When you look back at the history of gambling, there are truly only a handful of names that can be associated with the immense growth and popularity of the industry.
When it comes to Las Vegas casinos, and in particular the lavish properties on the Las Vegas Strip, one name comes immediately to mind: Steve Wynn.
Wynn is responsible for some of the most iconic brands on the Strip today, and his rise to prominence is a great American story.
Stephen Alan Weinberg was born in New Haven, Connecticut on January 27th, 1942. His father, Michael, decided shortly after Steve was born to change the family name to Wynn. This was to try to avoid some of the anti-Semitic trouble that was being caused in the U.S. around that time.
Michael Wynn ran a group of bingo parlors across the eastern U.S. as his career, so Steve had gaming in his blood from an early age. The business afforded Steve some of the finer things when he was growing up; the most important being a private school education.
Unfortunately, for one reason or another, the bingo business wasn’t being run as profitably as it could be, and when Wynn’s father passed away, it was discovered that there were debts from the business totaling $350,000.
Steve was studying English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania when his father died.
Rather than continue on to his accepted position at Yale Law School, he returned to run the family business.
He managed to turn that business around, paying off all the debts and making the halls profitable once again.
Now fully entrenched in the family business, Wynn turned his attention from the bingo parlors to larger possibilities. He parlayed some of the profits from the bingo parlors into buying a piece of the Frontier Casino, and in 1967 he and his family relocated to Las Vegas.
Vegas back in those days was nothing like you see today; the Fremont Street casinos were the only ones at the time. However, the city was alive with entertainment, and Wynn wanted to capitalize on it as much as possible.
On top of making the right financial connections in Vegas upon his arrival, Wynn also opened a wine and liquor importing business, which became wildly successful.
In fact, it was so successful, that Wynn started to buy property in the desert; this land would soon become Las Vegas Boulevard.
In 1971, Wynn managed to flip one piece of land to the folks who would build Caesar’s Palace and turned those profits into a controlling stake in the Golden Nugget. He felt the iconic casino needed a refresh, so he poured significant investment into refurbishing the entire property, including building the first hotel rooms at the casino.
By 1977, the Nugget was a booming success, and the top entertainers were performing there, including a run by the late great Frank Sinatra.
After building another Golden Nugget in Atlantic City and purchasing and rebranding a casino in Laughlin, it was time for Steve to put his vision for his own lavish property together. This meant a move on to the Strip, which was a daunting task given that in the early 1980s, the economy had been suffering and Las Vegas seemed to have lost its luster.
Wynn didn’t buy into the hype, vowing to make the city a tourist destination for not just Americans but international travelers. Having sold the Atlantic City Golden Nugget for $440 million in 1987, Wynn took those proceeds and other funding methods to break ground on The Mirage.
Despite challenges and issues, he managed to have the property completed in an unheard of two years, and in November of 1989, the casino resort opened its doors. The centerpiece of the Mirage was on the outside of the building; a massive, working “volcano” that would light up and erupt on a regular basis.
The building boom took off almost instantly, and Wynn was right back in the mix, working on his next puzzle piece.
The vision for his next project was simple; a more family-oriented resort, featuring a pirate theme. The end result of this vision was Treasure Island, complete with another outdoor entertainment platform for passersby to stop and watch. Treasure Island was a huge success and combined with the Mirage made Wynn and Mirage Resorts very profitable.
Wynn wasn’t going to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labors; he was ready to tackle his most lavish, ambitious project on the Strip.
The plans for the Bellagio revealed a decadent casino/resort, featuring the greatest attention to detail in the rooms and casino, a state of the art entertainment facility ready to house Cirque Du Soleil, and a full spa and shopping experience.
When it was completed in 1988 (as the most expensive hotel built in the world), Wynn’s outdoor spectacle rivaled the interior of the facility: a spectacular lake with a programmable fountain in the middle, which would put on a water display every 15 minutes set to music.
You have for sure seen this fountain even if you haven’t been to Vegas; the water show has been featured in dozens of movies and TV shows.
He then turned his attention to a spot outside of the Nevada lights; he next built the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Mississippi, which upon completion was the largest resort in the U.S. outside of Vegas.
To deal with archaic gambling laws, the casino originally was housed on barges that were stationary on the property (gambling had to take place on the water in those days).
During this whole rise to fame, the one thing that was failing Steve Wynn was a critical one:
However, he wasn’t done with his “vision” of casino resorts. In 2000, Mirage Resorts was sold to MGM for $6.6 Billion.
Just before that deal was completed, Wynn purchased the old Desert Inn for $270 million, and when he was free and clear from Mirage Resorts, he announced yet another ridiculously expensive project.
This one would allow him to leave his mark on the Strip, quite literally; the Wynn Resort and Casino would open on April 28, 2005, at a staggering cost of $2.6 billion.
The hotel features The Tower Suites, run almost as a separate entity to the regular hotel rooms. It also featured a golf course (the only one on the Strip), and the opulent displays of art were everywhere you turned.
Wynn looked to replicate the model in the Asian gaming state of Macau, and in 2008 the Wynn Macau was opened. Simultaneously, he decided to put a second tower up at his Las Vegas resort, and soon after the Encore was opened, he went right back to Macau to build the same tower attached to his property there.
Even as he advances in age, Wynn continues to apply for and receive permits to build casino resorts. The latest include plans to build the Wynn Palace on the mainland in China, as well the Wynn Everett, which will be housed just outside downtown Boston.
It seems that everything goes Wynn’s way, even when it goes sideways. An avid art collector, Wynn was set to sell one of his prized possessions, Picasso’s La Reve, for $139 million to Stephen Cohen.
Unfortunately, his eyesight got the better of him and one day he put his elbow right through the painting. This voided the sale, and Wynn spent almost $100,000 restoring the painting. Upon restoration, the painting was now valued at $85 million.
Wynn sued the insurance company for the sum of $54 million, and that case was finally settled out of court. The final selling price of the painting in 2013 (to the same buyer)? $155 million.
This small-time bingo operator parlayed good business ethics and excellent networking into becoming one of the most iconic figures in the history of gambling.