How Kirk Kerkorian Transformed Las Vegas Casinos

Kirk Kerkorian and Las Vegas Sign Graphic

These days, monolithic corporations like Caesars Entertainment, MGM Resorts, and Boyd Gaming own and operate most of the casinos in Las Vegas. As such, a revolving door of company presidents and chief executive officers remains largely in charge of how your favorite casino resorts operate. But it wasn’t always this way, as Sin City’s glory days were built by enterprising entrepreneurs who applied their own personality to the venues they controlled.

There’s Bugsy Siegel, Howard Hughes, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, and plenty more. And this page covers Kirk Kerkorian, a true Las Vegas legend who brought the world’s largest hotel resort to town not once, not twice, but three times.

Below, you’ll learn all about how Kirk Kerkorian transformed the Las Vegas scene.

Brief Background and Biography

Born as Kerkor Kerkorian to Armenian immigrant parents in 1917, the boy who would later Americanize his first name to “Kirk” was lucky right out of the gate.

His mother Lily, a few years past her traditional childrearing years by that time, reluctantly went through with the pregnancy. Asked about his status as an “accident” years later, Kerkorian offered a typically tongue-in-cheek response:

“They finally convinced her, now that you’re going to have it, it might be your lucky thing. He’ll take you to Hawaii.”

Whether he wound up taking Lily to see the island paradise isn’t clear, some three decades later, Kerkorian used Hawaii as his springboard to becoming a billionaire businessman. The eighth-grade dropout took flying lessons as a teenager, before using his skills to assist the British Royal Air Force in ferrying planes from North America to Scotland during World War II.

Kirk Kerkorian Flying a Plane

Those adventures instilled a deep love for aviation, so when Kerkorian returned home to America he immediately headed for Hawaii. There sat hundreds of decommissioned war planes that were being sold off by the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) at dirt cheap prices. The catch was, because these planes were designed to soar through the Pacific theatre, they lacked the fuel capacity needed to reach California.

Kerkorian, by now an avid gambler at heart, decided to take the risk and refit the fuel engines on his first twin engine Cessna. Even so, Kerkorian nearly crashed into the ocean as his plane reached its limits, before ditching every piece of unnecessary equipment to save fuel.

The eighth-grade dropout took flying lessons as a teenager, before using his skills to assist the British Royal Air Force in ferrying planes from North America to Scotland during World War II.

Kerkorian’s fateful crash led to a launch a charter flight operation, one which specialized in ferrying high-rollers from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for their regular gambling excursions.

One of those high-rollers was none other than Bugsy Siegel, the notorious mob hitman out of New York turned flashy operator of the Flamingo casino resort. In fact, Kerkorian himself flew Siegel home to Beverly Hills just two days before the “Murder Inc.” gangster was gunned down in a mob sanctioned hit.

Mugshot of Busgy Siegal

During his time in between flights, Kerkorian became a regular at many Sin City haunts. While he never won all that much on the tables, he nonetheless made a great impression thanks to his unruffled attitude and calm demeanor.

As his friend and tennis doubles partner Irving Converse later recalled in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Kerkorian simply liked mixing it up and sweating the action regardless of the result:

“Some old guys get pretty upset about losing. Kirk’s not like that. He enjoys the game, win or lose. Of course, the more he wins, the better.”

He may not have been a sore loser, but soon enough, Kerkorian would become the biggest winner in all of Las Vegas…

Casino Land Swaps and Lease Agreements

Having successfully built his charter operation into Trans International Airlines, Kerkorian cashed in by selling the company to Transamerica Corporation in 1968.

The price tag of $104 million equates to over $775 million in today’s terms, a deal which made Kerkorian one of the wealthiest men in America.

Recalling his rise from the streets of Fresno to one of the nation’s entrepreneurial titans, Kerkorian told the Los Angeles Times that he never planned on amassing such a massive fortune. Never one to rest on his laurels, however, Kerkorian set his sights on his adopted hometown of Las Vegas.

Six years before that, in 1962, Kerkorian had paid nearly $1 million to obtain 80 acres of land near The Strip. At the time, these empty parcels of desert sand were essentially blocked off from Las Vegas Boulevard because smaller parcels stood in the way. Undeterred, Kerkorian swapped and bought the obstructing parcels until he controlled a clear path from his land to the adjacent Strip.

Having increased the value of his land by an order of magnitude, Kerkorian “flipped” the parcel by leasing it to Atlanta real estate mogul Jay Sarno. Planning to build the world’s largest and most lavish mega-resort casino, Sarno set to work constructing Caesars Palace on land leased from Kerkorian.

Caesars Palace opened its gilded doors in 1966 and Kerkorian immediately began enjoying his 15% slice of the high-roller heaven’s enormous profits. Two years later, Kerkorian sold his share of Caesars Palace to Sarno for a cool $9 million profit.

Vintage 1960s Caesars Palace Las Vegas

Realizing the potential held by Las Vegas’ signature casino resorts, Kerkorian paid $5 million for another 80-acre plot on Paradise Road. Although this parcel was set apart from the Strip proper, Kerkorian gambled that guests would still flock to his International Hotel.

Built at an expense of $50 million, an extravagant sum for the casino industry at that time, Kerkorian based his International Hotel around a 30-story tower holding over 1,500 rooms. A full-scale casino resort surrounded the tower on the ground floor, complete with swimming pools, a golf course, and luxury suites.

The International Hotel, which eventually became the Las Vegas Hilton and is known today as the Westgate Las Vegas, cemented its status as the largest hotel in all the world when it opened in 1969.

That same year, Kerkorian purchased the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film studio, setting the stage for yet another expansion that would alter The Strip’s landscape forever after.

The Las Vegas Strip Goes Hollywood

By 1973, Kerkorian had doubled down by opening the original MGM Grand Hotel and Casino (known today as Bally’s Las Vegas).

This enormous casino resort cost over $100 million to construct, and with 2,084 rooms spread out over 2.5 million square feet, it once again gave Kerkorian bragging rights as the owner of the world’s largest hotel.

Las Vegas MGM Hotel Fire

Unfortunately, a devastating fire which killed 87 people marred the first MGM Grand’s image in the public eye. The hotel reopened only eight months later, but Kerkorian eventually sold his interest in the hotel for $550 million to Bally Manufacturing, which changed the venue’s name to Bally’s for a fresh start.

During the ‘80s, Kerkorian rebounded by purchasing Hughes’ distressed casino assets, including the Sands (eventually demolished to build the Venetian) and the Desert Inn (demolished to build the Wynn and Encore).

By 1993, having regained the rights to use the MGM brand, Kerkorian outdid himself by building the MGM Grand as you know it today. By virtue of a $1 billion investment, the spectacular green-clad resort modeled after the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz boasted 5,005 rooms and a full-scale boxing arena dubbed “Madison Square Garden West.”

For the third time in his life, Kerkorian held the deed to the largest hotel on the planet, cementing his legacy as a legitimate Las Vegas icon in the process.

Over the years, the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino stood as the centerpiece of the Strip, hosting world championship bouts and dazzling visitors with its world-class gambling and amenities. For years, tourists lined up by the hundreds to take their photo in front of the MGM Grand’s signature “Golden Lion’s Mouth” entrance.

MGM Grand Las Vegas Exterior

The lion’s mouth was eventually shuttered in 1998, due to Asian gamblers avoiding the entrance as an omen of bad luck. But anybody who strolled through those doors likely has fond memories of this Las Vegas landmark.

In 2000, at just 83 years young, Kerkorian outmaneuvered fellow billionaire casino mogul Steve Wynn to force a merger between MGM Grand and Mirage Resorts. As a result, the eventual MGM Resorts International now controls many of the Strip’s most popular casinos, including the Mirage, the Bellagio, Treasure Island, Aria, Mandalay Bay, Luxor, Excalibur, New York-New York, and Park MGM.

Conclusion

Las Vegas history is full of stories about entrepreneurs that helped build the city from nothing in a relatively short time. They just don’t make casino moguls like they used to, and Las Vegas will certainly be lucky to see a force of nature like Kirk Kerkorian again. A self-made billionaire who hobnobbed with the likes of Howard Hughes, the Armenian-American deal maker transformed the Strip on several occasions.

Kerkorian’s bold dream of turning Sin City into a full-fledged destination resort—one that welcomes families from all walks of life—formed the foundation of Las Vegas as you know and love it today. The next time you place a bet at the world-famous Westgate SuperBook, or walk into the lion’s den at MGM Grand, be sure to say a silent “thanks Kirk” to the late visionary who put those iconic places on the map.