MGM Grand (1973-1986)
MGM Grand (1973-1986)
Location: Center Strip
3645 Las Vegas Blvd S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
What’s There Now: Bally’s Las Vegas
Hotel opens on December 5
Grand opening held December 23
Construction begins on a new hotel tower and showroom
Fire destroys much of the ground floor of the hotel, killing 84 people and injuring nearly 700
Rebuilt hotel with state-of-the-art fire safety system opens July 29
Hotel sold to Bally’s Entertainment
Hotel renamed Bally’s Grand
The monolithic green monster that is the current MGM Grand was not the first hotel in Las Vegas to operate under that name. The brand actually extends all the way back to 1973 and involves a tragic history that changed Las Vegas forever.
Kirk Kerkorian got his start in the Las Vegas casino business by purchasing the land that would eventually be home to Caesars Palace. Flush with the money he made off the sale of that land, he built the International (now Westgate Resort) and bought The Flamingo, then sold both to the Hilton Corporation.
After buying the MGM movie studio, Kerkorian wanted to bring the brand to Las Vegas in the biggest way possible, by creating the biggest, most luxurious resort in the world.
He set his sights on a plot of land at the corner of what is now The Strip and Flamingo across the street from The Dunes and kitty-corner to Caesars. It had been vacant scrub brush until the early 1960s when several hotels opened on it: the 3 Coins Motel on the corner, The Bonanza hotel and casino just to the south, and the Galaxy Motel just south of that.
By the time Kerkorian came after the property around 1972, the whole thing was tangled up in a morass of ownership confusion. The 3 Coins had been torn down to become a parking lot for The Bonanza, which had sunk into bankruptcy and was only operating as a motel. Kerkorian bought it but later found out that he only owned part of the land under the Bonanza – the rest was owned by another party that refused sell. The legendarily irascible Kerkorian effectively shrugged, tore down the portion that he owned, and put up a wall to separate the part he didn’t own from what he was about to build.
Construction began in 1972 and the MGM Grand opened to the public on December 5, 1973.
It cost $106 million, at the time the most expensive hotel ever built. It featured nearly 2,100 rooms and 2 1/2 million square feet of space, making it the largest resort hotel complex in the world.
It also had the largest casino in the world with 1,000 slot machines and over 100 gaming tables. A private high roller casino, Club Metro, was located atop the hotel tower on the 26th floor. Bets there ranged from $50 to $2,500 and it cost $1,000 to get a membership.
There were six restaurants: Cafe GiGi, a gourmet room with a decor inspired by the Palace of Versailles; Barrymore’s, a steak and seafood house named in honor of John and Ethel (not Drew yet at that time); Caruso’s, an Italian restaurant with hand painted scenes of Venice; The Reef, a ship themed seafood restaurant; The Grand Prix, an ice cream parlor with an auto racing theme; and The Deli, a 24-hour New York style delicatessen.
Other amenities included convention space, two showrooms, 25 bars, a movie theater, tennis courts, multiple pools, a shopping arcade (the world’s largest such hotel facility with 24 shops), and a jai alai court arena.
Promotional material boasted that it could seat 10,000 people at a time in its entertainment venues – 5,000 in the Grand Ballroom, 2,200 in the Jai Alai room, 1,200 in the Celebrity Room, 800 in the Ziegfeld Room, 300 in the Lion’s Den, and 300 in the movie theater.
The whole property had, appropriately enough, a movie theme inspired by the film “Grand Hotel” featuring John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford. Gold stars were used for room numbers, a “Hall of Fame” had movie and celebrity posters, and the overall design felt like a classic movie palace with heavy red drapes and gold accents.
A grand opening was held on on December 23, 1973 and Hollywood came out in force. Actor Fred McMurray of “My Three Sons” and actress Barbara Eden of “I Dream of Jeannie” presided over the ribbon cutting ceremony and Dean Martin was the star of the opening night entertainment.
The hotel was a smash success, becoming a must visit attraction and one of the most popular resorts in the city.
In the late 1970s, the rest of the Bonanza property was finally purchased and the buildings (and wall) torn down. Construction on a 782-room expansion and a new showroom started in in 1980. It was weeks away from opening when tragedy struck.
The date was November 21st, 1980. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president, the hostages were still in Iran, and TV audiences everywhere were anxiously awaiting that evening’s episode of “Dallas,” which promised to finally reveal “Who Shot JR?”
But in Las Vegas the “real world” seemed a million miles away. Then, as now, Vegas was a place where the harsh realities of everyday life were held at bay by bright neon lights, slot machines, and showgirls.
That all changed on that November morning and it all started in a pie case.
The design of the pie case was simple. It was built into the wall of a side station in the deli, about four feet up from the floor so the entire room could get a view of the tasty treats contained within. An aluminum conduit containing two wires came down from the ceiling, supplying power to the unit. Two more wires in another conduit ran out of the pie case, down to the compressor sitting on a shelf under the side station counter. Two copper pipes ran up from compressor, supplying and returning coolant.
At one point, the copper pipes and the aluminum conduit came in contact with one another as they passed through a narrow cutout in the wall. Over the years, as the compressor ran almost 24 hours a day, the vibrations caused the pipes and conduit to rub against one another. Eventually, the stronger copper piping eroded the side of weaker aluminum conduit, exposing the wires it contained. If one of those pipes touched an exposed, live wire, a spark was inevitable.
But there were systems in place to prevent that spark from happening.
The wires were sheathed in a plastic coating, which should have precluded anything from touching them. However, the act of pulling the wires through the conduit when it was first installed weakened the plastic coating and it, just like the aluminum conduit designed to protect it, also wore away over the years leaving raw, exposed wires.
But even if the contact was made, a circuit breaker or fuse box should have eliminated the potential for disaster. Normally there are three wires in an electrical circuit – one to supply power, one to return it to the source, and a third that acts as a ground. Should something happen in the normal circuit the energy would get sent off into the third wire, tripping a fuse or circuit breaker. This would shut down the current to the circuit and eliminate the possibility of a spark.
In this case there was no third wire. The design of this particular circuit used the aluminum conduit as the ground. If there was a problem, the current would transfer to the conduit and pop the circuit. But improper installation left gaps between the conduit and the junction boxes. With nowhere for the electricity to go, it flashed through the conduit and that aluminum tube heated up like the filament in a toaster.
In addition, the heat from the conduit and the hot air blowing out from the compressor lowered the ignition temperature of the materials that surrounded it in the wall. When the copper pipes finally came in contact with the wire and that inevitable spark happened, it didn’t take much to turn the spark into a flame.
It’s unknown exactly when the spark happened. The leading theory is that it may have occurred when the pie case compressor turned back on after a 15-minute defrosting cycle that happened every night after the deli was closed, around midnight. The sudden start-up vibration could have been just enough to bump the copper pipes into the exposed wire.
There was a spark and in the dark recesses of the wall, a fire began to burn. It smoldered for hours, sending heat up through the wall into the crawl space that ran from above the deli, above the casino, all the way to the front door of the hotel more than 400 feet away. As the ambient heat rose, the ignition point of the materials that made up the ceiling fell.
Then at shortly after 7am, a maintenance worker opened the door of the deli. Air rushed into the room, feeding the small flame. The wall, already tinder dry and superheated, burst into flame sending more heat and thick smoke up into the crawl space. Within minutes the entire room was ablaze.
With no firewalls to impede it in the crawl space, the fire rushed through the ceiling out into the casino. There was a moment, reported by eyewitnesses, when the thick black smoke seemed to hang above the back of the casino like an ominous cloud as the fire gained strength and the heat intensified. Then it pounced.
The casino ceiling burned first, but flames stretched to the floor. An enormous wall of fire rushed through the room, gobbling up carpeting and furnishings, plastics and fabrics, and anything and anyone in its path at an astounding rate – twenty feet per second. That’s approximately 14 miles per hour or about twice as fast as most people can easily run.
The heat was incredible – 3200 degrees. Enough to melt metal. Enough to dissolve skin.
By the time the flames reached the front door of the casino, glass and metal were no match and no impediment. A fireball blew out the front of the door and swept through the porte corche. A lone car, waiting to be parked, was incinerated in an instant. The heat of the fire reduced other cars in the adjacent parking lot to scorched wrecks, sitting on melted pools of rubber.
At this point, less than ten minutes had passed since the worker first noticed the flames. In that short amount of time the fire had destroyed the bulk of casino and killed more than a dozen people.
But that was only the beginning.
The fire and smoke quickly spread into the hotel guest tower which was at 99% capacity – nearly 5,000 people were estimated to be in the building at the time, most sleeping soundly in their rooms. The smoke or maybe the screaming woke them.
Guests rushed for the fire exits, but design elements that were intended to keep the structure safe in the event of an earthquake, turned the stairwells into chimneys as thick, poisonous smoke roiled up from the casino level and burst out the top of the hotel towers. Those on the lower floors managed to make it down or were rescued by fire engine ladders that could only reach so high. People on the upper floors went to the roof where an unprecedented chain of helicopters, both official rescue choppers and private aircraft flown by volunteers, lined up to take people to safety.
It was the middle floors that proved most deadly. The bulk of the victims were found on the 20th and 23rd floors, far out of reach of the flames but overcome by the unstoppable smoke.
When it was all over a few hours later, 84 people were dead and almost 700 were injured. The disaster ranks as the second worst hotel fire in US history.
The large loss of life, and the resultant media coverage the fire received, spurred government officials into action. The sprinkler systems that are found in most hotels and high-rises are a direct result of the MGM Grand fire.
The hotel underwent a complete renovation and the expansion was completed. It reopened on July 29, 1981 touting the state-of-the-art fire safety system. Cary Grant greeted guests as the official ambassador of the reopened hotel.
The long-running showgirl spectacular Jubliee! opened the next night on July 30, 1981. It had been in rehearsals when the fire hit and many of its sets and costumes were destroyed.
The hotel was purchased by Bally’s Entertainment in 1985 for $594 million and the hotel became Bally’s Grand in 1986 then later simply Bally’s Las Vegas, the name it operates under today.
The current MGM Grand opened on the south strip in 1993.