Howard Hughes Ushered in the Era of Billionaire Moguls in Las Vegas

Vintage Photo of Howard Hughes and the Las Vegas Strip

Ask any gambler in the know about the folks who really run Las Vegas nowadays, and you’ll invariably hear them bring up billionaires like Sheldon Adelson. But before titans of high finance ever staked their claim to Sin City, it was Howard Hughes who helped end the era of Mafia-controlled casinos.

The famously eccentric heir to one of the world’s largest fortunes, Hughes wore many hats—film producer, pioneering pilot, and inventive engineer just to name a few—but he spent his latter years living in Las Vegas. And while he never left his penthouse suite, Hughes still managed to leave an indelible mark on the Nevada gambling industry.

Brief Background and Biography of Howard Hughes

The moment he was born in Humble, Texas on Christmas Eve of 1905, Howard Hughes Jr. was minted an instant millionaire.

As the only child of successful businessman Howard Hughes Sr.—who invented a rotary drill bit system that enabled oil companies to dig deeper than ever before—the younger Hughes was his father’s heir. And at the age of 19, following his father’s sudden death, Hughes assumed full control over the burgeoning business empire.

Before that though, the precocious Hughes demonstrated an uncanny aptitude for several forms of engineering and design. Before becoming a teenager, Hughes had successfully erected Houston’s first radio system that didn’t rely on wires, constructed a motorized bicycle, and even learned to fly biplanes.

Never content to rest on his laurels, Hughes started the Summa Corporation to take full advantage of his father’s fortune. Displaying a dazzling range of investment interests, Hughes acquired and expanded companies vested in interests such as engineering, manufacturing, aeronautics, and print publications.

Hughes’ greatest passion during his 20s turned out to be filmmaking, following his purchase of a struggling Hollywood studio. Showing his signature tenacity, Hughes shrugged off his first film’s status as a “bomb” to eventually produce several Academy Award winning movies during the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Howard Hughes in Aviator Suit

By 1938, Hughes had become a household name in every corner of the globe courtesy of his aviation hobby. By circumnavigating the globe in only 91 hours from the cockpit of his custom-built Lockheed airplane, Hughes set a new world record for flying around the world.

Under the auspices of Hughes Aircrafts and Hughes Aerospace Group, the intrepid flyboy engaged in a protracted battle for industry supremacy with rival Boeing. This battle spurred the design and production of cutting-edge jet engines, among many other advancements in aviation technology.

In fact, Hughes’ escapades soaring through the skies were memorialized on his beloved silver screen via Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Aviator” (2004).

Despite his lifelong love of flying, however, Hughes would eventually arrive in Las Vegas via railway to conquer yet another industry—casino gambling.

Hughes Holes Up in the Desert Inn

By 1966, Hughes was a sexagenarian who suffered from an extreme form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

He famously ate the exact same meal for dinner every single night, steak with salad and small peas only (he meticulously sorted and discarded peas which were “too large”). He forced subordinates to clean office spaces and warehouses over and over again, claiming that he could see microscopic germs lingering on every available surface.

And in a disturbing prolonged OCD episode, Hughes hid out in a screening room for four months, watching his movies naked and alone in a dark room. Afterwards, employees found dozens of Kleenex boxes stacked in precise formation, along with mason jars which Hughes used to collect his own urine.

Desert Inn Vintage Photo

At the time, these odd behaviors were largely explained away as the eccentricities of the ultra-wealthy. Others attributed Hughes’ erratic nature to the ill effects of a disastrous test plane crash that he barely survived.

In any event, Hughes snuck into Las Vegas in the dead of night in a private train car on Thanksgiving night. He then made his way to the Desert Inn, one of the original casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.

Hughes rented out two entire floors atop the Desert Inn, and when his two-week stay had concluded, owner Moe Dalitz asked him to depart so a fresh set of high rollers could be accommodated. As the preeminent high roller in the country, Hughes obviously had other ideas… An offer of $13 million—over $100 million in modern value when adjusted for inflation—saw Hughes assume full ownership of the Desert Inn in 1967. From there, Hughes set up camp on the ninth-floor penthouse and refused to leave or accept visitors in person.

Nonetheless, this reclusive seclusion didn’t stop Hughes from running his business empire, as he purchased several competing casinos over the next year. Soon enough, Hughes counted Castaways, Frontier, Sands, Landmark, and Silver Slipper among his casino holdings on and around the Strip.

Fittingly enough for the oddball billionaire, Hughes bought the Silver Slipper specifically to have its famous neon footwear signage removed. Apparently, the brightly lit slipper sign prevented Hughes from keeping his suite darkened at all hours, so he simply resolved the problem as only the uber wealthy can.

Silver Slipper Casino

For the next four years, Hughes was never seen by another human soul. These behavioral issues aside, Hughes worked hard to parlay his newly gained casino assets into a new vision of what Las Vegas could become.

Hughes Beautifies and Builds a New Las Vegas Strip

With the federal government long since wise to the “wise-guy” influence over Las Vegas, organized crime figures turned casino owners like Bugsy Siegel and Dalitz were largely being pushed out by the time Hughes arrived in town.

Hughes even helped on that front by booting legendary singer and mob-connected man Frank Sinatra from the Sands Casino. Hughes had a more elegant Las Vegas in mind. In a memo to one of his business partners, Hughes outlined how he believed Vegas visitors should view his casino venues:

“I like to think of Las Vegas in terms of a well-dressed man in a dinner jacket and a beautifully jeweled and furred female getting out of an expensive car.”

Another memo sent by Hughes positioned Las Vegas as the ultimate resort town, one capable of capturing market share from the era’s most popular tourist destinations:

“This is a hell of a note in a place that is being developed as a resort, which depends for its very life-blood on the tourists who come here voluntarily in open competition with Hawaii, and the many, many other resorts.”

The state’s gaming authorities tended to agree, and during a meeting of the Clark County Gaming Licensing Board held in 1967, Hughes’ application was rubber-stamped without hesitation. In explaining the unprecedented decision to grant Hughes his license without so much as an in-person hearing, District Attorney George Franklin alluded to the potential for a building a renewed public perception:

“This is the best way to improve the image of gambling in Nevada by licensing an industrialist of his stature.”

As his local influence grew, Hughes’ rivalries with fellow casino owners led to several ideas which were considered harebrained at the time. He wanted to invest countless millions to turn the Sands into a 4,000-room mega-resort, while providing standardized service that prioritized average Joes over connected stars like Sinatra.

Unfortunately, Hughes never had the pleasure of seeing these reforms enacted, as failing health forced him to abandon Las Vegas in 1970. He died six years later while travelling between offshore enclaves, but Hughes’ legacy in Las Vegas simply can’t be overstated.

Wynn and Encore Las Vegas

A new generation of billionaires like Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, and Sheldon Adelson soon gobbled up Hughes’ properties, seeking to realize his visions of a new Las Vegas. The Desert Inn was imploded to make way for the Wynn and Encore mega-resort casinos, the Sands was replaced by the glittering Venetian and so on down the Strip.

Conclusion

Howard Hughes may have been a man of many interests, but his brief dalliance in Las Vegas history has proved as lasting as his contributions to Hollywood and aeronautics. He proved that a “straight” operation could be more profitable, as well as more inviting to straightlaced guests than any casino operated by the mob.

In doing so, Hughes paved the path on which the Strip you know and love today was built. He may not have invented the concept of safe, clean, upscale gambling and entertainment venues, but Hughes surely perfected them while changing Sin City forever.