In 1958 the Boulevard Room at the swanky Conrad Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago offered delicious steaks, a lavish stage show, and a curious peek at the future.
At the front of the grand hall was what was billed as the “largest hotel ice rink in the country”, on which troops of tutu-wearing girls danced for the crowds of diners. It was here, in the summer heat of August that black-tie wearing customers were given the first teaser of a legend that survives to this day: Hilton Hotels was going to the Moon.
On stage, the final scene for the dancers was called “out of this world”. Although details of the performance are scarce, a Chicago-area newspaper called the Suburbanite Economist wrote that it was set in a “plush” hotel called the Lunar Hilton. The lavish show caught the writers’ imagination and he took it to its logical conclusion. As the 27 August 1958 edition put it: “this could mean that the Hilton chain is dickering with the idea of opening the first hotel on the Moon.”
Fast forward to 2009 and an episode of the popular TV series Mad Men features the louche Don Draper and his team creating a fictional ad campaign for a Hilton Hotel on the Moon. “I want a Hilton on the Moon; that’s where we are headed,” says “Connie” Hilton at one point. Although the series is fiction, it got me wondering: had Hilton hotels ever really planned to go into space?
When the writers of Mad Men were researching the programme, their go-to man was Dr Mark Young, who oversees the hotel founder’s archive at the University of Houston. He seemed like an obvious person to shed light on the story.
According to Dr Young, there’s no evidence that Conrad Hilton was behind the vision of a hotel on the Moon. “[The writers of Mad Men] contacted me to learn about Conrad Hilton so I talked with them, but when I watched it this Moon thing came out of nowhere and I thought, ‘wait a minute, that’s not Conrad Hilton at all’.”
In fact, he says, it was one of Conrad Hilton’s sons, Barron Hilton, who appears to have been the true evangelist for a Hilton on the Moon. “He, like everyone else was very captivated by the space age,” says Dr Young.
Barron was elected as vice-president of Hilton Hotels in 1954, serving behind his father. Just four years later the Suburbanite Economist article appeared – the earliest reference to the idea I can find. I expect it will be difficult to find anything much earlier. That was the beginning of space fever in the United States, as the Russians had launched Sputnik in October of 1957, kicking off the Space Age - a period of tremendous fear and wide-eyed hope for what was to come.
Throughout later years, the idea appears again and again in popular culture. In the 28 October 1962 episode of The Jetsons, The Good Little Scouts, George brings Elroy’s scout troop to the Moon and in a quick, fleeting shot we see the Moonhattan Tilton, a clear reference to the Manhattan Hilton hotel. And in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” there is an office marked “Hilton Space Station 5” on the glass exterior, where people could presumably make reservations for the Hilton hotel on the film’s orbiting space station.