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Merv Adelson: 1929-2015:

Las Vegas developer turned Hollywood mogul had his share of highs, lows

Merv Adelson


Las Vegas real estate developer Merv Adelson is shown with his wife, television newscaster Barbara Walters, in November 1986.

Updated Friday, Sept. 11, 2015 | 5:57 p.m.

In 2013, Merv Adelson was pragmatic about the loss of the $300 million fortune he had amassed as a major Las Vegas real estate developer in the 1950s and '60s and as a Hollywood producer of top-rated TV shows like “The Waltons” and “Dallas” in the 1970s and '80s.

“I made my first million at age 24, since then I’ve always had people do things for me,” Adelson told Vanity Fair magazine in 2013. At the time, he was living in a small rented apartment near the Santa Monica pier, sleeping on a run-down futon beside his pet, a flatulent dog. “Now I pay my own bills,” he said.

Adelson, who built Sunrise Hospital, Nathan Adelson Hospice (named for his father), supermarkets and high-end housing projects during his years in Las Vegas and later was married to celebrity newswoman Barbara Walters, died Tuesday night of complications from cancer in a Los Angeles hospital. He was 85.

Adelson was buried Friday in Los Angeles, and his survivors include three children from his first marriage, Ellen Ross, Andrew and Gary; two children from his fourth marriage, Lexi and Ava Nesis; and five grandchildren.

“He lived a fabulous storybook life,” Adelson’s longtime business partner and friend Irwin Molasky said.

After leaving Las Vegas, Adelson augmented what already was a sizable fortune when he became chairman of Lorimar Pictures and one of the founders of the posh La Costa country club in Carlsbad, north of San Diego.

Adelson also long served as chairman of both Sunrise Hospital and Nathan Adelson Hospice, which he had built with Molasky with financing from Las Vegas gaming legend Moe Dalitz, longtime operator of the Desert Inn and Stardust hotels.

Adelson’s other hit shows at Lorimar included “Eight is Enough,” “Knots Landing” and “Falcon Crest” and the motion picture “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

Adelson’s life was a Horatio Alger story that had a terrible twist to it when he invested his fortune in several movies that flopped and in the ill-fated dot-com boom of the late 1990s. His rise and fall could best be described as a rags-to-riches-to-rags story.

“If you asked me back in the day, ‘What do you miss the most?,’ my answer would have been ‘I miss my jet,’” Adelson said in the Vanity Fair story. “You know, there was a time I could pick up the phone here, call my pilot, and I could be in Paris the next morning. But not anymore.”

It is estimated that Adelson lost more than 90 percent of his wealth when his Internet start-ups stock dipped from a high of $58 a share to a low of $7 in the early 2000s. Adelson figured the stock would rebound. It didn’t.

By 2013 Adelson found himself in court being sued for back child support payments to his fourth wife, Thea. Adelson, once one of the richest and most powerful figures in Hollywood, asked the court to reduce his monthly child support payments to an amount he could afford working as a consultant for Time Warner, the company that purchased Lorimar — from $20,000 to $2,137.

In the 2003 divorce decree, Thea got the couple's beach house in Malibu while Adelson moved into the 500-square-foot studio apartment and kitchenette in Santa Monica.

Asked by a reporter how much money he had left, Adelson would say only that it was well under a million. He told Vanity Fair that what he had was “not much, I know, but it’s all I real­ly need. … In the end, I came out with enough money to live.”

Born Oct. 23, 1929, Adelson grew up in Los Angeles listening to his father, Nathan, talk about how much he loved Las Vegas. One of Nathan’s cousins was Beldon Katleman, who owned the famed El Rancho resort on the north end of what is now the Strip.

As a teen, Merv delivered groceries from his father's Beverly Hills grocery store to such major Hollywood stars as Gary Cooper and Bette Davis, who each Christmas invited Merv into their opulent homes for cookies and punch.

In the early 1950s, Adelson visited Las Vegas and decided to invest $10,000 he had borrowed from his father to build something he felt Las Vegas needed — the town’s first 24-hour supermarket. The project made Merv Adelson his first million dollars. Shortly after that, he teamed up with another real estate investor, Molasky, and they built hundreds of high-end houses around the Desert Inn golf course in the late 1950s.

It was during this period that Adelson married his high school sweetheart, Lori Kaufman.

It was also around that time that Adelson met Moe Dalitz, during a class in ballroom dancing that they attended with their wives. Adelson said in the Vanity Fair article that he steered clear of asking Dalitz about how he ran his casinos and Dalitz’s alleged ties to underworld figures.

“All I can say is, in all the years I knew Moe, we never discussed anything criminal or illegal,” Adelson told the magazine. “I never asked him about (anything illegal). I didn’t want to know the answer. There was a line that I never wanted to cross, and I didn’t.”

But that did not shield Adelson from published claims that he made his fortune with support from mob associates.

While Adelson was unhappy with that characterization, he admitted in the magazine article that being associated with dubious figures thrilled him. He was unapologetic for the friends he made and hung out with, including Dalitz.

“I didn’t even know who the real owners of the Desert Inn were,” Adelson told the magazine. “I met a lot of them, sure, guys from back East. And I’ll tell you something: I kind of enjoyed it.

“It was exciting. That reputation I got, for hanging out with Moe. The bow-downs you would get when I walked into a place with Moe. You began to enjoy that kind of thing — at least I did. It’s the way Vegas was. … If you were anyplace else, it would be a terrible, terrible thing. But not in Vegas — not then.”

Adelson could not shake the mob tie rumors even after he settled in California.

There, Adelson helped build the La Costa Resort and Spa, a 6,000-acre development and golf course in Carlsbad, Calif., in 1965. It was built with money he and his partners borrowed from the Teamsters’ Pension Fund, which later was said to be controlled by organized crime.

In the early 1970s, Adelson turned his attention to Hollywood and pitched to CBS a movie idea for what would become “The Waltons.” Despite concern by some network executives, the 1973 movie “The Homecoming: A Christmas Story” was a hit and “The Waltons” was put into the Thursday night CBS lineup against the then-No. 2 rated TV show, “The Flip Wilson Show.”

So successful was “The Waltons” that it not only soared into the Top 10, but within a year it forced the cancellation of Flip Wilson’s variety show on the rival network.

After that, the hit shows poured out of Adelson’s Lorimar studios. (The name Lorimar was created by combining the first name of Adelson’s then-wife with the initials of his good friends Irwin Molasky and television producer Lee Rich.)

In 1980, the Who Shot J.R.? episode of “Dallas” broke ratings records.

After divorcing Kaufman, he was married for a short time in the early 1980s to Gail Bertoya, and at the zenith of his success, Adelson married Barbara Walters in 1986, a year after they went on a blind date.

(Walters’ father, Lou Walters, a nightclub entrepreneur, also had strong ties to Las Vegas. He helped bring “Les Folies Bergere” from Paris to the Tropicana in 1959 and his Latin Quarter Revue to the Riviera.)

However, complications of living on opposite coasts doomed Merv and Barbara’s marriage, which ended in divorce in 1992.

Adelson then married has fourth wife, Thea, who was more than 30 years younger than him. They had two daughters.

Adelson sold Lorimar to what was then known as Warner Communications in 1989 for $1.2 billion in stock. He lost an estimated $141 million in cash watching the bubble burst on the Internet dot-com craze from 2000 to 2003.

Adelson said he sold Lorimar, which was producing about $700 million in revenues, because he had become skeptical after investing in or producing movies such as “Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” which was a huge flop. Also, at the time, a number of his TV shows started to lose steam and faced cancellation.

Merv Adelson was the recipient of numerous awards for humanitarian and charitable deeds in Las Vegas and Southern California.

Ed Koch is a former longtime Las Vegas Sun reporter. Las Vegas Sun librarian Rebecca Clifford-Cruz contributed research to this report.

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