10 Entrepreneurs Who Built Las Vegas
William Andrews ClarkThomas HullBugsy SiegelJ. Walter ThompsonBetty WillisHoward HughesKirk KerkorianSheldon AdelsonSteve WynnTony Hsieh
Sin City has a long history of dreamers and visionaries hoping to make their mark on the gambling capital. Here are nine entrepreneurs--and one gangster--who helped to build the desert city into what it is today.--Francesca Louise Fenzi
The Montana senator and copper mining magnate William Andrews Clark quite literally put Las Vegas on the map when he established it as a maintenance stop for his Los Angeles/Salt Lake Railroad in 1905. At the time, Clark was one of the wealthiest industrialists in the U.S.--second only to John D. Rockefeller--and owned numerous railroads, banks, gold mines, electric companies, cattle and timber interests, and one Mexican coffee plantation. Clark and his business partner, Utah senator Thomas Kearns, promoted the area to American farmers who could purchase plots in the desert for only $1.25 per acre.
According to legend, hotelier Tommy Hull decided to open the first resort on what is now the Las Vegas Strip when his car broke down on Highway 91 and he began counting all of the out-of-state license plates zooming by. In reality, Las Vegas auto dealer and businessman “Big” Jim Cashman convinced Hull to open El Rancho Las Vegas in true Sin City fashion--over drinks at the Apache Hotel. El Rancho Vegas opened in 1941 and was the first of its kind in the city with 110 rooms, two blackjack tables, one roulette table, one craps table, and over 70 slot machines.
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel began his career as a hit man for the Genovese crime family in Brookyn where he founded the syndicate’s enforcement arm, dubbed “Murder, Inc.” by the press. After a brief tenure in Los Angeles--where he rubbed elbows with fellow crime boss Mickey Cohen--Siegel finally settled in Las Vegas and is frequently credited with building the Flamingo Hotel. He wrestled the project from nightclub owner Billy Wilkerson when Wilkerson lost nearly all of his investors’ money playing poker. Siegel was gunned down in Beverly Hills three months after Wilkerson sold his final share in the iconic casino.
Who else but an ad man would try to monetize the phrase “Sin City”? Las Vegas’s status as an international tourist destination might be best attributed to the partnership between advertiser J. Walter Thompson and local radio station owner Maxwell Kelch in 1945. Kelch commissioned Thompson’s New York-based company JWT Advertising to promote Las Vegas as an attractive vacation spot to travelers, and later established the Las Vegas News Bureau for the sole purpose of publicizing the city’s attractions. Together, the pair spun the Las Vegas experience into a commodity--setting the stage for the city’s $40 billion tourism industry today.
Monuments don’t last long in Las Vegas--a tour through the Neon Museum, which preserves the signage of forgotten landmarks from the Strip, reveals a long roster of attractions that have come and gone. But the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, designed by Betty Willis in 1959, has remained more or less untouched. A Las Vegas native, Willis attended art school in Los Angeles then returned to her hometown where she launched a career as one the city’s first commercial artists. She designed signs and advertisements for various local businesses, including a neon depiction of multi-ethnic showgirls for the Moulin Rouge hotel in 1955.
The film producer, aviator, and tool manufacturer Howard Hughes rolled into Las Vegas on Thanksgiving Day in 1966, occupying the penthouse suite of the Desert Inn until the manager, Moe Dalitz, asked him to leave a month later to make room for New Years’ Eve guests. Rather than vacate the rooms as requested, Hughes simply purchased the hotel. He proceeded to buy an estimated $300 million in Las Vegas real estate, including the North Las Vegas Airport and several other casinos. However, the oversight of these properties fell exclusively to Hughes’ public liaison and “alter ego” Robert Maheu--the reclusive Hughes rarely left his penthouse atop the Desert Inn.
Financier Kirk Kerkorian performed something of a Las Vegas hat trick when he built the city’s largest resort three times in a row. Kerkorian first developed the International Hotel, Las Vegas’ earliest mega-resort with 30 stories and 1,512 rooms, then hired architect Martin Stern, Jr. to design and build the MGM Grand Hotel--twice. When it was first constructed, the MGM was larger in size than the Empire State Building and had over 2,000 rooms. In 1980, however, the hotel burned to the ground, killing 84 people and gaining the distinction of being the worst disaster in Nevada history. But as they say in Hollywood, “The show must go on.” Kerkorian rebuilt the mega-resort and sold it to Bally manufacturing for a tidy $594 million in 1986.
Multi-billionaire Sheldon Adelson was raised in what he calls the “slums” of Boston and spent a short period studying at City College of New York before dropping out and founding the computer trade show COMDEX. He has since amassed a lucrative gaming empire. Adelson purchased the Sands in 1988, but destroyed it to build the Venetian and Palazio hotels--as well as Sands Expo, the second largest convention center in the world with over 2 million square feet of show floor and meeting space. Until recently, he was ranked as Forbes’ third-wealthiest American, but lost the title in 2008--along with 90 percent of his fortune during the financial crash. “So I lost $25 billion. I started out with zero,” the still-billionaire told the Wall Street Journal in 2010.
Steve Wynn is one of the few businessmen in Las Vegas who can say that he actually got his start in the gaming business. Wynn took over his family’s Maryland bingo parlor, where he presumably learned the skills that would help him jumpstart a resurgence of dilapidated Las Vegas hotels in 1989. Rather than bulldoze city landmarks like the Mirage and Belagio hotels, Wynn developed and expanded the iconic resorts. He also financed the Treasure Island resort, which began as an extension of the Mirage, and in it established the first permanent booking of Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.
Tony Hsieh may be the odd man out in Las Vegas’s entrepreneurial history. For one thing, the Zappos CEO doesn’t operate a casino--though he does own one. Hsieh scandalized Las Vegas in April when he purchased the Gold Spike casino in downtown, and promptly announced that he did not plan to re-open it as a gambling venue. Instead, Hsieh’s Downtown Project is investing $350 million to revitalize the area with new small businesses, start-ups, entertainment, and real estate.
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