Las Vegas is maybe the only town in the United States that can be said to have essentially been built by one man and nearly destroyed by another man. The man who built Las Vegas, of course, was famous gambler Bug-I mean, Benjamin Siegel-he hated to be called Bugsy. The story of how Bugsy Siegel-yeah, that’s right, let’s see him take me down now-found himself in the middle of the desert in a small community one day and foresaw a gambling mecca is the stuff of legend and great movies. Unfortunately, that great movie has yet to be made. Equally so, the movie about how Howard Hughes nearly destroyed Las Vegas has yet to be made.
Howard Hughes, for those of you haven’t seen The Aviator may not know ,was once upon a time the richest man in the world. So rich was Howard Hughes that if you adjusted for inflation, he could hire Bill Gates to be his Kleenex box shoe taker-offer. We’re talking richer than God. Not the Catholic God, of course-nobody’s that rich-but certainly richer than a nice Seventh Day Adventist God. Howard Hughes was a famous aviator, obviously, as well as a movie mogul, but more than anything he was a smart businessman. So smart a business was Howard Hughes that he could take Merv Griffin to the cleaners and, remember, it was Merv Griffin who took Donald Trump to the cleaners.
For a brief time Howard Hughes was the biggest thing to hit Las Vegas since Elvis Presley. During the 1960s there were two very rich American businessmen buying up property like it was a big stakes Monopoly game. One was named Walt Disney and he was purchasing worthless swampland in Florida. (By the way, you couldn’t buy one square foot of that land now for less than $100,000). The other was named Howard Hughes and he was gobbling up property in Las Vegas. The public response when the identity of its benefactor was revealed was, not surprisingly, similar to that of those Orlandians (Orlandites? Orlandinians?) when they found out it was Disney: joy, joy and more orgasmic joy. In fact, you could say that Las Vegas spread the love to include not only Elvis, Sinatra and Tom Jones, but Howard Hughes as well. Make no mistake, at this point in Howard Hughes’ life before the germs and the shoes made of Kleenex boxes he was a big time celebrity with the Midas touch. Dollar signs were ringing up all over Sin City. This trust was well placed: Income in Las Vegas shot up by as much as 25%. And what did Howard Hughes get in return for pumping up the bank accounts all across Las Vegas? Something that it is said money can’t buy, but which we all know it can: Trust.
It was not long before such famous casinos as the Sands, the Silver Slipper and the Landmark belonged to Howard Hughes. Even the gangsters were happy to see Hughes because he was buying all this property at prices well above what they were actually worth. Just how big was Howard Hughes in Las Vegas during this period? Consider this rather stunning statistic: Howard Hughes’ holdings alone accounted for 20% of all the gambling revenue coming into not just Las Vegas, but all of Nevada! But power corrupts absolutely, of course, and it doesn’t even take absolute power. Such was Howard Hughes’ hold on Las Vegas and such was his conviction that he had earned enough trust to do anything he deemed necessary, that he actually undertook it upon himself to order the removal from Las Vegas one of its prime non-taxable commodities, those stunningly beautiful women who drive little sports cars but don’t punch time clocks. Howard Hughes was still a few years away from becoming the wild-haired, long-fingernailed recluse of an object of derision that he would become, but clearly his judgment was already being affected by his obsessions. He determined that the hookers of Las Vegas were poisoning the city and therefore had to be removed.
This may have actually been possible-if anyone could do it, it was Howard Hughes-if only he hadn’t also made the bizarre decision to keep in place so many casino employees with strong connections to guys with names like Vito and Guido. Perhaps Howard was under the impression that he could control the mob, that they wouldn’t dare defy him on the issue of prostitution. And furthermore, perhaps he figured that once some high roller had just cleaned his casino out of a million dollars the next thing on that guy’s mind wasn’t spending the night with a woman willing to do anything with a guy as ugly as sin, but rather to go upstairs and watch Johnny Carson. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Howard Hughes was the most powerful man in Las Vegas and he was nuts!
Howard Hughes had publicly stated that his intention was to turn Las Vegas into the same kind of family-friendly town that it did eventually become, but during a period not known as the swinging sixties for nothing. He vowed to clean up the casinos and improve revenues by 20%. In fact, he never made it above 6%. By the time the decade ended, his casinos were losing money and combined with the fact that Howard Hughes bored easily, it was only a matter of time before he sold off most of his holdings. And guess who was eager to buy those casinos at seriously deflated prices?
Guido and Vito know who they are.