Wilbur Clark, visionary and philanthropist

Tuesday, 25 June 2024

Wilbur Clark was an important figure in the early days of Las Vegas and was instrumental in making the city a famous tourist destination and, not least through his philanthropic activities, the Las Vegas Library.

Wilbur Clark


Born in 1908 in Illinois, Clark, after graduating from high school in 1925, moved to Los Angeles to attend business school. His family was of modest means so he had to work at a young age to build a career. At first he was a bellman at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where he quickly rose through the ranks to become hotel manager. Clark was a friendly and sociable guy and quickly befriended Hollywood stars like Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard.

After several years in Reno, he moved to Las Vegas in 1938 and, along with several partners, opened a casino on Boulder Highway. In 1944 he buys El Rancho Las Vegas. A year later, in 1945, he also bought the Monte Carlo Club on Freemont Street.

Wilbur Clark and the Desert Inn Story

He sells the two properties to use the proceeds to build a new resort, the Desert Inn. After running out of funds due to rising costs, Clark is forced to sell a majority stake in the Desert Inn to Moe Dalitz, the mob man. With the new infusion of capital the Desert Inn opens on April 24, 1950. The following year Clark adds an 18-hole golf course to attract more affluent people to his complex. Wilbur Clark’s investments and ideas attract many prominent guests and it becomes a national attraction.

Clark was very good at what he did. He had Hollywood stars in his auditorium, threw lavish parties for the big players and even made tokens with his face on them.

The Desert Inn was a huge success, known for its luxurious accommodations, fine dining, and world-class entertainment, quickly becoming one of the most popular locations in Las Vegas. The property was spacious, with plenty of parking in front of the casino. It became a favorite local hangout, and the bar was setting up a lot of business.

It remained the public figure of the Desert Inn until 1964 when Clark sold his interest.

Desert Inn Hotel & Casino

Wilbur Clark, the philanthropist

Clark expanded his empire in later years and was known for his philanthropic efforts. Clark also enjoyed sports and social events, but also wanted to participate in community life for which he made various donations and charitable acts.

In the 1950s he organized the Tournament of Champions, an annual golf tournament at the Desert Inn Golf Course, televised by NBC. The top prize was $10,000.

During his tenure at the Desert Inn, Clark ran a charity called Wilbur Clark’s Cavalcade of Charities. In 1964, as part of these charitable efforts, he helped organize the first professional American football game in Las Vegas, an American Football League preseason game between the Oakland Raiders and Houston Oilers.

He was instrumental in the construction of the Las Vegas Library and developed Wilbur Clark’s Paradise Gardens, located at 4505 South Maryland Parkway, south of the Thomas & Mack Center. He later donated the land on which the Guardian Angel Cathedral was later built.

Wilbur Clark’s private life

Wilbur meets his wife, Toni Clark, in Reno. Born Lena Gaglionese, she was known for her elegance and sophisticated style. She served as a glamorous hostess with her husband at the Desert Inn. And she helped plan parties and entertained casino guests. After Wilbur’s death, she remained active in Las Vegas philanthropic activities and supported the Variety Club, the Las Vegas Philharmonic Orchestra and the Nevada Dance Theater. They had no children.

Wilbur Clark, the end of an era

Despite his success, Clark’s final years were marked by controversy and financial difficulties. In the 1960s, he was embroiled in a legal battle with Howard Hughes, who had bought the Desert Inn. Clark claimed that Hughes had cheated him out of millions of dollars, and the two engaged in a bitter legal dispute that lasted for years.

In addition to his legal troubles, Clark’s health began to deteriorate in the late 1970s find him forced to sell many of his properties to pay his medical expenses.

photo source: nevadagaminghistory.com

Clark’s legacy

Wilbur Clark goes down in the city’s history as the man who built the Desert Inn, as a visionary who helped Las Vegas develop its tourist, entertainment, movie and sports stars to casinos.

In addition, his philanthropic efforts helped support various charitable causes in the community, which increased his notoriety during and after his death.

Although he did not have the financial investments that others made in other casinos, Clark knew how through his charm and presence to attract to the resorts he developed a lot of valuable people who contributed to Las Vegas’ notoriety.

Sources: Wikipedia.com, nevadagaminghistory.com, special.library.unlv.edu

Author: Editor

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