High Roller

A Vegas visionary sees gambling as family fun

AT AN AGE WHEN MOST KIDS WERE playing cowboys and Indians, Steve Wynn was dreaming of croupiers and jackpots. Strolling the streets of Las Vegas with his dad, who was trying to expand the family bingo business from its base in Baltimore, the wide-eyed 10-year-old was transfixed by the dazzling promise of the Strip. “When I grow up,” Steve solemnly told his father, Michael, “I’m going to be a casino boss.”

It was one of the last times anybody could accuse him of thinking small. Today Wynn, still boyish-looking at 52, has parlayed his initial $45,000 bankroll into a $1.7 billion gaming empire, with his own take an estimated $34 million last year. Like such Vegas pioneers as Bugsy Siegel and Howard Hughes, the mercurial entrepreneur—equally famous for his charm and his rages—hasn’t been content to play by the house rules. Inspired by idol Walt Disney, Wynn has pursued his dream of Vegas as a family-oriented magic kingdom instead of a tawdry retreat for high rollers and lowlifes—in the process helping to reinvent the industry. “Steve Wynn is a visionary,” says Tom Hantges, a Las Vegas financial consultant. “He’s the man responsible for the new growth of Las Vegas.”

Since setting the standard four years ago with his $730 million Mirage—an opulent fantasyland with an indoor rain forest, a man-made volcano, dolphins and white tigers, which Wynn described as “what God would have done if He’d had the money”—Wynn has inspired a full house of imitators. These days Vegas resembles nothing so much as a Brobdingnagian back lot, with visitors pouring in to gape—and gamble—amid medieval castles and circus acts, undeterred by the recession or by the proliferation of gaming opportunities elsewhere. The newest additions include the Luxor, an Egyptian-themed casino housed in a 30-story black-glass pyramid, and MGM’s $1 billion Wizard of Oz-inspired park and hotel opening this month.

But nobody else has Wynn’s bold blend of Spielberg and Barnum. That was explosively demonstrated a few weeks ago when he blew up the 38-year-old Dunes Hotel. The blast—which capped the opening ceremony for his latest project, the $475 million, pirate-themed Treasure Island—helped clear the site for a new hotel and was filmed for use in a TV movie featuring the resort that will air on NBC next month. (Wynn is reportedly paying the network $1.7 million for the airtime.) Says Las Vegas Mayor Jan Laverty Jones: “He’s a showman who understands that part of marketing of his properties is the marketing of himself.”

Behind the grin that he flashes for public consumption, however, Wynn is no stranger to worry. In July his older daughter, 26-year-old Mirage executive Kevin Wynn, was kidnapped at gunpoint from her Las Vegas town house. (Wynn secured her safe release with a $1.5 million ransom, and three suspects were later arrested.) Earlier this year, Wynn’s brother Kenneth, 41, president of Mirage’s construction and design division, had his gaming license suspended after admitting to drug use. And Wynn’s eyesight—failing for years because of an incurable disorder called retinitis pigmentosa—has deteriorated to the point at which wife Elaine, 51, hovers by his side at social functions to make introductions. “He’s so frustrated,” Wynn’s mother, Zelma, has said. “The rages are more since he can’t see.”

But Wynn has built a career on beating the odds. The child of a compulsive gambler—as is his wife—Wynn said he learned early on “if you wanna make money in a casino, own one.” The venture that brought his father to Vegas quickly went bust. When Michael Wynn died in 1963, shortly after Steve’s graduation from the University of Pennsylvania, he left over $200,000 in gambling debts.

Steve’s own start in Vegas wasn’t much more auspicious. At 25, he invested a $45,000 nest egg in the Frontier Hotel, then had to sell out when authorities investigated its mob-connected owners. But he emerged with something more valuable—a friendship with powerful banker E. Parry Thomas, whom he met during the Frontier deal. Thomas eventually helped with Wynn’s takeover of the Golden Nugget at 31, when he became the youngest casino chairman in the city’s history.

Wynn limits his own wagering to the occasional friendly bet on the Super Bowl but in other areas seems to thrive on taking risks. In his late 30s he plunged into hobbies that include rock climbing, motocross and steer roping—all doubly dangerous for someone losing his sight. In 1986 he and Elaine were divorced after more than two decades of marriage. But they continued to live together, and Elaine remained a director in his corporation. The couple remarried in June 1991 and are now building a multimillion-dollar high-security home in northern Las Vegas. Joked Steve: “The divorce just didn’t work out.”

Professionally, Wynn is constantly upping the ante. He is scouting sites on Indian reservations and other locales in six states and lobbying legislators to approve casinos. “I am infected with an incurable malady called developers’ disease,” he has said. “I build first and ask questions later.” Wynn wouldn’t have it any other way. “What I do for a living and what keeps me young and happy,” he explained recently, “is creating places where people go, ‘Wow!”


DORIS BACON in Las Vegas and MARIA EFTIMIADES in Atlantic City

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