Kirk Kerkorian and the First MGM Grand Hotel

The great casino boom on the Strip that had begun in late 1946 with the Flamingo Hotel had come virtually to a halt after Caesars Palace debuted in 1966. Hotel projects that emerged in the 1970s were noticeably more middle class and less glamorous and stylish architecturally than Caesars and other iconic Strip hotels. Among them were the Holiday Inn (later Harrah's), opened across from Caesars in 1973, the Marina in 1974, the Maxim (later Westin) in 1977, and in 1979, the Imperial Palace and the Barbary Coast, also across from Caesars. But it was Kirk Kerkorian's new megaresort project, the first MGM Grand Hotel, that most resembled the opulence and extravagance of Caesars.

In mid-1969, Kerkorian—owner of the Flamingo—opened the International, a thirty-story hotel with 1,512 rooms. The property was the largest in the world, and built for a now-modest sum of $65 million. Faced with repaying large loans, Kerkorian tried to sell additional stock in his publicly traded company, International Leisure. But the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) blocked him, claiming he did not supply the agency with information about the organized crime ties of the Flamingo's previous owners. Kerkorian later came to terms with the SEC, but the dispute had damaged the value of his public company. To raise money for his debts, he sold half of his company to the Hilton Hotels chain, which took over the International and the Flamingo.

At the same time, Kerkorian was working on a new success outside of Las Vegas that would later transform the Strip. He was buying substantial shares of stock in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studios in Culver City, California. By 1971, Kerkorian owned the majority of MGM's stock and announced he again would build the world's largest resort in Las Vegas—at a time of less excitement and risk-taking among resort hotel builders on the Strip.

The MGM Grand (now the site of Bally's-Las Vegas) was the first resort named after an entertainment company—the venerable MGM studio, the site of many famous Hollywood movies. Kerkorian decided to pattern his new resort after the 1932 MGM film, Grand Hotel.

After the MGM resort opened in December 1973, it was the world's largest hotel—2,200 guest rooms and suites, five restaurants, two showrooms, a movie theater for classic MGM films, and an area for spectators to watch, and wager on, live jai alai games. Since he owned the studio, Kerkorian placed large photos of famous MGM actors in public areas in the hotel. He and his predecessor, Jay Sarno, had set new benchmarks for building Las Vegas resorts with their willingness to spend large sums on fancy touches such as crystal chandeliers, coffered ceilings, tapestry, and statues.

With the MGM Grand, Kerkorian matched and exceeded Sarno's Caesars Palace, and advanced the Strip's appeal to American and international tourists. The standards set by Caesars and the MGM for Strip resorts reigned until 1989 when Steve Wynn, considered the inventor of the modern megaresort, opened the Mirage adjacent to Caesars.

In the 1970s, Kerkorian also looked to Northern Nevada. In 1978, he built Reno's largest hotel, the MGM Grand Reno (now Grand Sierra Resort), with over a thousand rooms, later expanded to two thousand. But in Las Vegas in 1980, a massive fire, started by an electrical cord inside a restaurant refrigerator, quickly raced through the MGM Grand on the Strip. It was the deadliest disaster in Las Vegas history. Eighty-seven people died, many trapped in their rooms and overcome by billowing smoke. Hundreds more were injured. Kerkorian and the builders of the structure were later faulted for not installing safety equipment that might have saved lives. Kerkorian determined to rebuild the MGM, and reopened it eight months later in the summer of 1981. In the 1980s, Kerkorian also bought and sold the Desert Inn and Sands hotels on the Strip.

Kerkorian was not through with Hollywood. In 1984, he took control of the United Artists film company. Two years later, he accepted a deal from the Bally Manufacturing Company to sell his MGM Grands in Las Vegas and Reno for $594 million. But while headquartered in Los Angeles, Kerkorian looked to set a new record in Las Vegas: he wanted to build a hotel that would be the world's biggest, for a record third time- the new MGM Grand.

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