Las Vegas History: Remembering the Landmark (Part 2)
Whoever said “the house always wins” never heard about the troubled history of the Landmark, an orphan of a casino plagued with massive problems from the start and since demolished into desert dust. Part 2 0f 3 .
Part 2: The Grand Opening and Begining of the Howard Hughes Era
Before Howard Hughes deteriorated into a reclusive cuckoo clock — stocking his own urine saved inside rows of mason jars, burying himself in five-gallon buckets of Baskin-Robbins banana nut ice cream, and ultimately buying a local television station just so he could watch old movies 24-hours a day, he was a hands-on architect of casino re-finance and re-invention.
The Landmark became the sixth and final casino purchased by Hughes. It was the final peg in a massive $100 million spending spree that would transform Las Vegas. For the billionaire used to raking in profits on every investment he made, the casino was a rare mistake in the diverse portfolio of the Hughes financial empire. It was his only losing hand. For that man accustomed to always winning and getting whatever he wanted, this lone outlier became an obsession.
In little more than a year, Hughes’ ravenous buying had made him the largest private employer, the largest landowner, and the most powerful individual in the state of Nevada.
The opening of a new casino, especially a spectacle as grand as a 31-story tower, casino, hotel, apartment complex, and shopping mall should have been an instant smash. Add the money, the power, and the myth of Howard Hughes as the owner, and the Landmark had the pedigree to become the hottest destination in Las Vegas.
Instead, it was a complete clusterfuck.
Hughes the insomniac, self-sequestered behind the double drapes of his private two-floor quarters atop the Desert Inn hotel, the casino he’d purchased two years earlier, oversaw every facet of the final phase of construction, down to the last detail. He even hand-picked those who would be invited to the grand opening, spending hours obsessing over which celebrities would be included on the VIP guest list. Though he never once set foot on the property he owed, reportedly when he saw photos of the Landmark’s interior decor, including shag carpet on the walls, Hughes was horrified. He instantly allocated another $3.5 million to renovate the design — leading one to believe previous owner Frank Caroll beating up the interior designer may have been justified, after all. Secretive messenger and bagman Robert Maheu, who worked for Hughes since the 1950s but never actually met his billionaire boss, later said, “I knew from that point on that I was in trouble. He was completely incapable of making decisions.”
The trouble with the Landmark’s opening was two-fold. First, the International was scheduled to open that same summer of 1969. The world’s largest hotel would be right across the street from the Landmark — a victim of being grotesquely upstaged by a property that was much bigger and more luxurious. Initially envisioned and built by Kirk Kerkorian, the International later became the Las Vegas Hilton, and today it stands as the Westgate. Instantly, it was anointed as the centerpiece of Las Vegas. Making matters worst, it even stood taller than the Landmark’s tower by a few feet (which was no accident). Adding insult to injury, the International’s gigantic billboard in front (across the street from the Landmark’s main entrance) advertised that Elvis and Barbra Streisand would be performing back-to-back in the state-of-the-art showroom, two of the biggest acts in the world.
Meanwhile, the Landmark signed its debut headliner: Danny Thomas. Nothing against Mr. Thomas, who by all accounts was a wonderful man and extraordinary philanthropist, but he was no Elvis or Babs.
The other big problem for the Landmark’s flag plant onto the cutthroat casino scene was the horrendous timing. Finally slated to open its doors in July 1969, the “spectacle of the year” was completely overshadowed by the Apollo 11 space mission and man’s first walk on the moon. Hughes, flustered with delays and flummoxed by forces he couldn’t control, even paid an appearance fee to two former NASA astronauts to be the Landmark’s very first two customers when the doors officially opened. The gimmick was met with indifference from a distracted public and ignored by the media. But hey, they got comped tickets to see Danny Thomas.
After nearly eight years, the Landmark’s doors were finally open and the casino was ready for business.
Once the tower lights beamed into the sky, hotel rooms were booked, cards were dealt, and dice began flying, it seemed just a matter of time before the unlucky Landmark investment would pay off and finally turn a profit.
Instead, somehow, someway, for reasons still not explained, the Landmark managed to lose $5,000,000 in its first week. Not — the first year. The first — week.
Something was very, very wrong. Either money was funneled out the back door or Danny Thomas didn’t work cheap.
Nonetheless, Landmark’s clever marketing blitz continued.
“In France, it’s the Eiffel Tower! In India, it’s the Taj Mahal! In Las Vegas, it’s the Landmark!”
— Local Las Vegas television advertisement (1970)
The Landmark drowned in debts for another seven years while the International next door boomed and then expanded, and another flurry of casino development spread up and down The Strip. Every hotel in town was making money, including all five of Hughes’ other properties. Then, losing money became the least of the Landmark’s troubles.
In 1976, the Landmark was caught in the middle of a bitter labor strike and was forced to close down for two weeks — unheard of in the casino business. Meanwhile, 35,000 feet over the bronzed mountains of central Mexico, a fragile skeleton of a man named Howard R. Hughes took his last breath aboard a private jet flying from Acapulco to Houston, where he’d been scheduled to undergo a life-saving kidney transplant.
Following Hughes’ death, the nameless, faceless, soulless, unimaginative, corporate suits who made executive decisions for the offshoot that had been the Hughes Tool Company opted to cut their losses and put the foundering Landmark up for sale. They’d been buried long enough by its bloody balance sheet. Open less than a decade, the Landmark had already become a casino orphan. Nobody who could afford it wanted it.
Then, things went from bad to worse. Interior structural and design problems began to surface. In 1977 after a rainstorm, the basement flooded and shorted out the casino’s entire electrical system. All guests had to be evacuated. Carbon monoxide flowed into the air ducts and more than a thousand tourists were left standing outside in their pajamas at 4 am staring at the tower surrounded by blaring fire engines. During this power failure and evacuation, a local news reporter and a cameraman were confronted by Landmark security officers and were beaten with clubs and flashlights — thus ensuring more good press. Guests were finally allowed back inside. The ordeal wasn’t over.
The following afternoon disaster struck a second time. Only six hours later, all the power went out.
A second evacuation was ordered which rendered the elevators inoperable once again. During the outage, 21 table games remained open with the use of emergency lights, while a bar gave away free drinks.
At least the table games kept on dealing and the bar stayed open. So, what’s with all the complaining? Leave comments with the Landmark’s crack security department.
A subsequent investigation uncovered that more than 100 guests had been hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning during the incident. One visitor died.
A few months later, an idiot smoking in his hotel room fell asleep and dropped a cigarette on the carpet, and started a two-alarm fire. The fire extinguishers didn’t work. Smoke filled the upper floors and the entire hotel was evacuated. Five floors suffered such severe smoke damage that they had to be closed temporarily and completely renovated.
By this time, the Landmark with 1,200 full-time employees, was hemorrhaging, losing on average about $500,000 a month. That’s the wrong side of the break-even line for a company in the casino business.
Hughes’ financial caretakers were utterly desperate to sell. An initial $17 million purchase (with $9 million going back to the Teamsters, who made a cool $4 million on the deal — thanks Jimmy Hoffa), followed by $10 million in renovations, plus eight straight years of operating losses made the property much more of a liability than a wise investment (it would eventually be sold for $12 million). Several prospective owners came and went. Bids were rejected. Bids that were accepted by the board of Howard Hughes’ company never came through.
Just nine years into being open for business, the struggling Landmark casino closed on the perfect date — April Fools Day 1978. It remained closed down for another 62 days. The reason for the closure: None of the owners had a gaming license.
Coming Next: Part 3 (Decline, Demise, Decay, and Demolition)
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