Few casino builders or operators have had a greater impact on their industry, and especially on contemporary Las Vegas, than Stephen Alan “Steve” Wynn. The son of an illegal bingo game operator, Wynn received an Ivy League education. The combination of the two gave him a unique perspective for a Las Vegas gaming operator of his generation. Wynn started making his mark on the Las Vegas Strip in the 1970s. The 1989 opening of his Mirage ushered in the age of expensive and opulent “megaresorts,” turning him into a visionary, controversial casino mogul.
Wynn was born in 1942 in New Haven, Connecticut. As a young man in Boston, his father, Mike, changed the family name from Weinberg to avoid anti-Semitism. The elder Wynn, who ran a bingo parlor, moved his family to Las Vegas in 1952 to operate a bingo establishment at the Silver Slipper casino on the Strip. But faced with bingo games run by the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas, the Wynn parlor was out of business in only six weeks.
The Wynns returned to the East Coast, and Steve later entered the University of Pennsylvania. He worked on Sundays at his father's bingo parlor in a Maryland suburb near Washington, D.C. But just before he graduated from college in 1963, his father died of a heart attack. Wynn, who had considered a medical career, decided to take over the bingo business. He called the numbers for players' cards and his new wife, Elaine, oversaw the cash. Wynn also got to know some of the old friends and contacts of his father, a longtime gambler who owed money to illegal operators when he died. Wynn decided to pay off his father's old gambling debts.
Through these contacts in the 1960s, Wynn met one of his father's friends, Maurice Friedman of Las Vegas, later identified as an associate of a Detroit organized crime group. Though state and federal authorities never tied Wynn to organized crime members, his early link with Friedman and speculation about alleged associations to other underworld figures would be a source of controversy for him in the future.
In 1965—with Friedman's help and a $30,000 loan from Wynn family friend Frank Goldman— Wynn spent $45,000 on a three percent investment in the Frontier Hotel on the Strip. He also borrowed $30,000 from a Las Vegas bank to buy another two percent. The shares qualified him for portions of the Frontier's gambling profits. The Frontier was attached to the Silver Slipper, where his father had gone out of business. Wynn later said that watching his father and others lose money gambling “showed me at a very early age that if you wanted to make money in a casino, the answer was to own one.”
Wynn moved his wife to Las Vegas in 1967 and became the Frontier's slot and keno manager. Within weeks, Friedman's association with a card cheating scandal in California was revealed, as was his association with Detroit mobsters. The Frontier's investors quickly sold the hotel-casino to billionaire Howard Hughes for $24 million. Several years later, Friedman, in exchange for immunity, gave grand jury testimony that helped convict three organized crime associates for holding hidden interests in the Frontier. Wynn also testified but was never accused of wrongdoing.
After leaving the Frontier, Wynn co-produced lounge acts in Las Vegas, but yearned to do more. A 1969 meeting with Las Vegas banker E. Parry Thomas changed Wynn's life. The head of Valley Bank, Thomas had been granting loans to Strip and downtown casinos for years while other banks resisted. Thomas admired Wynn's enthusiasm and helped him become the Nevada liquor distributor for Best Brands, a subsidiary of a national company, Schenley Industries. Thomas allowed Wynn to buy Best Brands on credit. Wynn provided wine and spirits to Strip casinos, but not for long.
In 1970, Wynn bought ten acres off of the Las Vegas Strip for $154,000, and then persuaded Thomas to lend him $400,000 to build a liquor warehouse there. After a year, he sold the warehouse to Schenley for $700,000 and he also sold Best Brands, netting $170,000 in the deal. Thomas gave Wynn a loan of $1.2 million, guaranteed by liquor executive Abraham Rosenberg. With the consent of Caesars Palace owner Clifford Perlman, Wynn bought a narrow, one-acre slice of the Strip, next to Caesars Palace at Flamingo Road, from Hughes Tool Company in 1971. He announced that he would build a casino there to compete with Caesars, but it was really a way to get Caesars to buy him out. In 1972, Wynn and Rosenberg got the deal they wanted—they sold the land to Caesars for $2.25 million. Wynn's share, after repaying the Thomas loan, was $687,000.
Wynn, then thirty, set about acquiring a majority interest in the public company that owned the Golden Nugget. He had been purchasing shares in it since 1969. By 1973, having bought out investor Jerome Zarowitz, Wynn owned five and a half percent and received a state gaming license. In only a few months, he became executive vice president and a company board member, bought 225,000 more shares and then was elected company chairman at age thirty-one. With his younger brother Kenneth assisting him, Wynn made sweeping changes to the casino, and profits grew steadily. The Golden Nugget became the downtown area's fanciest hotel-casino, and Wynn had begun to make his mark on the Strip.
A few years later, with cash and property to leverage, Wynn decided to enter the gambling business in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where voters approved casino gambling in 1976. In 1980, he debuted his Golden Nugget Atlantic City casino with 522 hotel rooms. While planning a new 18-story hotel tower for his Las Vegas casino, Wynn signed Frank Sinatra to perform at both the Las Vegas and Atlantic City Golden Nuggets. The deal would bring wealthy high rollers, and their gambling revenues, to both casinos.
But in 1984, Wynn failed in his attempt to gain a gaming license in London amid charges—which he strongly denied—of an association with New York mobster Anthony Salerno. In 1986, Wynn also ran into licensing trouble with the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, whose investigators claimed to have evidence linking Wynn and his aides to Salerno and other organized crime figures. They also alleged that one mobster, Anthony Castelbuono, was permitted to launder money through Wynn's Atlantic City casino. No direct link was established, but Wynn, disgusted by the charges, opted to leave Atlantic City. He sold the Golden Nugget Atlantic City to Bally's Entertainment Corporation for a reported profit of $260 million.
Wynn turned his attention back to building on the Strip, which by the 1980s consisted of aging properties and only one major new resort, the MGM Grand, built in 1980. He obtained a then-unheard of $1 billion in credit, about $160 million of it from Wall Street lender Michael Milken, who lent Wynn the money through the use of “junk bonds”—high-interest loans secured by speculation of future success. With his Wall Street credit, Wynn set about building a new kind of hotel-casino, the Mirage, that cost a Strip-record $620 million. It opened in 1989 and became an immediate tourist attraction and financial success.
Wynn's Mirage was the Strip's first so-called “megaresort” and sparked a new era of casino gambling and entertainment that drew national attention to Las Vegas. The Wynn-inspired new age required ever-higher investments in hotel-casinos to pay for higher quality standards in décor, hotel suites, restaurants, entertainment, and other attractions, all intended to impress both middle and upper-class tourists. The Mirage's success immediately inspired other companies to build competing megaresorts on the Strip such as the Excalibur, MGM Grand, Luxor, and Venetian.
In the early 1990s, Wynn ran into problems with police and gaming authorities in Nevada. Las Vegas detectives revealed that the Mirage had hosted three East Coast mobsters in a trip arranged by employee Charles Meyerson, a one-time illegal bookmaker and friend of Wynn's late father. Officials found no wrongdoing by Wynn or Meyerson.
In 1993, Wynn used a section of the Mirage's parking lot to erect a new megaresort, the 32-story Treasure Island, with a live, simulated pirate ship battle involving climbing and falling acrobats, to be performed every fifteen minutes in front of the property. Also that year, Wynn's daughter, Kevyn, was kidnapped in Las Vegas, but was soon found unharmed.
In the late 1990s, Wynn prepared to build a casino in Mississippi and another Strip megaresort. The Strip location included the former Dunes Hotel, which Wynn arranged to have imploded on national television in 1993. In 1998, he opened the Bellagio on that site, setting a new record for construction costs on the Strip: $1.6 billion. Like the Mirage a decade earlier, the Bellagio raised the standards for new Strip hotel-casinos. By including a fine art gallery that features works he had collected, Wynn's Bellagio also introduced yet another attraction to the Strip, but this time with a unique cultural connection. Soon, another casino boom period followed in Las Vegas with new megaresorts such as Paris-Las Vegas and Mandalay Bay.
In 1999, amid cost overruns on his $700 million Mississippi casino, shareholder criticism of his spending, and worries on Wall Street, the once-high value of shares in Wynn's company, Mirage Resorts, began to fall significantly. MGM Grand owner Kirk Kerkorian launched a bid to take over Mirage Resorts and Wynn agreed—not happily—to his buyout offer. In 2000, Wynn's corporation became the subject of what was then the biggest buyout of a hotel-casino corporation in history when Kerkorian paid $6.7 billion for the Mirage. Wynn grossed about $500 million from the deal, and said he would never again go through the hassles of owning a public company. He used his part of the windfall to buy the forty-year-old Desert Inn on the Strip.
Wynn closed the Desert Inn and later imploded it in favor of a yet another venture he called Wynn Las Vegas. The megaresort opened in 2005 at a cost of $2.7 billion. It features 2,716 hotel rooms, a Broadway-sized theater, and the only golf course left on the Strip.
Next, Wynn again looked outside of Las Vegas, where he saw a huge opportunity in Macau, a small, two-island former Portuguese territory that China acquired in 1999. For years, Macau had been Asia's top gaming destination, but only one operator, Stanley Ho, was permitted to own casinos. In 2002, the Chinese government allowed new owners to build casinos there, and Wynn was among the first to be approved. He spent $1.2 billion to develop the 600-room Wynn Macau and opened it in 2006.
In 2008, in the midst of the nation's worst recession in generations, Wynn opened yet another Strip megaresort, the $2.3 billion Encore. It is located next to Wynn Las Vegas and has a similar curved brown-glass-tower exterior. But while the Wynn is themed after New York neighborhoods, the Encore with its natural light and large windows reflects the sunbathed ambience of St. Tropez in southern France. Its 2,034 rooms are all suites. It also offers five restaurants, the most prominent of which is Sinatra, featuring Frank Sinatra memorabilia, including his Academy Award for best supporting actor in From Here to Eternity. Elsewhere there is a nightclub with a 10-foot rotating chandelier and the Switch restaurant featuring changing walls and ceiling.