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Kirk Kerkorian, Part I

Kirk Kerkorian
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Kirk Kerkorian arrives at the premiere of the HBO documentary His Way in Hollywood, Calif., in 2011. The billionaire helped revitalize the Las Vegas Strip.

When Kirk Kerkorian was born in 1917, the United States had just entered World War I. The Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad had just ended daily service between the two towns—and the population of Las Vegas was maybe two thousand.  When he died in June 2015, the Las Vegas population was a thousand times greater … or, to put it another way, the entire population of Las Vegas when he was born would not have filled all of the rooms in any one of the hotels he owned. And he had a lot to do with that growth, building the world’s largest hotel-casino three times as well as one of the world’s largest gaming corporations.

Kerkorian was born in Fresno, the son of Armenian immigrants. He left school after the eighth grade. In World War II, he wanted to be a flyer and wound up in the British Royal Air Force. He first visited Las Vegas during the war. After the war, he flew high-rollers to Las Vegas and became one himself. He also bought some land and wound up renting the land to the builders of Caesars Palace, who later bought it from him.

Kerkorian bought into the Dunes and lost money. He said he realized from that experience that he didn’t want to invest in a place he didn’t run. He also believed in hiring the best possible people, whether or not they had gaming experience; he figured if they were smart, they would learn. In 1967, he bought the Flamingo. Its mob operators had been caught skimming, and Kerkorian cleaned up the place. He also bought land on Paradise Road and built the International, which opened in 1969. It was next to the convention center, demonstrating the importance of meetings in Las Vegas. He emphasized entertainment with two showrooms and a lounge; the first acts were Barbra Streisand in one showroom, the Broadway musical Hair in the other, and Ike and Tina Turner in the lounge. The headline who followed Streisand was Elvis Presley, making his first Las Vegas showroom appearance since 1956; he played 837 straight sellouts. Kerkorian also realized Baby Boomers were growing up and families mattered, so the International included a youth hostel and trips to the mountains and the lake for kids.

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Kerkorian also was the first real corporate operator here, and that led to a problem. He had a battle with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission that led to him selling the Flamingo and International to the Hilton Hotels Corporation. But he then bought MGM studios and came roaring back to Las Vegas. In 1973, he opened the original MGM Grand, now Bally’s. It was a monstrous 2,100 rooms and included such attractions as jai alai and a theater for old MGM films. By the late 1970s, Kerkorian was thinking of selling it and then, on November 21, 1980, the hotel caught fire and 87 people died. It was a disaster and, in addition to the loss of life, led to an incredible array of lawsuits and new laws improving the safety standards in Nevada’s hotels. He felt his company should rebuild first, and it did. He sold the hotel to Bally’s in 1986.

Kerkorian wasn’t done with Las Vegas. Not by a long shot. Befitting a man who lived 98 years and had such an enormous impact, we’ll need a second part to tell you more.

Nevada Yesterdays is written by Associate Professor Michael Green of UNLV, and narrated by former Senator Richard Bryan. Supported by Nevada Humanities