"'The Tonight Show's' Green Room at 30,000 Feet": The Last, Debauched Flight of the MGM Grand Airline
This writer was on board as Kirk Kerkorian's luxurious, louche bicoastal experiment flew its last lap in 1993, but not before Tom Cruise, Johnny Carson and Julia Roberts had taken a spin.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
We were flying over Colorado when some of the passengers started singing "Auld Lang Syne." Others on board already had begun partying, flouting the "fasten seat belt" sign — and FAA regulations — by guzzling champagne and lighting up cigarettes in the aisles. Me? I sat quietly in my seat, listening to Buddy Hackett snoring.
It was New Year's Eve 1993, and I was on the final flight of the most luxurious airline in the history of U.S. commercial aviation. Once we touched down at JFK, MGM Grand Air, an all-first-class shuttle service between L.A. and New York, would be out of business forever. But for five years, during a time before studios started cutting perks and stars started pinching pennies, it was Hollywood's favorite way to fly, a home away from home for frequent passengers such as Robert De Niro, Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Johnny Carson, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson and scores of other celebrities and execs. Imagine The Tonight Show's green room at 30,000 feet, but with better food and more comfortable furniture.
"It wasn't like any other plane I'd ever flown in," recalls actress and radio host (with a new show on Sirius) Sandra Bernhard. "That thing had more rooms than a mansion. And everybody was flying it — models and celebrities — so you'd always be running into people. There'll never be anything like it again."
Kirk Kerkorian, the flamboyant billionaire who'd been an on-again, off-again owner of MGM Studios since 1969 (he died in June at age 98), was the man who put MGM in the air. In the mid-1980s, sensing an opening in the high-end travel market, he bought a small fleet of aging 727s, painted the MGM lion on their tail fins, reconfigured their interiors with lavish appointments (such as gold-plated faucets in the bathrooms) and began twice-daily service between the coasts, charging $1,400 for a one-way trip. It was the same fare ordinary airlines were charging for first class at the time, but MGM was anything but ordinary. Passengers who booked tickets in the berthlike "staterooms" in the back of the plane could close a privacy curtain, unfold their seats into a queen-sized bed and spend the flight relaxing (or whatever) in total seclusion. There was a bar up front if you felt like mingling. Or you could just lounge in the main cabin in leather swivel chairs and wait for the caviar cart to be wheeled your way.
"Even before you got on the plane it was amazing," remembers Barry Kluger, who flew MGM when he was an executive at MTV in the late 1980s. "They had private terminals at JFK and LAX, and it was red carpet the whole way. I remember standing in the boarding line with Terence Stamp and Diana Ross. It was surreal."
Of course, squeezing all those Hollywood egos into one fuselage sometimes made for turbulent rides. MGM flight attendants remember Eddie Murphy being a difficult passenger (always traveling with a 10-man posse). Madonna didn't win many popularity contests, either ("Arrogant," says an ex-crewmember). And during one memorable trip, two A-list actresses shared a curtained-off stateroom and kept the plane wide awake with their noisy mile-high canoodling. But for all the midair shenanigans, some attendants say the job gave them a priceless education. "I learned how Hollywood works," says Gayle Giannotti, who was an MGM attendant from 1989 to 1993. "I learned that the stars were at the bottom of the pecking order. They'd spend the whole flight sucking up to the studio executives." Even so, the stars had their appeal, and romances between actors and crew were not unheard of. "Stars would invite the crew out all the time," says Giannotti. "After we landed, we'd end up going to some restaurant in Hollywood filled with celebrities. And when we'd come through the doors in our uniforms they'd all cheer, 'It's the MGM flight attendants!' They made us feel like the stars."
Robert De Niro
However, there was a flaw with Kerkorian's business plan. MGM's 727s, originally designed to hold 110 passengers, had been reconfigured for just 33; even at $1,400 a ticket, there was no way the airline could make up for the lost coach-cabin revenue. Another problem: Its old planes were hugely expensive to maintain and operate. "They would break down a lot," recalls frequent flyer Jaclyn Smith. "You'd get stuck on the runway."
So in 1990, Kerkorian bought bigger DC-8s, which included not only 35 "Grand Class First" seats up front but also a 40-seat "Grand Class Coach" section in the back fitted with more modest leather loungers that went for about $600 a ticket. The new cheap(ish) seats were still cushy — better than domestic first on most carriers today — but the change took the luster off the airline's glamour. It didn't take long for the manifest to be infiltrated by junior executives, B-list comics and other riff-raff — including a young journalist working for a magazine that had negotiated a corporate rate with MGM.
Regrettably, I never got a chance to talk to my seatmate on MGM's final flight — Buddy Hackett fell asleep almost as soon as we took off. But as the rest of the plane sang and smoked in the aisles during that wild New Year's Eve party in the sky, I raised a glass of bubbly in his honor. He snored.