on Hughes' behalf for all public purposes, Maheu saw Hughes precisely twice.

"One was that night in 1966, by accident," Maheu said. "The other was in 1957, in the Bahamas. I saw him and some of his staff through a hotel lobby. Everything was done through phone calls and memos, hand-written memos on legal-sized yellow paper with lines."

By now the story is legendary: Hughes took over the ninth floor of the Desert Inn and quickly became entrenched.

"Howard saw Las Vegas as one of the last frontiers in the United States," Maheu said. "But he was interested in land and he bought roughly 30,000 acres of what's now Summerlin (called Husite at the time), and it was just a place where people dumped their garbage. He wanted to buy raw land, a newspaper, TV station and was considering the possibility of moving all of his companies here.

"He had no desire and was not thinking of going into the hotel business."

Maheu had arranged for Hughes to secure the ninth floor, full of exquisite suites for casino high rollers. Because it was the lax Thanksgiving season, hotel management agreed to allow Hughes to rent the entire top floor first for just 10 days, then until the long-expected New Year's Eve crush came and went. Then Hughes would pack up and leave.

No dice.

"We had the top floor and the floor immediately below it and the only way you could get on the top floor was with a key," the still-spunky, 82-year-old Maheu said. "We survived through the new year but by then (Dalitz and partner Ruby Kolod) were furious. They sent a letter to Howard Hughes on the penthouse floor advising him that he was to leave in 48 hours or they would bodily remove him. They got a notice that said, 'Not known at this address,' and they just blew their stack."

The message was clear that if Hughes wanted to stay he'd have to buy the hotel. So Hughes did, purchasing the Desert Inn from Dalitz & Co. for $13.25 million, and in the process discovered that owning casinos could help alleviate some tax troubles he was suffering as a result of selling his stock in TWA.

"He called me laughing and was saying his tax problems had been solved," Maheu said. "We said, 'How many of these toys are available?' "

The dominos started to tumble. Hughes purchased the Sands, the Castaways, the Silver Slipper and the Frontier (but was prevented from buying the Stardust for $30 million because the federal government feared he would hold a monopoly on Las Vegas hotels). Although an omnipresent force in Las Vegas for nearly a decade after arriving until his death in 1976, hardly anyone encountered Hughes in the flesh.

"I had no personal contact with him whatsoever," said Berton Cohen, president of the D.I. on three different occasions from the late-'60s through the mid-'90s. "Anyone who tells you different is yanking your chain."

Cohen related what could be known as "The Ice Cream Saga," about Hughes' wished to be served, on a regular basis, a certain type of ice cream.

"I want to say it was banana nut, but it doesn't matter," Cohen said. "The point is he was a creature of habit. I got word we were running out of banana nut and called Baskin-Robbins in L.A. to have some shipped in. They'd discontinued the line and would only make something like 100 gallons. Then word came in the next day that he changed his mind and wanted something else and we had to switch.

"Somewhere at the D.I. they still might have old gallons of unopened banana nut."

Well, if the Imperial Palace can boast antique cars ...

But Maheu strives to keep Hughes' life and undisputed genius at the forefront.

"He truly was ill, he was sick, and I was not aware of the extent to which he depended on drugs. He took pills to sleep, to stay awake, everything," Maheu said. "It just fries me when people only talk about that side of his life. If you were to write a book about Benjamin Franklin, you'd run out of paper listing his failures. ... Howard Hughes was a leader in aviation, a leader in business, a visionary in everything he pursued."

Keeping pace

In 1978, two years after Hughes' death, the Desert Inn underwent $54 million in renovations, expanding from 300 to 825 rooms (which would later be reduced to 715 in the most recent renovations in 1997). That year marked the arrival of network television in the form of Mr. Tanna -- portrayed by actor Robert Urich -- who served as a sort of spokesman for all of Las Vegas.

"We needed a hotel that would work with us, understand the problems we'd have shooting in and around the casino while they were operating," said Vincent, now a co-executive producer with Aaron Spelling for Spelling Television. "We offered a show that would be a one-hour advertisement featuring the D.I. running all over the world once a week."

The "Vega$" days might have been the last of the true "Old Vegas" era, with celebrities happy to mingle with tourists during (and in place of) filming. Vincent remembers losing track of Dean Martin, Tony Curtis and Urich during a scheduled shoot.

"I sent an assistant to find them and I lost the assistant," Vincent said. "We were supposed to be shooting out in back, by the pool, but I went inside and everyone was crowded around a craps table and Dean was holding the dice. What was I supposed to do?"

"Vega$" crapped out after four seasons on ABC but lives forever in syndication, a lingering reminder of what Las Vegas -- and the Desert Inn -- once was. The hotel has its ups and downs, still boasting an immaculate championship course (the only one on the Strip) under the capable care of Director of Golf Dave Johnson, a 31-year employee. The two showrooms -- the Crystal Showroom and Starlight Lounge -- still offer top-level entertainment. The rooms are spacious and the casino is calm and clean.

But flip the coin and there is cause for concern. The hotel is mired in an acrimonious legal battle with residents of the Desert Inn Estates. The hotel wants to build time-share condominiums across from 50 or so longtime residents, many of whom date back to the Dalitz era. Also, the hotel's attempt to play off its rich entertainment history wound up in another lawsuit, spearheaded by Frank Sinatra's daughter, Tina, alleging copyright infringement from the since-departed show "The Rat Pack Is Back."

Citing legal reasons, Lefever refused comment on either case, other than to say "I wish I could." Nor did he discuss the proposed sale of the hotel.

Entrenched in middle age, where does the old hotel stand? Putting up a fight, dropping a few names, ready for a party.

Sounds about right.

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