The Hughes Era
Unlike Hughes' other Las Vegas hotels, Landmark had yet to be opened. This allowed Hughes to make all design decisions from room decor to employee uniforms. The interior was of Incan and space-age design including glowing red Incan war masks, a brushed metal wall sculpture representing a launch from Kennedy Space Center, and 65 tons of polished black and white marble. The interior was designed by Las Vegas resident Leonard England, and also included $200,000 light fixtures. For the hotel, Hughes replaced 72-inch beds with 80-inch beds, and had color televisions built into the walls of each room. His $3.5 million additions made the Landmark the most luxurious hotel in Vegas. Robert Maheu, head of Hughes' hotel operations, oversaw the Landmark and it's opening.
In June of 1969, Sun Realty filed a claim that it was owed a $500,000 sales commission fee for the sale of the property to Hughes. This endangered the scheduled opening of the Landmark as the bankruptcy case against Plaza Tower, Inc. could not be legally closed. Ultimately, the claim was dismissed and the opening was on schedule.
Finally, after eight years in the construction phase, The Landmark Hotel and Casino opened it's doors on July 1, 1969 with a celebration of 500 invited guests and Danny Thomas headlining the main showroom. Apollo 10 astronauts Thomas P. Stafford and Eugene A. Cernan were honored at the opening ceremony and were the first people to enter the casino. The pool was the largest in the state and was adorned by a massive waterfall and an island in the center. The hype was short lived, however, when it was soon apparent that Landmark wasn't bringing in much profit. Hughes never left his suite at the Desert Inn, never mingled with guests, didn't personally greet high rollers, never did the things other hotel owners did to keep guest coming back. He did not even attend the grand opening ceremony. This was fine at his other hotels as they had already made names for themselves by the time he purchased them, but Landmark was new and although she had been a resident of the city for almost a decade, she had yet to prove herself. In the first week alone, over $500,000 was lost to gamblers at the tables. The casino blamed poorly trained dealers as the culprit.
Lorraine Hunt, known by her stage name Lauri Perry, headlined the 31st floor Sky Bar on opening night. At one point in the evening, a helicopter began circling the tower, shining lights inside the windows. Perry, in an attempt to calm the alarmed guests, declared over the microphone, "As you know, Howard Hughes owns this hotel and he’s a very bashful man, so why don’t we go to the windows and wave at him." The helicopter zoomed off as guests began waving. When a security guard asked Perry how she knew it was Hughes, she replied, "I didn't." It has never been confirmed whether the helicopter was the crowd-shy Hughes or not.
Though just two years old (operationally), Hughes remodeled the Landmark in 1971 with a $750,000 expansion project. The casino and lounge on the 29th floor were converted into luxury suites, the Cascade Terrace restaurant was expanded, and the lobby and ground floor casino were remodeled adding the Nighthawk Lounge.
The Tower Sweets Revue '71 made its debut in the Nighthawk Lounge playing three times nightly. It featured dancer Roger Manimi, singer Ginnie Pallone, band The Bare Facts, the famous Three Bernard Brothers, and The Ron Lewis Dancers performing their own rendition of "Tea for Two".
Meanwhile, in the Landmark Theatre, "The Grand Ole Opry" starring Ferlin Husky and Archie Campbell (of "Hee Haw" fame), played a successful run. Stacey Carroll headlined in Club 27 and Lauri Perry continued to perform in the Sky Bar
James Bond at the Landmark
In 1971, Sean Connery returned to his role as British Secret Service Agent 007 for the filming of "Diamonds Are Forever". This installment takes Bond to Las Vegas where he must unravel a plot to take over the world by his nemesis Blofeld. Producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli was a long time friend of Howard Hughes. When Hughes learned that the Manager at the Landmark had denied Cubby and his crew access to film there, he sent a message directly to him: "Tell Cubby he can shoot anywhere, anytime, in any of the hotels I own." With that, the Landmark's exterior elevator shaft was used in a scene. Later that week, while Cubby and his wife slept, their hotel room was broken into and they were robbed. Hotel security suspected that chloroform gas was used to ensure the Broccolis did not wake up! The following night, the Broccolis found two men standing outside their door waiting for them. One of them explained, "Compliments of Mr. Howard Hughes, Mr. Broccoli. Our orders are to stay here round the clock until you leave."
"Bond" Producer: Albert "Cubby" Broccoli
Scenes from Diamonds are Forever (1971)
Troubling Times and New Owners
Throughout the 1960's and 70's, never-ending financial troubles and bad publicity continued to plague the Landmark:
August 4, 1968 - Everett Wayne Shaw, a 39 year old mechanic, stole a Cessna 180 and flew on a collision course with the Landmark. He clipped the "L" sign on the roof and lost control, crashing into the Convention Center across the street. Notes in his apartment indicated that it was a planned suicide.
1970 - Hughes fled Las Vegas, leaving control of his hotels to his company, Summa Corp. in 1973. Landmark reported a loss of $5.9 million that year.
1974 - William G. Bennett and William Pennington made an offer to buy the Landmark but every time they came close to a deal, Hughes raised the price. They bought Circus Circus instead.
March 1976 - A strike by the Culinary Workers, Musicians and Stagehands unions caused the hotel to close temporarily until the conflict was resolved.
July 15, 1977 - Carbon monoxide gas leaked into the hotel's air conditioning system killing 1 guest and injuring 138 others. This was followed by a power failure and flooding in the basement. A camera crew from KLAS-TV (also owned by Summa Corp.) was beaten by Landmark security guards as they attempted to report on the incident. Landmark management was irritated at KLAS for negative news reports they had aired about Summa properties which included a story that Summa was looking to sell the Landmark to an Arab investor. A $37,000 camera was damaged in the altercation.
Photo courtesy Faye Todd
On February 03, 1975, General Manager Ed Milligan decided to turn the Skytop Rendezvous on the 31st floor into a discotheque - the first major hotel in Nevada to feature one. Radio station KLAV 1230 AM broadcast a live show from the location from midnight to 3 a.m., Tuesday through Sunday, with host Dick Knight.
Summa Corp. was looking to sell their Vegas properties and focus resources in other areas after the death of Howard Hughes in 1976. Scott Corp., primarily consisting of Frank Scott and Vegas mogul Jackie Gaughn (owner of several hotels downtown including the Union Plaza), attempted to purchase the Landmark in January of 1978. Scott announced that the name would be changed, stating that he favored "The Plaza Tower". The sale did not make it past the state gaming board.
With the Scott Corp. deal down the tubes, Summa continued to search for a buyer. On February 24, 1978, Ted and Zula Wolfram of Toledo, Ohio purchased the Landmark from Summa Corp. for $12.5 million. They hired Faye Todd, a close personal friend and Entertainment Director at the Desert Inn, as their Director of Entertainment and direct liaison. She was the first African-American Entertainment Director in Las Vegas.
It was at this time that exterior flood lighting was added to the tower. Additional flood lights were added to the underside of the 31st floor roof. It was an attempt to make the tower stand out at night, especially from a distance.
When a new Hotel Manager was needed in 1979, Jesse Jackson Jr. was chosen. He was the only African-American Hotel Manager at the time. Jackson started working at the Landmark in 1973 and worked his way up from Clerk to Porter to Housekeeping Supervisor before being appointed to the position.
In May 1982, famed hotel designer Martin Stern was hired to design an expansion of the Landmark. It included a large quarter-circle high-rise, with a towering atrium and triangular theater structure jutting from an open plaza. It was never executed.
On October 7 of that year, Zula and Faye produced Spellcaster: an in-house country-rock stage show staring Roy Clayborne. Due to budget constraints, the makeup, costumes, and props all had to be done by Landmark employees. The show was a success but it would be short lived due to coming legal troubles...
On February 7, 1983, Ted Wolfram was found to have embezzled $47 million from his Toledo brokerage firm, Bell & Beckwith. On February 23, 1983, the court allowed Patrick McGraw, a Bell & Beckwith trustee, the ability to operate the Landmark until it could be liquidated.
The New Landmark
On October 28, 1983, William "Wildcat" Morris - an Oklahoma native turned Las Vegas sports star - purchased the hotel with plans to breath life back into it. Landmark Casino Manager, Gary Yelverton, and his wife, Sandy, sued to prevent the sale claiming that they had purchased 5% interest in the business in 1979. He was hoping to collect on a share of the $20 million sale to Morris. The court determined that the Yelvertons had owned 5% of the Mark III Partnership - the entity in which the Wolframs and their other partners created to facilitate their Landmark dealings. However, the court found that the Wolframs never transferred ownership of the Landmark to Mark III and therefore the Yelverton's claims, and those of other Mark III claimants, were not valid. In an effort to avoid litigation which would jeopardize the sale, McGraw entered a settlement agreement to satisfy the claims of the Mark III partners.
Landmark reported its first profitable month in it's entire life in November of 1983 - Morris' first month in charge. The hotel had been losing an average of $3 million a year since 1969. Morris, who was working 18-hour days, called Landmark "the orphan of the strip".
Morris financed a major renovation in December of 1983. New red neon stripes were added along the windows running up the tower and the roof was painted a red-orange. The blue neon which lined the edge of the roof was changed to red and the blue lights running up the tower along the bottom of the windows were removed as were the neon blue stars which ran along the express elevator shaft. The entrance had red-lit outriggers added and a new side entrance was added to the casino. The rooms were given new fixtures and some even received new furniture. The casino received new carpet and the restaurants were remodeled.
The hotel was renamed "The NEW Landmark" on all print media however none of the exterior signage reflected this change.
Driving by the Landmark in 1987
Courtesy of Don Fields
1989 BOGO buffet promotion ad
After her remodel, Landmark was hit with fire safety code violations in 1984. The bad press hurt the hotel right in the middle of a re-branding campaign. The hotel was cleared of misdemeanor charges and was given until the fall of 1985 to correct the issues.
Just one block north of the Landmark, Wet 'n Wild water park opened in the summer of 1985. Guests at the Landmark, and other area hotels, were given special discounts at the park. Landmark also ran a summer special with $14 per person room rates which included free tickets to the Mickey Finn Show and 2 free cocktails.
Even with the renovation and ad campaigns, the hotel was struggling. On July 31, 1985, Landmark filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Morris hoped that by eliminating some of Landmark's debt, he could turn it back around. As part of the reorganization, the court approved Morris' request that union pension and health and welfare benefits be suspended to relieve the financial burden on the business. The unions countered in 1986 with a motion for the hotel to be closed but a federal judge denied it.
For the North Las Vegas Air Show in 1986, a hot air balloon was made to help advertise the failing Landmark. The balloon participated in a race across the valley. A promotional ride was also offered from the hotel parking lot which came with a certificate to commemorate the flight. The balloon would continue to appear in the annual air show making its final appearance in 1989.
On January 13, 1987, a fire was deliberately set in the showroom. It is believed that it was started by workers who were forced to take a pay cut after a federal judge ordered all union contracts terminated to help the hotel get on firmer financial footing during the bankruptcy reorganization which had been in effect since 1985.
Landmark came under fire later that year for watering down it's "top shelf" drinks and pouring cheaper brands into the bottles altogether. At the same time, Morris attempted to refinance the property for $59.5 million in order to build an additional 720-room tower. Local unions protested insisting that Morris' past record of financial decisions with the hotel proved that he would not be able to complete the project. The county granted him the license to build but the plans eventually fell through.
In 1988, ninety-four year old Las Vegas resident Bertha L. Moore was injured when she attempted to enter the hotel through an entrance with automatic sliding glass doors. Before Moore could pass completely through the entrance, the doors closed on her, knocking her down and injuring her severely. She was awarded over $50,000 in her suit against the hotel.
Melinda Saxe, a.k.a. "The First Lady of Magic", began a residency at the Landmark in May of 1988. Her show was family friendly, which was rare at the time, appealing to the increasing number of families vacationing in Vegas. It was a huge success and continued through the summer. It was extended into 1989 where
it continued to do well. In 1990, Landmark officials decided not to renew her contract. Melinda received an offer to move her show to the Marina Hotel.
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In 1989, Landmark offered a loyalty program: Wild Card. Under the tagline, "We'll SPOIL YOU ROTTEN!" the goal of the program was to increase customer loyalty
with local Las Vegans. Membership granted you a card which could be used
at the new gaming machines, in the restaurants, during room bookings, at
shows, the bars, etc.
On January 2, 1990, Landmark filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy after Morris' gaming license lapsed when the resort was $500,000 in behind in taxes and penalties. The court appointed Richard Davis, a Las Vegas real estate executive and the owner of a funeral home, as trustee to operate the hotel at the request of Lloyds Bank (which held a $23.5 million first trustee deed after loaning Morris money to revamp the hotel) in an attempt to make it more attractive for short sale. A public auction was held in July of 1990 where David M. Droubay and Martin Heckmaster, two Denver businessmen, bid more than $35 million for the hotel. The deal eventually fell through. A bankruptcy hearing on August 6 failed to produce any new buyers. Ralph Engelstad, owner of the Imperial Palace Hotel, held $6 million worth of mortgages on the Landmark but chose not to submit a bid. Within an hour of the hearing, the gaming tables at the Landmark were shut down. The next day, guests were transferred to other hotels. 600 employees were left without work. On August 8, 1990, plagued by bankruptcy troubles with more than $48 million in debt and unable to turn business around, the Landmark closed its doors.