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Rod Smith

Hilton Has Rich History in Las Vegas

24 December 2003

LAS VEGAS -- For more than 34 years, the Las Vegan Hilton has been a Las Vegas landmark and an important part of the history of the casino capital of the world.

When it opened, it was ranked among the finest resorts in the world, hosting the world's top entertainers and attracting some of the richest high rollers.

"It was the first casino on our road to megaproperties to put us in the world's sights and we've continued from there," said University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor and casino industry expert Bill Thompson.

By the time the Mirage opened 20 years later, the casino-resort had lost its luster, featuring less-renowned entertainers and banking on a convention clientele.

In recent years, it has struggled to compete with its more glamorous neighbors and has failed to produce the profits owners and investors have expected.

"It's been a major player, but it's been in decline for the past 15 years, in the class of the Riviera and the Sahara while it was once first in its class," Thompson said.

Kirk Kerkorian originally built what some called his "mini-dream" on 64.5 acres of land on Paradise Road, next to the Las Vegas Convention Center. When it opened on July 5, 1969, the $60 million, 30-story, 1,519-room International was the largest resort in the world.

The hotel immediately earned its place as the home of legendary entertainment. Barbra Streisand was the featured performer at the opening gala and Elvis Presley made his famous Las Vegas comeback at the hotel during its opening month.

In 1970, Kerkorian sold the International, as well as the Flamingo on the Strip, to the Hilton Corp., using the money he made from the deal to build the MGM Grand.

This was Hilton's first venture into Nevada's gambling and resort business. It agreed to handle rooms, food and bar management at both resorts.

On Feb. 11, 1981, just 90 days after the devastating MGM Grand fire, a blaze started at the Las Vegas Hilton while it was being retrofitted with more modern fire safety equipment. Firefighters, using the knowledge they had learned from the MGM fire, used local television networks to notify people to stay in their rooms and not go out to the halls and stairwells. Because of the lessons learned, only eight people died in this fire compared with the 85 people who died in the MGM Grand fire.

In 1983, Hilton announced the building of the $15 million race and sports book which opened in the fall of 1986.

In 1988, the Hilton's showroom showcased "Elvis: An American Musical" starring Johnny Seaton, Julian Whitaker and Terry Mike Jeffrey. The musical was three years in the making and featured 48 of Presley's most remembered songs.

Following a long line of illustrious entertainers, Wayne Newton was the last entertainer to perform at the Hilton showroom, which closed in 1993 to become the home of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express."

The new Hilton Theatre was built specifically for the "Starlight Express." Hotel officials closed the showroom for more than two months, and after gutting it, spent $12 million to create a 1,600-seat oval room with ramps, raceways, embankments and a balcony.

In 1995, Hilton finished spending $30 million to create new "sky villa" suites on top of the 3,200-room hotel. The villas range in size from the 12,600-square-foot Villa Conrad to the 15,400-square-foot Villa Verona, which is described as "reminiscent of the Palaces of Venice."

In early 1997, in a move to attract more customers to the struggling off-Strip property, Hilton in conjunction with Paramount Parks opened the $70 million "Star Trek: The Experience" attraction.

In 1998, Hilton hosted "Wheel of Fortune." About 3,000 people watched each of the tapings at the resort. The backstage support was staggering including five 48-foot semitrailers of equipment, dozens of video and sound technicians, as well as dozens of security personnel and Hilton foot caterers. It costs $1 million to put the show on the road.

In December 1998, Park Place Entertainment Corp. became a separate and independent public company as a result of the split of the lodging and gaming operations of Hilton Hotels Corp.

The Flamingo Hilton, Bally's and the Las Vegas Hilton became the property of Park Place. Hilton shareholders were given one share of Park Place for each share of Hilton they owned. Park Place retained use of the Hilton name for three years with the exception of the Las Vegas Hilton.

On July 11, 2000, it was announced that Edward Roski purchased the Las Vegas Hilton for $365 million. But the deal later fell through following lengthy litigation.

And in 2001, a campaign to unionize Las Vegas dealers failed after dealers at the Las Vegas Hilton voted against organization by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. Some 158 dealers at the Hilton voted against representation by the Transport Workers Union, while just 87 voted in favor; 263 dealers were eligible to vote.

The hotel is adjacent to the 3.2 million-square-foot Las Vegas Convention Center. It now features three distinct casinos, nearly 3,000 guest rooms and suites, 13 restaurants, a pool, spa and fitness centers and more than 200,000 square feet of conference space.