When Kirk Kerkorian died June 15 at the age of 98, Las Vegas didn’t just lose a visionary whose fingerprints are all over the city’s most recognizable chunk of real estate. It lost a man whose accomplishments will almost certainly never again be equaled by a single person.
Kerkorian built the world’s biggest hotel-casino three times: the International in 1969; the original MGM Grand in 1973; and the current MGM Grand in 1993; he built CityCenter, the ambitious $8.5 billion development that pushed the envelope of Strip construction; and, through his acquisitions and real estate holdings, he has a connection to just about every property on the Strip today.
Kerkorian established a presence in Las Vegas as a minor investor in the Dunes, but made his first real mark on the city when he bought a parcel of land across from the Flamingo. In 1964, Jay Sarno—then an Atlanta-based hotel developer who had never built a casino and had secured only half of his financing—won Kerkorian over to the possibilities of Caesars Palace, and Kerkorian agreed to allow Sarno to build on his land. Had Kerkorian been more risk-averse, he might have rebuffed Sarno, and quite possibly Sarno would have decided that Las Vegas was too tough a nut to crack before returning to hotel developments elsewhere. Had Kerkorian not rolled the dice and believed in Sarno’s wild vision, Las Vegas might never have had Caesars Palace or Circus Circus.
Intrigued by the possibilities of owning his own hotel-casino, Kerkorian sold the land under Caesars Palace and decided to reinvest the profits about a mile to the east. Working with architect Martin Stern, Kerkorian in 1967 conceived the International, which opened two years later with 1,512 rooms, more than any hotel in the world. Kerkorian’s creation proved to be the model for the next generation of casino-resort development—not just in Las Vegas, but across the world. To train staff for his mega-size property, Kerkorian bought the Flamingo, where he began a renovation that modernized the 1946 casino and laid the groundwork for its later expansion.
After selling the International and Flamingo to Hilton Hotels—one of the first deployments of corporate capital in Las Vegas—Kerkorian conceived and constructed the original MGM Grand at the corner of Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard. With his 2,084-room wonder, Kerkorian once again was in possession of the world’s largest hotel. After selling the property (and the MGM Grand Reno) to Bally’s in 1985, Kerkorian bought both the Sands and Desert Inn. He would sell the former to Sheldon Adelson (which paved the way for the Venetian), and the latter was eventually sold to Steve Wynn (who replaced the DI with Wynn Las Vegas, but only after Kerkorian bought Wynn’s Mirage Resorts in 2000).
Kerkorian most impressive masterpiece arrived in 1993 in the form of the current MGM Grand with its more than 5,000 rooms—again, the world’s largest hotel at the time. Four years later, he provided the land for New York-New York, which his company would acquire outright in 1999. The merger with Mirage Resorts added The Mirage, Treasure Island, Bellagio, Golden Nugget (both Downtown and in Laughlin) and Boardwalk casinos to Kerkorian’s holdings; the 2005 acquisition of the Mandalay Resort Group added the Monte Carlo, Circus Circus, Excalibur, Luxor and Mandalay Bay to MGM’s portfolio, setting the stage for the development of CityCenter, perhaps the most expensive and ambitious project yet conceived on the Strip.
Under Kerkorian’s leadership, MGM Resorts became one of the largest gaming operators in the world, with a truly global reach. But his ultimate legacy? It might be the buildings constructed with his financing—buildings that pushed the boundaries of just how big a casino-resort could be. Or it might be the thousands of jobs that he created. Or the hundreds of millions of dollars he donated to a variety of educational and philanthropic causes.
Or maybe his legacy is something even more important than all that. When Kerkorian started building in Las Vegas, Howard Hughes was making headlines through his purchases of the Desert Inn, Sands, Silver Slipper, Frontier, Castaways and the unfinished Landmark. Hughes’ arrival was hailed as bringing much-needed respectability to Las Vegas. Kerkorian, though, brought something more important: the ability to think big, which was no small feat for what was then an undersize desert town. In doing so, Kerkorian—who not only thought big, but followed through—changed the tourist corridor far more than Hughes ever did.
Today we take for granted that Las Vegas has 11 of the world’s 20 biggest hotels, seven out of the nation’s 10 most profitable nightclubs and eight of the nation’s 20 biggest trade shows. Without Kerkorian’s unique vision, those superlatives wouldn’t be possible.
Indeed, anyone who has enjoyed visiting or living in this city owes Kirk Kerkorian a debt of gratitude, for without him Las Vegas would be much smaller—in more than just room count.