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THE MEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS

THE MEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS
by Byron Craft

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THE D.I.

The original 1960 Warner Bros. Pictures film, Oceans 11, included the Desert Inn as one of the five casinos to be hit in their heist.

It was a Paradise in Nevada…a hotel/casino that operated from April 1950, to August of 2000. This heaven on earth was designed by the noted New York architect Jac Lessman. It was the fifth resort to open on Highway 91, aka Las Vegas Boulevard, aka the Strip. The property included, to everyone’s delight, an 18-hole championship golf course. It was known as the Desert Inn. Locals nicknamed the resort “The D.I.” Prior to its re-naming it was originally called Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn.

The first hotels on the Las Vegas Strip were known by their famous and sometimes infamous names, such as the El Rancho Vegas, the Last Frontier and the Flamingo Hotel. Then along came a visionary, who, was once a hotel bellman, coupled with extensive life experiences and an uncanny sense of product branding, decided that his new hotel would be more. Thus, Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn was born and would become world famous, even long after Clark himself had joined the choir invisible.

Wilbur Clark was born on December 27, 1908, in Keyesport, Illinois, to Shirley and Lulu Clark. He received his elementary education in the Keyesport grammar school and although he began high school, he never completed his studies. Wilbur always had an interest in games of chance, he drifted West seeking to make a living in a field he enjoyed and believed held great opportunity for someone with his skills. At the age of 19 he hitchhiked to San Diego. On his way he stopped in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where he washed dishes for a café owner. When he left, the owner gave him a silver dollar and admonished him to keep it so he would never go broke.

Wilbur worked a series of gambling jobs in the 1930’s, some legal, some not, and worked as a bellman at the San Diego Knickerbocker Hotel. In 1931, he became a craps dealer at the Reno Nevada Bank Club. Learning the game as part of his on-the-job training, he eventually became one of the best craps players during that period. Wilbur became a shrewd and resourceful businessman with big dreams. Always the hustler, the gambler soon found himself owning 13 bars in the San Diego area. In 1938, he traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada, for the first time. Wilbur was not impressed with the small dusty railroad town.

In the six years that followed, Las Vegas became a rapidly developing city, thanks to World War II drawing down and the promise of prosperity on the horizon. When Wilbur Clark returned in 1944, he realized that the town offered more to dreamers like him. Wilbur also brought with him the concept that Highway 91 would have a lot to offer to tourists arriving by car from California. Wilbur also brought with him the love of his life…Toni. Lena Gaglionese, whom Wilbur later called “Toni” (because she, “looked more like a Toni than a Lena”) had emigrated from Naples, Italy, settling in Seattle, Washington, where she grew up. Toni left home for San Diego in 1941 and took a room at the Barbara Worth Hotel where she met Wilbur. It was love at first sight. The two were soon married. When Wilbur returned to Las Vegas, Toni accompanied him.

Tommy Hull was looking to move away from his partnership at the El Rancho Vegas, and Clark bought in, becoming a majority shareholder. He also invested in the Players Club. Clark soon learned that Fremont Street was also growing away from its community roots. It was restructuring itself to be a tourist destination, as well. Seizing the opportunity, he leased the old Northern Club from owner Mayme Stocker, and re-named it the Monte Carlo Club. Clark’s vision was to design and own a major resort on the Las Vegas Strip that would cater to high rollers and provide the best in entertainment. He knew that once WWII was over, that most Americans would want to resume traveling after years of rationing and supporting the war effort. He believed that this desert oasis would hold the future and that he would help build it. His castle in the oasis would become the Desert Inn, named after a hotel that he liked in Palm Springs, Calif. In 1945, he bought the land across the highway from the Last Frontier and in 1946, he sold his share in the El Rancho Vegas for $1.5 million.

By 1946, the Strip was showing growing pains. Billy Wilkerson and his partner, Benjamin Siegel, were building (and fighting over) the Flamingo, and Cliff Jones and Marion Hicks were planning to build The Thunderbird. Construction began on Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn in 1947. However, Clark was soon short of funds due to the high costs of building materials and construction costs in the Post-War era. Wilkerson and Siegel had the same problem, but Siegel was able to talk his East Coast friends, such as Meyer Lansky and others, to help foot the bill. Clark was forced to stop construction, and the partially built resort sat vacant and incomplete. Locals would ride their horses out to the property to see if Clark had gotten lucky and started back up. As the months dragged on, the Desert Inn turned into “Clark’s Folly” and became the butt of jokes told around town.

In December 1946, Siegel, having muscled out partner Billy Wilkerson, debuted the Fabulous Flamingo and laid claim to opening the first modern hotel in Post-War Las Vegas.

Wilbur Clark realized that his dream resort would not become a reality without help. He approached Moe Dalitz and a group of investors that included Morris Kleinman, Sam Tucker and Tom McGinty. They were from Cleveland. They were part of the Mayfield Road Gang and all had bootlegging and gambling experience. Clark sold them 75% of his interest in return for the funds to finish the hotel and construction started back up in 1949. The native stone on the exterior of the resort was a clean-lined modern design that gave one the impression that it was half ranch house and half nightclub. The fanciful neon sign featured a saguaro cactus, a species not found in Southern Nevada but in Arizona, “although it was a pretty cactus,” Wilbur once commented. Wilbur Clark and Moe Dalitz wanted more glamour than old west charm. They had their architects travel around the country to different resorts to get ideas. Clark was particularly fond of the Desert Inn Hotel in Palm Springs with its Spanish-style bungalows, heavy beamed ceilings and thick adobe walls. Dalitz insisted that they visit the Beverly Hills Club near Cincinnati, to see how a real casino operated. It catered to a well-heeled crowd and offered a spacious dining room, a lavish showroom, and casino. In Cincinnati, Ohio, the casino had to be well-hidden, because gambling was illegal. In Las Vegas, the casino could be front and center. Clark and Dalitz’ ideas were incorporated into the design features of the Desert Inn, and in doing so, raised the bar even higher than Bugsy Siegel had with his Fabulous Flamingo.

Wilbur Clark continued to travel, always on the lookout for new ideas. After a trip to San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Hotel with its Top of the Mark lounge, Clark returned wanting a similar lounge for the Desert Inn. Thus, the Sky Room was born. The three-story tower dominated the facade of the new hotel and was, for awhile, the tallest building on the Strip. Glass enclosures on three sides, the lounge was reminiscent of an airport traffic control tower. From above, the surrounding desert and mountains were clearly visible at all times. At night, tiny electric stars twinkled in the ceiling of the lounge, making it seem at one with the desert. The twinkling sky at night gave patrons the feeling of floating in the sky, “Meet me at the Sky Room” became a popular saying around town. The twinkling Sky Room looked down upon the “Dancing Waters” which were a series of rising and falling fountains in a figure eight shaped pool that moved in rhythm to pre-recorded music and were lit by colored lights.

Wilbur Clark did not have controlling interest in the hotel any longer, but he was determined to have his name attached to the hotel. He and his wife Toni, along with a small group of friends, had lived in a small motel while Clark had searched for the financing to complete his dream. His friends would visit the site regularly and give Clark pep talks that kept him going. They celebrated holidays, birthdays and anniversaries in that small hotel, never letting Clark give up on his dream.

At the entrance to the resort was an old-fashioned ranch sign that said “Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn” across the top. A circular drive led up to the entrance, which was a long porch lined with pillars and chaise lounges. In the middle of the lawn was a fountain that sprayed water sixty feet into the air. The hotel wings were interspersed around the pool patio with the parking lots behind the main building. The majority of the clientele came by automobile. Redwood was used throughout the interior and the floors were flagstone. The entire resort was air-conditioned with individual thermostats in each room; a new innovation at the time.

After four years in the making, Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn opened on April 24th, 1950, at the cost of $4.5 million. It sported 229 rooms. The New Yorker magazine called it a “moderately gigantic temple of chance.” Wilbur Clark’s dream of a chic resort and a glamorous Mecca for the rich and famous was finally a reality. Flowers were everywhere, even around the figure eight-shaped pool. Clark, himself, stood in the middle of the lobby, greeting guests and passing out flowers from a large Joshua tree that had been placed in the lobby. Entertainment was provided by Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Vivian Blaine, the Donn Arden Dancers, and the Desert Inn Orchestra conducted by Ray Noble. Clark’s publicity director sent invitations to all the major newspapers and magazines. Their budget for transportation and lodging of the media guests was over five thousand dollars. Clark also sent out 150 invitations to VIPs he knew personally and who each had a ten thousand dollar credit limit. Dalitz and his crew also sent out personal invitations to the grand opening. A chef from the renowned Ritz Hotel in Paris oversaw the Gourmet Room. Allard Rosen, who worked for Dalitz, managed the casino. Guests entered through a porch cast in shade. If they turned to the left, it would lead them to the Hotel Registration desk. Turning right would take them to the 80 x 60 foot windowless casino. The casino held five crap tables, three roulette wheels, four black jack tables and 75 slot machines. Sixty people worked in the casino, along with a full service race book.

Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn had two bars. There was a rawhide bar decorated with stylized steer heads and leather straps that dominated the Celebrity Room. The Lady Luck Bar, at 90 feet in length, was the longest bar in the state. It offered an innovative form of gambling embedded in the bar itself. Before each patron was a circle of numbers that resembled a roulette wheel. A corresponding roulette wheel was displayed in the center of the bar area near the wall located above a nude figure of Lady Luck. Every hour the wheel would spin and the patron whose light flashed would win the shower of silver dollars falling from the nude’s hands. In the hotel was a drugstore with a soda fountain, as well as dress shops, including Fanny’s, a well-known ladies shop in Las Vegas, owned by Fanny Voss, a good friend of Wilbur and Toni Clark. She was determined to help make their hotel a success. K-RAM radio broadcast from the grounds. In addition, there were apparel shops, curio shops, along with both a barber and a beauty shop. Clark was determined that his guests have all the comforts of home, and of course, have no need to leave the premises. Beyond the casino was the coffee shop, a dining room that overlooked the pool and the Painted Desert Room, the 450-seat showroom that displayed hand-painted murals. The Painted Desert Room laid claim to a “band car” that mechanically whisked the orchestra on and off the stage in one motion. The lighting was said to be soft and indirect. The lighting board for the stage performances cost thirty-five thousand dollars and tied into ten thousand different lighting effects.

In 1950, at the Desert Inn, a complete New York Steak dinner cost $5.75, while a hearty omelet and asparagus-tip breakfast was only $2.50. The turquoise blue figure eight pool was ringed by cabanas. Inner tubes had Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn embossed on them and at the north end of the pool was the Kachina Doll Ranch, a daycare center staffed by a psychologist. The daycare center had painted wall murals that taught lessons in manners and there was a playground adjacent to keep the kiddies occupied. The hotel rooms were all decorated in western motifs with individual touches. There were a series of “Hollywood Suites” which were spacious and lavish in design. These suites offered a large living room and two separate bedrooms, private showers and a patio. The room rates were a whopping $5.00 and up.

The famous neon sign was made of sheet metal and seemed to grow out of the tower it sat upon. In script it read, “Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn”. It was a real eye-catcher. The cloud shape on the sign was also captured in sheet metal and was said to poise with perfect artificiality against the real clouds and the real desert. At night it was outlined in neon. Clark used this imagery on everything from matchbooks to menus and souvenirs to help promote his hotel. It was a success from the beginning. The first week’s profits were reported to have been in excess of $750,000 and that was in 1950 dollars. By today’s dollars, it would be approximately $5,625,000 for one week’s profit. The Celebrity Room Bar was also very profitable at over $90,000 in that economy. The only part that didn’t seem to work was the dining room and showroom, which struggled with a $50,000 overhead. Clark was paying Edgar Bergen $25,000 a week to perform.

In 1951, Clark started to build a one million dollar, 165-acre, eighteen-hole golf course and country club. Locals again chimed in calling it “Wilbur’s Folly” and claimed that no one would want to play golf in the Nevada heat. Nevertheless by 1953, Wilbur Clark’s one-upmanship oozed profits again. He sponsored the Tournament of Champions, a professional charity golf event that brought golfers and celebrities from around the world to compete. In addition, it also brought high rollers to the hotel. Some of the proceeds went to the Damon Runyon Memorial Fund for Cancer Research, a charitable organization chaired by the then powerful Walter Winchell. Golfers such as Sam Snead, Cary Middlekopf, Julius Boros and Jimmy Demaret came out into the Nevada sunshine to participate. Pro golfer Al Besserlink won the first place prize of $10,000 by shooting a 280 over the 18-hole championship course. The prize money was awarded in silver dollars. The Tournament of Champions not only became a showcase for the Desert Inn, but for all of Las Vegas, as well. The Tournament was soon receiving extensive national television coverage and Las Vegas, as an extension, was getting national exposure.

Some of the performers over the years who would grace the Desert Inn were Ben Blue, the Ritz Brothers, Jimmy Durante, Pearl Bailey, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Betty Hutton, Noel Coward and Chico and Harpo Marx. The floor shows were designed and choreographed by Frank Sennes and Donn Arden. The D.I., as it was becoming known, attracted many famous celebrities. Perhaps it was the opulence, perhaps it was the service, maybe a bit of both. However, regular guests of that era included: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Winston Churchill, Adlai Stevenson, then U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and former President, Harry S. Truman.

When more hotels were being built on the Strip, they challenged the D.I.’s reputation of opulence and fine service. Even some of the existing hotel casinos ramped up their amenities in the heat of competition. The owners of the Desert Inn did what was necessary to keep up. When the D.I. had opened its large pool, the Last Frontier across the highway had filled in its old roadside pool and built a heated Olympian-size pool with a subsurface observation room at the deep end, along with a poolside bar. In the spirit of rivalry, the Desert Inn replaced their original pool with one even bigger, only to have The Sands (“A PLACE UNDER THE SUN”) create a lake-size swimming pool of free flow design large enough to float a cruiser. The Tropicana would ultimately counter with underwater Muzak.

A cloud appeared on the horizon during this legendary era of Las Vegas history. Senator Estes Kefauver, a progressive populist with his eye on the presidency, was investigating organized crime and its influence on America. His Senate hearings were televised and they became the rage. Kefauver was scheduled to conduct hearings in Las Vegas in 1950. Almost certain to be questioned were guys like Moe Dalitz. Senator Kefauver arrived in town on November 15, 1950. After six months of hearings, they became tired. Many of the high profile casino owners that they had subpoenaed, such as Dalitz, had left town rather than go before the committee. Kefauver and his committee of Democrats only interviewed six men before heading back out of town with their tails between their legs. Even though the Kefauver hearings had shed a light on illegal gambling and the organizations involved, scores of illegal operations that were going on throughout the country were closing down and moving to Nevada, especially Las Vegas, where they would not run afoul of the law as easily.

Wilbur Clark morphed into a spirited ambassador not only for the hotel that bore his name, but for the city of Las Vegas, as well. From his second story office that overlooked the pool, he became Sin City’s publicist on the radio, in newspapers, magazines, and on television, touting his love for his hotel and home. Wilbur and Toni Clark were one of the premiere couples in town. Invitations to their home for dinner and drinks were some of the most sought after. After years of living in a small motel while trying to finance and build his dream resort, Clark pulled out all the stops when he had his home on the golf course built. It had an early security camera. Guests would ring the doorbell and inside, Clark could see them on closed circuit television and talk to them. Clark also had a large indoor pool, a personal tanning bed and a workout room. The spacious living room had a fireplace in the middle to accommodate the entertaining that he and Toni were famous for. It was mid-century dream of a home with all the modern conveniences that money could afford.

Wilbur and Toni Clark traveled the world promoting Las Vegas and Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn Hotel and Casino.

In 1956, Wilbur Clark suffered a stroke. A harbinger, unfortunately, of things to come. The stroke forced Clark to slow down. He had to take a back seat to the running of the resort and he eventually sold his shares. Wilbur Clark died in 1965 of a heart attack. All of Las Vegas mourned the visionary’s death. Clark County officials renamed a stretch of the Desert Inn Super Arterial after Wilbur Clark. His notoriety was so great, that to this day, many believe that the county was named after Wilbur, but in fact, Clark County was named after Montana Senator William Andrews Clark. One obituary of the time gave a brief but apropos picture of his life: Wilbur Clark, bellhop to bonanza.

Wilbur’s death marked the end of an era. The following year, Howard Hughes would set up house on the upper floor of one of the hotel’s towers, and in 1967, he would buy the casino, the first of many of his Vegas acquisitions. Over the years, the D.I. would go through several incarnations. On April 24, 2000, the Desert Inn turned 50 years old. It had survived numerous renovations and numerous owners. There was a celebration with a full week of activities. There was a celebrity golf tournament with Susan Anton, Robert Loggia, Chris O’Donnell, Robert Urich, Vincent Van Patten, Tony Curtis, Rip Taylor, and various local dignitaries, celebrities, and media. A time capsule was buried in a custom-designed granite burial chamber on April 25, 2000, to be opened on April 25, 2050.

Steve Wynn purchased the property during the resort’s week-long 50th birthday celebration; he closed it several months later. Wynn imploded the D.I. in favor of yet another venture he called Wynn Las Vegas.

The era of Corporate America running Las Vegas had come into being. Longtime residents held onto the Desert Inn as all that had been good and right with Las Vegas before “the change.” Now with the D.I. being imploded, it was as if they had lost their talisman.

(Ed Sullivan and Red Skelton join Wilbur Clark for a round of golf
at Clark’s $1 million Desert Inn Golf Course and Country Club )
The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft
chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.

 

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