Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2019

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Off-Strip location made Hilton one of LV’s biggest gambles

The Las Vegas Hilton was the biggest hotel in the world when it opened as the International Hotel in 1969 -- and it was considered the biggest gamble taken by a casino operator.

Billionaire Kirk Kerkorian's three-winged tower opened with 1,512 rooms, and the old-time gamers wondered aloud who would fill those rooms.

Not only were there too many of them, but the property was off the Strip -- away from the action, they noted.

By the time Barron Hilton and his Hilton Corp. purchased the massive property in 1973, the critics had been proven partly right by the International's uneven performance in its first four years. But within a couple of years of the sale, the Las Vegas Hilton was filling its rooms and quieting the critics.

The hotel quickly established itself as a resort capable of drawing big-name entertainers.

Singer Barbra Streisand opened the hotel, making $1 million for her twice nightly performances for the month -- then considered a fortune for a Las Vegas entertainer. Actor Cary Grant and basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, with 2,000 other VIPs, saw the show.

Elvis Presley followed Streisand a month later, eventually establishing the International and later the Hilton as the King's Las Vegas home.

The Hilton's headliners also included Wayne Newton, who played the Hilton from 1987 until 1993, Lou Rawls, Bill Cosby, Nancy Wilson, Liberace, the Monkeys and the road show of "Hair." Recently it has developed a reputation for country music headliners.

But in local memory, the Hilton is known as much for fire and scandal as spotlights.

On Feb. 10, 1981, a fire at the Hilton killed eight people and hurt more than 200. The blaze came only months after the worst fire in Las Vegas history, at the MGM Grand hotel-casino, which killed 87 people and injured more than 700.

At the Hilton, where damages reached $13 million, a busboy had torched an eighth-floor lobby curtain with a marijuana cigarette. Philip Bruce Cline was convicted of arson and received eight life sentences plus 15 years as punishment.

In the wake of those two fires, resorts were required to retrofit fire-safety measures such as sprinklers in rooms.

From the ashes rose a bigger and better Hilton. Boasting the tallest sign in the world at 362 feet, the Hilton's peak attraction came crashing down in a July 1994 summer storm. The new sign rises 262 feet and cost $6 million to replace.

A national scandal brought more unwanted attention to the Hilton. In 1991 Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin charged that naval aviators attending the Tailhook Association convention at the Hilton that year sexually assaulted her in a hallway as part of an organized system of drinking and abusing women.

Her descriptions of the drunken escapades at the hotel during the convention eventually brought forward other tales from as many as 80 women that they had been groped by drunken military pilots.

Coughlin eventually left the Navy and sued, winning $400,000 from the Tailhook Association and $6.8 million from the Hilton. The hotel appealed, and the award was reduced to $5.2 million.

Six women settled with the San Diego-based Tailhook Association in 1995.

The scandal gave the Navy a black eye, triggered the resignation of Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett and changed the way aviators were promoted, requiring extra scrutiny of anyone who had attended the convention.

In the mid-1990s the Hilton began a move to its current look, adding attractions from a laser light show to Star Trek as other hotels along the famed Strip became themed resorts.

In 1996 the Hilton paired with Paramount Parks to build "Star Trek: The Experience" ushered in by laser shows, flaming signs and fireworks. The $50 million simulator ride opened in February 1997.

In addition to finding a theme, the Hilton also attracted its share of sports greats. Mike Tyson beat Frank Bruno there in 1989. Michael Carbajal knocked out junior flyweight champ Humberto Gonzalez there in 1993. And golf champion Tiger Woods played at the Las Vegas Hilton Country Club in 1996. Sun reporter

Steve Kanigher contributed to this story.

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