LAS VEGAS — In this town, never draw to an inside straight. Know when to walk away from the table. And when you build on The Strip, make it so big and gaudy that they forget the name of the last place that went up.
On Friday night, enigmatic billionaire Kerkor (Kirk) Kerkorian raises the ante when he unveils the MGM Grand, the largest hotel and casino in the world with 5,005 rooms, 170,000 square feet of casinos, a 15,000-seat arena, a seven-story gold lion that serves as an entrance and a 33-acre theme park.
Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., who sits on the MGM Grand Inc., board, predicts with Vegas-level hyperbole that it will be "one of the wonders of the United States."
The opening of the 112-acre, 30-story, emerald green complex is a $1-billion roll of the dice by Kerkorian amid an unprecedented Las Vegas building boom.
Two other huge projects--the $475-million, pirate-themed Treasure Island and the nearly $400-million, pyramid-shaped Luxor--opened within the last two months. At least three others are planned over the next few years, including yet another Kerkorian project across the street from the MGM Grand. Citywide hotel occupancy rates approaching 90% breed that kind of optimism.
This is the third time in 24 years that Kerkorian has built what at the time was the world's largest hotel here. In 1969, he opened the International--now the Las Vegas Hilton--selling it in 1971. In 1973, Kerkorian erected the first MGM Grand, probably best known as the site of a deadly high-rise fire in November, 1980, that killed 85. He sold that 26-story giant in 1986 to Bally's, which re-christened it with the corporate name.
Figuring out why the obsessively private Kerkorian--a junior high school dropout whose net worth is estimated at $3.1 billion by Forbes magazine--wants to one-up the hotel business again at age 76 is a puzzle even to friends. "That's Kirk," is usually the most detailed explanation they offer.
"He doesn't do it for the money. He has more money than he'll need in five lifetimes," says retired Chrysler Corp. CEO Lee A. Iacocca, a personal friend of Kerkorian's who is also an MGM Grand board member. "He does it because he gets bug-eyed like a little kid when he goes through the place."
Explaining himself is something Kerkorian, who owns 73% of MGM Grand, doesn't like to do. He routinely turns down almost all interview requests--as he did for this story--opting to let his team of executives speak for him.
"He doesn't have much interest in small investments, because they can take as much time as the big ones," says MGM Grand executive vice president and Kerkorian right-hand man Alex Yemenidjian. "You can grab his attention with a $500-million project, but not with a $25-million riverboat."
The MGM Grand, which cost a shade more than $1 billion, arrives amid a paradoxical transformation of this booming town.
The adult gambling playground that began with mobster Bugsy Siegel's vision is now trying to sell itself as a family vacation mecca. Some analysts doubt the shift will take hold to any great extent. Still, the betting is that Las Vegas and its relatively cheap hotel rooms will convince some tourists to spurn Mickey and Donald for Siegfried and Roy.
"It's a big change from 30 years ago," says Richard Etter, chairman of Bank of America-Nevada. "Now it's Mr. and Mrs. America in an adult Disneyland, and they want to bring the family."
The MGM Grand--which has no corporate ties now to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio Kerkorian once owned--also opens as legal gambling explodes across the country, leading some observers to speculate about an inevitable glut in the gaming market. It's a warning Las Vegas has heard before--one that boosters note has usually been wrong.
There are some glitches emerging as opening night nears--mainly a nasty public battle Kerkorian's managers are locked in with unions representing hotel and restaurant workers.
The unions are aiming to organize "cast members," as workers at the movie-themed hotel will be called, amid stiff resistance from the MGM Grand and its chief executive, Robert Maxey. In the wake of union pressure, virtually all the top state and local politicians are planning to skip Friday night's opening ceremonies, when a loud union demonstration is planned as Kerkorian and his team smash a yard-tall bottle of champagne to christen the hotel.
Kerkorian himself bears a resemblance to Bert Lahr, the actor who played the Cowardly Lion in the MGM film "Wizard of Oz." Friends describe him as unpretentious despite his wealth. Kerkorian drives himself, insists that everyone call him "Kirk" and rises from his seat to personally serve visitors at his homes in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
"Kirk is an unusual man," says Iacocca. "He's not reclusive. He's a very private guy, but not like Howard Hughes was. But he's a good guy to be out with."