How Howard Hughes Changed Las Vegas Forever

Reflecting on the billionaire's arrival and its city-altering effects.

Howard Hughes | Photo courtesy of UNLV Special Collections

Howard Hughes | Photo courtesy of UNLV Special Collections

As we recover from Thanksgiving, it is worthwhile to look back on a Turkey Day weekend in 1966 that changed Las Vegas profoundly.

At that time, 360,000 U.S. servicemen and women celebrated the holiday in Vietnam, while newspapers reported protests in the United States against the war—protests that would grow as the decade turned more tumultuous.

That unrest was echoed in Las Vegas, too. The Justice Department was calling for a grand jury investigation into skimming in Las Vegas casinos, which could potentially bring federal intervention into the industry that was the state’s primary economic mover. Although Governor Grant Sawyer had promised to fully aid the feds in the investigation, this could have had detrimental consequences on the state.

For the weekend, though, it was business as usual. That Friday, 5,000 doctors arrived for an American Medical Association convention. Don Rickles could be seen at the Sahara’s Casbar lounge. And a young stand-up comedian named Woody Allen made his Las Vegas debut at Caesars Palace’s Circus Maximus showroom.

Down the boulevard at the Desert Inn, a guest who would change Las Vegas forever checked in—Howard Hughes.

Hughes had been to Las Vegas before. More than a decade earlier, he had begun leasing the “Green House” adjacent to television station KLAS. But this time, he was coming to the city on a more permanent basis. Fed up with Hollywood and seeking a new home, Hughes requested to rent an entire floor of the Dunes—and was turned down. Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun persuaded Moe Dalitz to let Hughes rent the entire eighth and ninth floors of the Desert Inn’s new St. Andrews tower.

Early on that post-Thanksgiving Sunday, the reclusive billionaire was taken from his train in North Las Vegas, ferried via ambulance to the Desert Inn and whisked to his top-floor suite. Hughes would reportedly stay in that suite for the next four years (before an equally clandestine exit), buying several Nevada enterprises, including six Las Vegas casinos.

The eccentric Hughes would, in a way, mitigate the problem that was bedeviling his contemporary Las Vegas casino moguls. His purchases heralded an influx of “legitimate” capital that would diminish the influence of organized crime in Las Vegas casinos. By the time of his departure in 1970, Hughes had on his payroll more than 80,000 Nevadans, making him the state’s largest employer. Governor Paul Laxalt declared that Hughes’ investments had given the state “a Good Housekeeping stamp of approval,” encouraging the influx of corporate capital and management. The rest, as they say, is history.

But what if Greenspun hadn’t convinced Dalitz to take in Hughes? Even though the town was entering a slack season, blocking off a chunk of your best accommodations for a guest who wouldn’t be gambling wasn’t the most intuitive casino-management decision. What if Hughes couldn’t find rooms in Las Vegas, and he ended up in, say, Palm Springs, instead?

Much of Hughes’ impact on Las Vegas has remained: The land that is now Summerlin was originally purchased by Hughes in the early 1950s. And the move toward mainstream capital—and corporate owners—was already under way by the time Hughes arrived. He probably accelerated that change; putting the Desert Inn, Sands, Frontier, Silver Slipper, Castaways and Landmark under his banner undoubtedly made it easier for others to invest in Las Vegas. But that investment had already started with Del Webb and was surely going to continue.

So, in the big picture, we might have ended up roughly where we are today if Hughes hadn’t landed here on that fateful Thanksgiving weekend, though Las Vegas would have lost one of its most colorful characters.

Editor’s Note: In a previous version of this story, it stated that Robert Laxalt was the governor of Nevada. 

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