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Westgate celebrates 50 years in Las Vegas — PHOTOS

Updated July 2, 2019 - 12:22 pm

The Westgate, the resort created by legendary Las Vegas developer Kirk Kerkorian, opened 50 years ago today as the International Hotel on July 2, 1969.

Iconic ‘60s singer Barbra Streisand began a four-week engagement at the Showroom Internationale on opening night. Another star was in the lounge: Peggy Lee.

Barbra Streisand performs at the International in Las Vegas in 1969. (Westgate)
Barbra Streisand performs at the International in Las Vegas in 1969. (Westgate)

As Streisand concluded her run, Elvis Presley began performing at the hotel on July 31.

So many performers: Liberace, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Wayne Newton, Ann-Margret, Nancy Sinatra, James Brown, Tom Jones, Glen Campbell, Red Skelton, Redd Foxx, Bobby Darin, Shirley Bassey, Raquel Welch, Johnny Cash, Johnny Carson, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Osmonds … The list goes on.

With few exceptions, anybody who was an A-list entertainer made an appearance at the International. Barry Manilow is a current headliner at the Westgate.

But it was The King who made the International known worldwide. He had 636 consecutive sold-out shows over seven years, through the summer of 1976. He died Aug. 16, 1977. More than four decades after Elvis’ last performance, Presley devotees from all over the world still venture to the Westgate.

Elvis crooned one month a year, but sang two shows a night – an 8 p.m. dinner show and a midnight cocktail performance.

“It was pretty much supposed to be the start of his comeback tour,” said Gordon Prouty, Westgate’s public relations director. “Las Vegas was a bit different then. People really dressed up for a very special evening.”

Lure at 3000 Paradise

The statue at 3000 Paradise Road attracts visitors constantly. Lesser known is a bare spot just off the current main stage, a small, hallowed place where Elvis knelt in prayer before each performance. On the top floor, the 5,000-square-foot residence Elvis used to reside during his annual gig is gone, replaced by the much larger Tuscany suite. Figure to pay $12,000 to $15,000 a night unless you are a comped high roller.

The statue of Elvis located at the Las Vegas Hilton was decorated by fans for the anniversary o ...
The statue of Elvis located at the Las Vegas Hilton was decorated by fans for the anniversary of his death, Aug. 16, 2010. (Las Vegas Review-Journal file)

On the ownership front, Kerkorian was in a tussle to even get the International built. Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes had already purchased several Las Vegas casinos and viewed the International as heavy competition. He reportedly schemed to buy the project and halt its construction. In another reported ruse that failed, Hughes allegedly made unconfirmed and false claims to Kerkorian about damage to nearby buildings from tests conducted dozens of miles away at the nuclear A-bomb test range northwest of Las Vegas.

Hughes ended up building the Landmark across the street and opened it on July 1, one day before Kerkorian’s debut of the International.

Just a few years into ownership, financial troubles from his various ventures into airline and movie studio ownership, Kerkorian was forced to sell the International (and the Flamingo). Hilton Hotels became the complete owner in 1972.

As the Las Vegas Strip became an ever-growing tourist mecca in the 1970s, several additions were made to the property, bringing it to 3,174 rooms. In 1981, the hotel was proclaimed the largest in the world, a title it held for more than a decade.

Superbook success

Undoubtedly, part of the success includes the Superbook, the largest sports book in the world at 30,000 square feet, a facility added in 1986 at a cost of $17 million.

Official figures are confidential, but during the NFL season, it’s probable that roughly $2 million flows through the sports book on any given weekend.

Basketball fans take in the first day of the NCAA Tournament at the Westgate Sportsbook on Thur ...
Basketball fans take in the first day of the NCAA Tournament at the Westgate Sportsbook on Thursday, March 21, 2019, at Westgate, in Las Vegas. (Benjamin Hager Review-Journal) @BenjaminHphoto

Led by Jay Kornegay, the executive vice president of operations, the Superbook prides itself on innovative prop bets and being the first book to post opening lines on all major events.

A few years ago it was completely remodeled to include a video wall at 240 feet wide by 18 feet high, the largest indoor video wall in the world. It is a mecca for sports watchers, especially at NCAA Tournament and Super Bowl time.

Perhaps even more important is some patrons’ expressed, albeit outlandish, perception that the Superbook has clout way beyond normal.

“Several years ago some fans said they figured I was close enough to Denver that I could call Mike Shanahan (then the Broncos head coach) on the sidelines during a game and get him to put Bubby Brister in so they could win a prop bet,” Kornegay said.

Fatal fire, Navy scandal

On the downside for the hotel, a raging fire in 1981 started by hotel busboy Philip Bruce Cline, who lit a curtain on fire in an elevator lobby, claimed eight lives. Singer Natalie Cole was among those treated for smoke inhalation.

In 1991, the Hilton was the epicenter of the U.S. Navy Tailhook scandal in which several officers were accused of sexual assault during a convention.

Each incident, however, brought about change.

The fire, along with a much bigger fire a few months earlier at the MGM (now Bally’s), led to major revisions in U.S. fire codes requiring sprinklers, a move that eventually spread around the globe.

The sex scandal cost the hotel a $5.2 million judgment, but led Hilton to lobby successfully for a state law shielding hotels from liability for injuries to patrons caused by third parties.

Gamble pays off

Kerkorian made what some would called a gamble by building off the developing Strip, but being next to the Las Vegas Convention Center paid off. Las Vegas has become the No. 1 convention place for the U.S. and much of the world. Westgate and its predecessors benefited from being the closest major resort.

As Westgate celebrates the building’s 50th year with several special events this year, its legendary status is unquestioned.

A great part of the fame is owed to Elvis, but a large measure of success of any hotel has to be how employees accommodate their guests. The International, Hilton, LVH and now Westgate have achieved a high measure of success. Many staffers have been with the facility for decades.

“For 50 years, this iconic property has been the home to some of the most celebrated entertainers to perform in Las Vegas,” Prouty said. “We are continuing that legacy as the home of legendary Vegas fun and the future legends of Vegas!”

Contact Marvin Clemons at mclemons@reviewjournal.com or at 702-383-0217.

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