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July marks a golden anniversary for Las Vegas: the opening of the International Hotel. If you haven’t heard of it, you may be more familiar with it as the Westgate, and before that as the Hilton. It’s had quite a history.
In the 1950s, the land it’s on was a racetrack. Long after that failed, Marvin Kratter bought the land and announced plans for a hotel. Kratter was a real character, a developer who owned numerous buildings in New York City, including, eventually Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers played. He also owned the Boston Celtics and Rom-Amer Pharmaceuticals, which sought to market Laetrile, a supposed cancer drug.
When Kratter decided against building a hotel, he sold some of his land to Kirk Kerkorian, already well-known in Las Vegas as a high-rolling gambler and owner of planes that flew other high rollers to and from Las Vegas. He already owned Trans International Airlines. No one ever accused Kerkorian of thinking small. He bought the Flamingo to start training staff for his new project, which would be called The International. When it opened on July 2, 1969, The International was the tallest building in Nevada, and had more hotel rooms than anyplace else in the state—a monster at thirty stories and more than 1,500 rooms.
When you think of the megaresorts era, starting with the Mirage in 1989, you often think of corporations and themes and size. Kerkorian was ahead of that. He had a corporation in place right after the Nevada legislature changed the law to encourage corporations to buy casinos. The International featured decors and employee uniforms from various countries. It had a youth hostel with activities for youngsters while mom and dad had fun. It had two showrooms, and opened with Barbra Streisand in one of them and the Broadway musical Hair in the other one, with a lounge that included the likes of Ike and Tina Turner and Redd Foxx. After Streisand came Elvis Presley, who wouldn’t open the hotel but stayed for 837 straight sellout performances until his death in 1977.
Kerkorian wouldn’t stay as long. He needed money for other investments, including MGM. He sold his company to Hilton, which also bought the Flamingo from him. The International became known as the Hilton, and remained so for forty years. Hilton added hotel towers, an events venue, and a race and sports book called the Superbook. It also continued Kerkorian’s emphasis on entertainment, from Liberace and Wayne Newton to production shows like Bal du Moulin Rouge and Starlight Express.
The Hilton also survived some bad times. In 1981, just two months after the MGM Grand, now Bally’s, burned, a fire killed eight people at the Hilton. In the early 1990s, it was caught up in the Tailhook sexual assault scandal.
Hilton finally shifted away from casinos. Park Place Entertainment controlled the HIlton for a while. It went through a few owners and a name change to LVH before Westgate Resorts bought the property in 2014. At its fiftieth anniversary, it’s still known for big-name entertainment, its proximity to big conventions, and big history.
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