The Conjuring of The Mirage

25 years ago, Steve Wynn was busily creating a new kind of resort. This is the tale of the alchemy–and the crazy risk–that changed the Strip forever.

20140501_coverOne night in May 1985, the architect Joel Bergman was on his way from Atlantic City to Las Vegas to work on the expansion of the Golden Nugget’s South Tower. When he landed for a layover in St. Louis, he was handed an urgent message from his boss, Steve Wynn: Forget Las Vegas and head immediately to an address in rural North Carolina. TWA staff had already booked the flight and a rental car.

At about 2 a.m., Bergman—who led Atlandia, the Nugget’s in-house design firm—finally arrived at the right condo in an under-construction country club subdivision. Wynn was still up when he got there, waiting for him.

“Joel,” Wynn said, “Let me tell you about the wonderful place we’re going to build in Las Vegas.”

Bergman listened for what felt like minutes but might have been hours as Wynn described the enormous but intimate resort he saw rising on the Strip.

Wynn was a Las Vegas upstart. His publicly traded company owned casinos in Atlantic City and Downtown Las Vegas, but it didn’t have the presence of giants like Hilton or Caesars World. To everyday Las Vegans, he was the slightly self-deprecating guy in the Nugget commercial with Frank Sinatra. (Frank to Steve: “You see I get enough towels.”) But he was already much more: Through Wall Street maverick Michael Milken, Wynn had been able to get funding for Atlantic City and a series of expansions at the Golden Nugget. And he’d delivered on every promise he’d made. But the men behind the giants didn’t think he was close to being ready for the big sandbox on the Boulevard.

The next morning, Wynn went out to play golf with his hosts. Bergman, whose drawing materials were waiting for him in Las Vegas, went out to find a drafting supply company. He returned, weighed down with more tracing paper and pens than anyone could use in a month.

Hours later, with “the first semblance of a plan,” he joined Wynn for dinner. They talked over the sketches, then Bergman started on a second plan. Five days later, he and Wynn boarded a plane headed back to Las Vegas, with a ready-to-build “Scheme 5.”

Scheme 5 had evolved into Scheme 6 by the time they’d landed at McCarran International Airport.

Bergman and the Atlandia design team—which included DeRuyter Butler,  interior-design specialists Roger Thomas and Henry Conversano, landscape architect Don Brinkerhoff and others—worked on the ensuing schemes in a makeshift office in the Golden Nugget’s South Tower.

Four years later, Sierra Construction and Marnell Corrao put the finishing touches on Scheme 27. The Mirage was complete, and Las Vegas would never be the same again. This is the story of how, 25 years ago, Wynn and his partners pulled it off.

*****

Today, conventional wisdom seems to tell us that before The Mirage, the Strip was sapped of energy and imagination, looking for a savior, a visionary who would point the way forward.

In fact, the opposite was true. After weathering the early-1980s recession, the casino industry had retooled, focusing tightly on the mass market and the bottom line. It was as profitable as ever, and with things stable on the homefront, the big operators were eyeing expansion into other markets. The Strip was working just fine, so why bother building something better there?

The Hilton had a strong convention base. Bally’s, which had just been sold by MGM, focused on entertainment and “asses in beds,” high occupancy from travel and tourism groups who bet small but consistently. The Flamingo was a massive slot joint. The chief exception to the predominant grind philosophy, Caesars Palace, had locked up most of the city’s high-end play, with strong premium convention sales. Wynn studied them all and decided the only way to beat them was to mash them up.

“I made an amalgam,” Wynn says. “I built a lot of rooms just like the Flamingo’s—a three-star room, with a tub/shower combination in a 60-square-foot bathroom. But I built five floors of suites on the top. If you look at The Mirage you can see the break in the building. The top is gold and the bottom is striped. And then I built some lanais and villas in the back. And what I did was I combined the Hilton, Caesars and Flamingo programs, with lots of convention space.”

Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau

Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau

A few other elements—such as the soaring atrium—evolved from earlier designs for a project in Atlantic City’s marina district that the company abandoned in February 1985. But the basic design had already been seen in Las Vegas: a low-rise component, housing the casino, dining, entertainment and retail; and a high-rise tower with hotel rooms. The tri-form hotel tower had been first demonstrated in Las Vegas by Martin Stern Jr.—with assistance from Joel Bergman—at Kirk Kerkorian’s International, which had since become the Hilton.

The scale of The Mirage, though—at more than 3,000 rooms—was unprecedented, as was the focus on nongaming amenities. How could you expect a return on your investment in an indoor tropical rain forest? This ambition verging on hubris, the Strip establishment believed, would be Wynn’s downfall.

“Risk and being new was not on anybody’s radar,” recalls Bobby Baldwin, whom Wynn transferred from his role as president of the Golden Nugget to helm development and ultimately operations on the Strip. “The Mirage was as foreign to that environment in the mid-1980s as was Jay Sarno in the early 1960s with his concept for Caesars Palace. Everybody was fat and happy on the Las Vegas Strip. There was no invitation for anyone else to join the game. And certainly, they didn’t think that anyone like Steve Wynn was up to the challenge.”

Wynn had one advantage over his detractors: While many of them disdained the nuts and bolts of casino design, Wynn lived and breathed it. He was intimately involved with the design process—not to micromanage the team, but to provoke and inspire them.

“He created creativity,” Bergman recalls. “I can’t put it any other way. He has an insatiable work ethic. We had a ton of talent, and he brought it out in everyone. It was a fun project. There were moments, of course, where we struggled with the look of the building. The tower, for instance—we weren’t sure what we were going to have there. We built 50 different study models, then it fell into place.”

All along, Wynn was there, asking questions and sometimes offering answers. His own forte was space planning: What did the guest see when he arrived? How long could it take to get him where he wanted to go? Most important, how could he get there without getting frustrated?

The creative process was casual, with few set rules, but everyone knew that their boss wouldn’t tolerate anything less than excellence. Bergman is today philosophical about working so closely with the notoriously hard-driving Wynn on a project with such high stakes.

“Some days I was Michelangelo,” he says with a shrug. “Some days I was the worst excuse for a draftsman that ever lived.”

Wynn had them systematically work out each idea. That meant a lot of false starts, but allowed plenty of room for discovery.

“Designing The Mirage took one year of R & D and three years of further development,” Wynn says. “Nothing was conceived in one brilliant stroke. It was done an inch at a time, step by step. If every idea we explored was reduced to paper, it would fill a warehouse.”

In the meantime, Bergman was balancing Wynn’s ideas with feedback from Baldwin, who let the team know what customers would demand when operations began: essential details such as how many four-seat and two-seat tables a 400-seat restaurant needed to run optimally; how many double-double rooms and king rooms the hotel needed—all the little details that can frustrate a guest and require costly renovations after the fact.

“The architect needs me to tell him these things,” Baldwin says. “Because he’s not operating the hotel, I am. So we all had to make sure that what they were doing fit the needs of the customer.”

“Everybody contributed,” Wynn says. “As the quarterback, you call the plays, but you have wide receivers and running backs. I’d come up with the concept and do a basic drawing with Joel and DeRuyter, put the idea in front of the posse, and think about it, manipulate it and understand it better. Discussion is about ideas first, never material. If you’ve got an idea, you’ve got your feet on the ground. With a good idea, you’re already 70 percent successful.”

In early 1987, Wynn sold the Golden Nugget Atlantic City to Bally Manufacturing, plowing the proceeds of the sale into buying land on the Strip for his developing idea and a stock repurchase. Although he still had 14 acres of Atlantic City land mothballed for potential development, he was making the bet of his life on Las Vegas Boulevard.

*****

Siegfried and Roy at the Mirage's grand opening in 1989 | All Photo Courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau

Siegfried and Roy at the Mirage’s grand opening in 1989 | Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau

On May 27, 1987, Wynn formally announced that he was going to build the world’s largest private hotel. He already had a theme (South Seas) and entertainment (Siegfried & Roy, who had been inked to a five-year, $57 million contract).

But he didn’t have a name. At the time, it was simply the “Golden Nugget Strip Hotel,” and the color scheme jibed with the company’s established white-and-gold palette.

“We cannot make up our mind about the damn name,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and this was true. There were plenty of names kicked around, some of them good, but none of them distinctive. Even “Wynn” was floated as the name, but as Bergman recalls, “Steve wasn’t ready for that yet.” So it remained, for the time being, a half-billion-dollar development without a name.

Construction started that November. The Castaways, which occupied part of the 86-acre plot that Golden Nugget had bought from Summa Corp., had closed in the summer.

It wasn’t the best time to borrow money for an expensive project. On Black Monday, October 19, stock exchanges around the world had crashed; the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than one-fifth of its value. Some economists predicted the start of another depression and, with investor confidence shaken, many companies, including Golden Nugget, saw their stock prices wiped out. With its unprecedented scale, The Mirage suddenly seemed dangerously risky.

“This was the first time 3,000 rooms had been done at once. The bill, right out of the chute, was $600 million,” Wynn says. “This was a $200 million town. So we’re talking orders of magnitude more than had ever been invested. The biggest challenge was to get credibility on this issue.”

“When we started building,” Baldwin recalls, “we got up to the eighth floor and we were out of money. We brought two touring buses full of investors. Steve took one bus, and I took the other.”

With the construction site as the backdrop, Wynn and Baldwin walked the investors through every detail of the resort’s design and operation.

“If we hadn’t gotten that money, construction would have stopped,” Baldwin says flatly. “But Drexel Burnham Lambert and Mike Milken and Steve pulled it off. We got $515 million in five different bond structures, with different terms and maturity dates.”

The financial challenges, though, had a healthy effect on the resort’s design.

“We wanted to be the most efficient place on the Strip,” Baldwin says, “because we were getting a lot of heat from the rest of the world. I forecast our daily expenses as $1.1 million, and no one was close to that. We had to be efficient to keep the confidence of the bond holders.”

So the team designed one large central kitchen so that dishwashing and other functions could be shared. And it made sure that everything clicked. Uniform control and the staff dining room were positioned so that employees could get to and from their jobs as quickly as possible. The drive for efficiency dovetailed with Wynn’s obsession with designing an easy-to-navigate casino floor: A guest who can quickly get to his dining reservation or the blackjack table is more lucrative than one who is lost in a labyrinthine resort.

Meanwhile, there was a degree of improvisation during the construction process. Wynn and his team responded to the design as it evolved, making changes that felt necessary—or that simply felt right. The casino floor, for example, was originally 80,000 square feet. In the fall of 1988, Wynn and Baldwin decided to enlarge it to 100,000 square feet. With so much on the line, “less” was no longer an option.

*****

By that time, the hotel finally had a name. They all agreed that they needed something that evoked an exotic locale, but wasn’t too specific or too hard to pronounce. As a South Seas oasis in the middle of a desert, “Mirage” seemed just about perfect. There was one problem: the La Mirage motel, on the south end of Las Vegas Boulevard. After some haggling, Wynn came to terms with the owners: The Rosoff family renamed its property the Glass Pool Inn, and Golden Nugget got the rights to The Mirage, free and clear.

Many of the elements that are considered essential to The Mirage—the things that we believe made it so different—came relatively late in the process. Under a less flexible chief designer, they might never have seen the light of day. But Wynn kept the questions flowing—and was ready to hear fresh answers.

The lobby aquarium, for example, was the inspiration of Henry Conversano, who thought a 60-foot tank behind the reception desk would both soothe and distract guests while they waited in line to check in, addressing an abiding problem on the Strip.

“After 32 years in the business, I still can’t eliminate that front-desk line,” Baldwin says. “I can make the line go quicker, make it a softer experience, but I can’t eliminate it.”

Wynn tasked Baldwin with learning how to actually build the tank. At the time, polymer in the required seven-inch thickness couldn’t be produced in sections longer than 20 feet. Baldwin bought two 20-foot pieces and joined them with a seam, then tacked two 10-footers with walls on each side. That tank tells a little bit of the story of The Mirage’s charmed life.

“They would warranty that seam for eight years,” Baldwin says. “That tank’s been there for 25 years now, and it’s never going to fall apart.”

Chris Hemmeter, a developer with extensive work in Hawaii, introduced Wynn to the possibility of dolphins as an attraction; thus was born the dolphin habitat. Containing 1.5 million gallons of water and six bottlenose dolphins, the habitat was intended to both entertain and educate. By opening day, a complete marine-biology curriculum had been created and distributed to Clark County schools.

*****

A resort with aspirations to be like no other has to have a spectacular street presence, an invitation that says, “If you think this is amazing, wait until you’re inside.” Jay Sarno had understood this in the mid-1960s, when he adorned the driveway to Caesars Palace with fountains that rivaled those at Versailles.

The Mirage’s initial invitation on the Strip was 4 acres of lagoons and lush landscaping surrounding a 40-foot waterfall. It seemed like enough: Driving by, travelers would see the green-and-blue hues of a tropical oasis; walking by, they would hear the falling water and be transported to a cool paradise. There were no complications with the waterfall’s concept or the execution. Wynn was happy with it, the hotel was less than a year away from opening, and there were plenty of other essential design and construction issues to worry about, with the budget always looming large.

Most CEOs under that kind of pressure, when asked to tinker with something so non-problematic would reply with something unprintable. But David Hersey, the Tony Award-winning lighting designer whom Wynn had hired to light his hotel’s exterior, had an idea. And Wynn listened.

Hersey: What about a volcano? Erupting on cue, right there on the Strip? Wouldn’t that turn heads?

That Hersey, who had not previously lit a hotel, was even working on The Mirage was an indication of Wynn’s eye for talent. “He’d done Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows,” Wynn says, “and I knew I wanted it to be theatrical.”

So Wynn ordered Hersey to build a quarter-scale replica—which was still more than 10 feet high—on the extreme south end of the property at a cost of no more than $100,000. Hersey ultimately spent $1 million, but the volcano was amazing; this, Wynn knew, would be an invitation that no one could ignore. The full-size version went into immediate construction in the center of the lagoon.

Wynn kept the scale model where it was, placed a few dolphin statues in front and built a people mover next to it. Next time you are coming in from the sidewalk next to Caesars Palace, look to your left; the waterfall that tourists are posing for the camera in front of is that scale model, 25 years on.

*****

Even as the mirage inched toward completion in the summer of 1989, the rest of the Strip remained skeptical about the property’s chances. Even if they open, the conventional thinking went, they’ll be bankrupt in weeks. No one could cover a daily overhead of $1 million. The skepticism, in turn, bred a certain amount of complacency, which Wynn and his upstarts swiftly exploited.

“In one 10-week period, I stole from Caesars the head of Latin marketing, the head of Asian marketing, the head of convention sales, the baccarat boss, the chief financial officer—who knew how to collect in Asia—the head of all special events, and the head of domestic marketing,” Wynn says.

“One of them told me that when our building was topped out, his boss looked out a window toward The Mirage and said, ‘They’ll never open.’”

As everyone knew from the start, building the resort wasn’t the hardest part: staffing was. Wynn reached out to Arte Nathan, who’d been in charge of personnel in Atlantic City since 1982, to handle this crucial task. Nathan, along with Baldwin and Doug Pool, vice president of finance, was one of the first three operations staff for the new project. Together, they had to actually open the massive resort Wynn had proposed.

Baldwin, Pool and Nathan spent nearly a year visiting 250 companies in hospitality, dining, manufacturing and other fields who’d recently opened something—anything. “We asked them three things,” Nathan remembers. “Tell us what you did that was such a good idea you’d do it again. Tell us what you did that was such a terrible idea you’d never do it again. Tell us what you didn’t do that in hindsight you wish you had.”

They ended up with more than 3,000 pages of notes, which they distilled into a presentation for the board that passed muster and informed all of their subsequent work.

Nathan, Baldwin and Pool then put together a timeline, with more than 800 essential tasks running down the left-hand column and 365 days across the top. The timeline took up an entire hallway at the Golden Nugget, but it gave them a plan.

Baldwin was responsible for all aspects of the project: construction, human resources, financing and operations all reported to him. Pool was charged with monitoring their progress, making sure that everything was reduced to numbers and checked against the plan, as well as making sure that all the right questions were being asked. Nathan had the small job of hiring and training the 5,000 employees The Mirage would need.

“We had 134 departments and 650 job titles,” Nathan says. “And we needed consistency across all of them: Front desk, bellman, housekeeper, food service, books, valet parkers. They all are choreographed. They have to not just do their own jobs, but intersect with other departments. Try standing in the middle of the casino for a few minutes watching the employees, and you’ll get a sense of how complicated it is.”

Nathan’s new headquarters, a renovated building on Industrial Road, was configured to accommodate 500 job-seekers at a time. When Nathan arrived the first morning, he saw 5,000 applicants waiting in line. Ultimately, he would accept 55,000 applications, raising yet another challenge—how to screen them all.

“There’s one immutable skill that no one can ever teach you: Everyone in the hospitality business is interrupted innumerable times during the day. You need the people,” Nathan says, “who are happy with the interruption. You can’t teach that.”

So Nathan devised the handshake test.

Walking through the room, he’d offer a hand. Those who stopped what they were doing to respond, quickly, passed. “You can’t fake it—you do it even before you think about it. Those are the people we wanted,” Nathan says.

The hotel was getting close to opening, good workers were coming on board, and everything was falling into place—almost.

“For some reason,” Baldwin says, “I missed the fact that Caesars had some good high-limit areas, so at the 11th  hour we tore out some offices and made a high-limit room.” Located behind the casino’s central cage, this was one of the project’s few misfires.

“The baccarat room,” Baldwin continues, “was beautiful. It had the most beautiful giant orchids in a blue carpet you’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, when we put the baccarat tables in they covered the orchids. And we discovered that these gamblers don’t like to be spectacles. We had circulation on both sides of that room. They really need to be in a place all by themselves, where they are enclosed on at least three sides. So we had to fix that right away.”

Now all Wynn had to do was find the right way to tell the public about his soon-to-be-unveiled masterpiece. But that required another late fix.

Wynn and his wife, Elaine, had hired a well-known Los Angeles-based firm to manage public relations, but by late September they’d realized that it wasn’t working out—the group just didn’t “get” the Wynns’ vision. So they invited a team from the Los Angeles office of communications giant Hill & Knowlton to the Golden Nugget for an interview. That team included Alan Feldman, a Southern California native who had no affection for Las Vegas. Flying up that morning, Feldman planned to return early that afternoon.

“I don’t know what I expected,” Feldman recalls, “but here was this guy in an impeccably tailored blue suit, next to Elaine, who was that day and still is incredibly beautiful and elegant. And we ended up spending six hours together as Steve described, in very specific ways, a Las Vegas that I didn’t know existed, and which in fact didn’t exist yet.”

When they returned to Los Angeles that night, the Hill & Knowlton team, under the direction of Los Angeles general manager Ron Hartwig, started writing up the plan for an opening that would take place in less than eight weeks.

That Friday, September 29, Feldman joined Wynn’s daughter Kevyn for his first tour of the property and learned that his new client had big news to share with the world: The Mirage had finally received approval to keep dolphins in the planned habitat—the result of months of administrative and regulatory wrangling. Wynn wanted a press conference. Now. Working without a press list, Feldman assembled representatives of the three local television stations, two daily newspapers and two wire services.

“This was when I learned about Steve’s ability to talk to the public,” Feldman recalls. “He walked in with no notes and spoke for 15 minutes about the historical context of the decision, why it mattered, and thanked those responsible by name before taking questions.”

Feldman was wowed by his new client from the start. “The moment I walked into The Mirage, I could see it was different,” he says. “And you have to remember, I didn’t like Las Vegas, so I was a proxy for all the haters out there. Even incomplete, it was something special. I knew he had something there.”

It was hard to communicate just what Wynn had, because he insisted—above the vociferous objections of seasoned public relations hands at Hill & Knowlton—that no media tours or images be released until the opening. His reasoning was that impressions of an unfinished property would deflate the expectations. With the media clamoring for proof that the resort really would deliver, it was a gamble.

At The Mirage’s October licensing hearing before the Gaming Commission, the commissioners didn’t ask many questions; they simply let Wynn talk. His 15-minute monologue ranged from the current state of Las Vegas (“more high-rollers than ever before”) to the unprecedented size and scale of The Mirage’s construction. This was more than a business development for Wynn—it was the work of his lifetime.

“How many people,” he asked his audience, “get the chance to do their dream at the perfect time, in the perfect place, and without compromise?”

A few minutes later, the Commission unanimously voted to license The Mirage.

In less than four weeks, the resort would be open.

*****

Now came crunch time. Nathan put into practice what he describes as “an educator’s dream—probably the largest company-training program at that time.” He was committed to thoroughly training all employees to not just do their specific tasks—dealing cards or washing dishes—but train them to do it to precise Mirage standards. The number of employees they’d need ballooned to 6,200, as it became clear just how hard they would have to work to maintain the promised level of service.

Three weeks out, the longest-lead employees—those working with computers—started training. About a week later, the bulk of the nongaming employees started. Nathan and his team had to teach them how to do their jobs, as well as how to navigate the massive property. About three days before play dates, the dealers, who already knew their jobs, reported.

Then came opening day, November 22: No time now for nerves or second-guessing.

The grand opening | Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau

The grand opening | Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau

“By that point, everything is set, everybody is trained, has their uniforms, knows where to park, and we know how to feed them in the dining room,” says Baldwin, who subsequently opened Treasure Island, Bellagio and CityCenter. “You’re not frightened because you’ve done all the work. It’s just the anticipation of opening the door.”

Still, that morning, Wynn was expressing some doubts: What if no one showed up?

Two hours after the doors opened, more than 50,000 visitors had passed through, putting those doubts to rest. Still, they weren’t out of the woods.

“We had $17 million in the bank on opening day,” Baldwin recalls. “And it cost us $1.3 million a day to stay open, so we could run it for about two weeks if no one beat us. We were a little nervous about that.”

Within hours of the first cards being dealt, though, Baldwin was facing an unexpected issue.

“We ran out of change,” he recalls. “We had all the change booths we needed, but everybody was so excited they forgot to fill the carousels. That brought the slot department to a screeching halt. Steve wasn’t very happy with me about that, but we got them reloaded pretty quickly, even though we had to make a special run to the bank because the volume was so much bigger than we’d expected.”

For Baldwin and the operations crew, November 22 was just the start. But the design team kept busy, too. The Mirage was profitable from Day One, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be improved. Because the casino was so successful, in fact, Wynn and Baldwin had no trouble borrowing an additional $100 million a few months after opening. An additional dolphin pond ($8 million), a parking garage ($20 million) and eight additional villas ($32 million) soaked up some of that capital; other assorted improvements (such as a new baccarat room) quickly exhausted the rest.

But that wasn’t all. Wynn had already given Bergman and his team another challenge. “The day after The Mirage opened,” Bergman says, “we started working on what became Treasure Island. We never stopped.”

*****

Indeed, no one rested after The Mirage. Wynn went on to build Treasure Island and Bellagio on the Strip before selling Mirage Resorts to Kirk Kerkorian. He now helms Wynn Resorts and is currently designing a new Macau resort, among other projects. Bergman is chairman, CEO and design principal of Bergman Walls & Associates, where he continues to design casinos, including several expansions to Caesars Palace and ground-up projects across the country. Baldwin is chief design and construction officer for MGM Resorts International and president of CityCenter. Feldman is executive vice president of global government and industry affairs for MGM Resorts. And Arte Nathan, after a long career with Wynn, started teaching at UNLV last year, passing on his invaluable expertise to the next generation of hospitality leaders.

 But they all acknowledge The Mirage was special.

“We did everything right,” Bergman says. “It was that simple. Everything came together, and it was a perfect moment in time. And if we made a mistake, we fixed it.”

For Baldwin, there was a measure of vindication in the property’s success.

“Our competitors never even came to look at us until two years after it was open,” he says. “People who we hired from other properties said that the subject of The Mirage came up in meetings: ‘Don’t worry about The Mirage. Bobby’s a poker player. Steve’s a whatever, and neither of them have any money.’ They never considered us a threat until they read their profit-and-loss statement at the end of the year. We had taken most of their business.”

“The legacy of The Mirage,” says Feldman, who moved to the Valley and raised his family here, “was opening the public’s mind to a different definition of Las Vegas. Steve said that if the concept is right, others will follow—and they did.”

That concept—that you could build something in Las Vegas that went beyond gaming—was far beyond anything even Jay Sarno had conceived. It wasn’t just big, and it wasn’t just luxurious. “Everyone will recognize The Mirage as a special place: a resort-hotel which includes a casino, not a casino which includes a hotel,” Wynn said then. Today, after 16 new resorts ranging from Excalibur to the Cosmopolitan, that concept is the rule rather than the exception. Might Las Vegas have grown in the 1990s without Steve Wynn? It’s likely it would have, but it would probably have been along the lines of tower additions to the Dunes and Sands rather than new properties on the scale of Bellagio and the Venetian. The Mirage was responsible for shifting the boundaries of what was possible in Las Vegas; that opened the floodgates of capital that made possible the next decade of unprecedented growth throughout the Valley. It was important to Steve Wynn that gamblers and vacationers like his new joint; it was vital to Las Vegas that investment bankers like it.

“The revelation was,” Wynn says, “that you could spend a half-billion in Vegas and get return on your investment. No one had ever thought of the town in that scale. That was the importance of The Mirage.”

And yet for all of the casino’s public importance, the opening remains an undeniably personal moment for those who brought it to life.

“There are things that happen in any of our lives that remain current in our thinking,” says Nathan, slipping into the role of teacher. “The opening of The Mirage 25 years ago seems like it was just yesterday. It was such a big thing—and it made us.”

Wynn has changed the casino world’s direction more than once since, but he isn’t content. Just after a long interview about his first Strip triumph, he’s immediately back at it with his chief architect, DeRuyter Butler. With felt-tip pens, tracing paper and Wite-Out, they resume sketching a new resort in Macau, one they hope will distill all the lessons learned over the last three decades of trial and error into the perfect experience.

“I always want to do one more,” Wynn says, eyeing a blank sheet of paper. “Maybe this is the time I get it right.”

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topics: The Mirage
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