Thursday, Dec. 12, 2002 | 11:18 a.m.
Executives of the International Hotel thought entertainment director Bill Miller was nuts when he booked Elvis Presley into the showroom in 1969.
With the popularity of groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Presley was old news, they thought. No way could he draw a crowd.
Not only did Presley fill the showroom night after night, but the relationship between the resort that is now the Las Vegas Hilton and the King of Rock 'n' Roll re-established a legend's career and cemented Las Vegas' place in the world of live entertainment.
Bill Miller, the man who linked Las Vegas with Elvis, died Monday at his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 98. Services will be 11 a.m. Monday at Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs.
Miller's other booking coups included Mae West, Sammy Davis Jr., Sonny and Cher and Barbra Streisand, but Presley was Miller's biggest triumph. Presley had bombed in Las Vegas early in his career, but when Miller brought him back to town, Presley racked up more than 700 sellout performances at the Hilton between 1969 and 1976.
"My husband got quite a bit of heat from those who feared the act would fail," Denise Miller, Bill's wife of 34 years, said. "But he told them to trust his judgment because he knew what he was doing."
That judgment made him a legend among entertainers, longtime friend and entertainer Sonny King said.
"Bill Miller meant to Las Vegas what (flamboyant Broadway producer) Billy Rose meant to New York," he said.
"Bill had a compassion for entertainers because he had been one."
Miller started as a dancer in the 1920s and had worked on the same bill at New York's Hudson Theatre with King's dad, Georgie, and his uncle Joe, who performed as the King Brothers. By 1928 Miller left the stage and became an agent.
Sonny King was manager of New York's famed Copacabana nightclub in 1954 when Miller, then entertainment director at the Sahara hotel, booked him to work the Sahara lounge.
"I asked him where is Las Vegas?" said King, who today performs at the Bootlegger. "He said, 'You may not know where Las Vegas is, but when you get there you won't want to go back to New York.' He was right. I never left Las Vegas."
Entertainer Pete Barbutti came to Las Vegas in 1960 to perform with his group The Millionaires at the New Frontier, where Miller was entertainment director.
"It was a miserable stay, so for our last show, I insulted the place and the audience started laughing, thinking it was part of our act," Barbutti said. "What we didn't know was that Bill was in the audience with Donald O'Connor. After the show, he booked us for another seven months.
"He was our boss, but he also was our friend. He understood what entertainers are all about."
Miller made the Sahara lounge the town's premier hot spot, booking Louis Prima and other top acts. He later did the same thing at the New Frontier's Cloud 9 Lounge, booking Della Reese and Billy Eckstein.
Jean Bennett, longtime manager of the Platters, said Miller as entertainment director of the Flamingo in the 1960s, booked her group there several times.
"He was one of the best entertainment directors Las Vegas ever had," she said. "He knew talent very well and he gave great advice to performers."
Born Nov. 27, 1904, in Russia, Miller came with his family to the United States when he was a baby, as they escaped the persecution of Jews. Miller was raised in Brooklyn and quit high school during the Great Depression to go into show business.
During World War II Miller owned and operated the Riviera nightclub in New Jersey, where Frank Sinatra and other top stars performed. One of those acts, the Will Mastin Trio, featured a young Sammy Davis, whom Miller helped launch to stardom in Las Vegas.
Miller came to Las Vegas in 1952, when Milton Prell opened the Sahara. Two years later Miller booked the aging but still attractive screen legend West into the Sahara.
He would go on to book Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, a struggling Sonny and Cher and many other acts into Las Vegas lounges and showrooms.
"My husband's word was his bond," Denise Miller said. "He only started doing written contracts late in his career because times had changed. But for most of his career he was proud that he did his business on a handshake."
Miller went from the Sahara to the Dunes to the New Frontier to the Flamingo, which then was owned by billionaire developer Kirk Kerkorian. When Kerkorian opened the International in 1969, he brought Miller with him. Miller booked Streisand to open the 2,000-seat showroom, followed by Presley the next month.
Miller also was a former co-owner of the Royal Nevada and at one time owned interests in the Dunes, Sahara and New Frontier resorts.
He retired to Palm Springs in the mid-1970s.
In addition to his wife, Miller is survived by two daughters, Judy Miller of New York, and Susan Miller of Desert Hot Springs; Calif., a stepson, Jerry Johnson of Pasadena, Calif.; a sister, Molly Vine of Miami, a grandson Michael Miller of London; and a granddaughter Dina Miller of New Jersey.
Miller was preceded in death by a son, Jimmy Miller, longtime record producer for the Rolling Stones and other rock groups.