THIEF! The Gutsy, True Story of an Ex-Con Artist

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THIEF! character, Vince Eli

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Larry Smith...This One is for YOU!

Here it is the tail-end of 2009, a time for nostalgia. So, yours truly would like to share a particular part of her past when the casino world came crashing into her life.

The Set-up: It's 1996 in Albuturkey, NM. (Actually, quite a neat town, Albuquerque.) I'd just been laid off along with all my co-workers from an independent TV station that was sold to the local Fox affiliate. Decent paying jobs were hard to come by. But I'd heard that blackjack dealers were making great tips at the Indian casinos that were popping up around the area. A little research convinced me that it would be worth my while to become a BJ dealer. Never a gambler, I was convinced things were much more profitable on the other side of the table.

ACES Casino Dealer's School: Enter ACES Casino Dealer's School run by one Larry Smith who would become a lifelong friend. (Well, so far anyway.) A kind of sleazy, goodlooking guy named Dean signed me up and took my cash. Whatever I paid, it was worth the price.

I was the opposite of those lucky few who seemed to be born with a deck of cards in their hand. In fact, I was so bad, I think they put me in the remedial school of BJ dealing. I'd done a lot of things for a living like singing in nightclubs, making maps and rowing customers down the San Juan River in Utah. As far as card games were concerned, I was totally out of my element and intimidated as hell.

For instance, one time Larry was showing a visiting casino exec around the place and I was dealing to my fellow students, mostly gorgeous things half my age or Oriental hotshots. I trembled so much everyone started to snicker. It was then that the visiting VIP, who looked like a young Al Pacino, squeezed up next to me and whispered, "Relax, honey. Just pretend you're having sex." At which point all the cards flew up in the air and rained down on our heads. It was the first of several emarrassing moments I was destined to endure!

Meeting Slick, One of my Teachers: It was at the school I met William Slick Hanner, a real character, who carried around 20 dog-eared pages of his life story, hoping to find some sucker to write it. Well, I took one look at what he'd written and it was like a bomb hit me. I just knew I had to write his story, even though the only thing I'd written were some lurid love letters. Nine agonizing years later, Thief was published by Barricade Books. But that's another story.

Blackjack Auditions: Now that I had practiced maybe hundreds of hours longer than any living soul, it was time to audition at REAL casinos! I'd rather have autitioned for Stephen Spielberg than those suave, confident pit bosses.

After some terrible auditions in the local market, I decided to take my audition uniform (black slacks, white tux shirt and bow tie) up to a little Northern New Mexico casino about 3 hours drive from where I lived. Desperate for any live bodies to pitch BJ cards, the Ohkay Casino in Espanola, NM, hired me. Yahoo!!! My first BJ gig. I stumbled along managing to keep my job for 3 months. But I was in dangerous territory as a gringa where most of the town was either Pueblo Indian or Hispanic. After my rented house was robbed twice by druggies, I decided I'd better high tail it back to Albuquerque.

Fake Nails, a Dealer's Bane: One of the casinos south of Albuquerque needed dealers. So I went down with the express purpose of only filling out an application as I wasn't in my audition uniform and hadn't dealt a card for over a month. For a break-in dealer like me with little experience, that was an eternity.

Well...the pit boss was very eager to hire a BJ dealer, and here I was with some actual experience. He said, "Hey. Let's throw you on a table right now and see what you can do." I nearly fainted, as I had donned fake red fingernails, the same ones I'd worn as a live TV personality, hoping to camouflage my chipped ugly things. Like a cornered animal, I could see there was no escape.

Forcing a smile, I tapped out the smug BJ dealer. He handed me the cards in the 2-deck game and clapped his hands to show surveillance he was clean. This part was mostly a blur until it came to my pitching cards to the 5 patrons ready to watch the newbee do her stuff. The first cards made it to their proper places in front of the customers and I breathed a sigh of relief. The only problem was the damn fake nails bent backward every time I shuffled. I could only imagine what the eye-in-the-sky was thinking. On the next hand, I pitched a card to a customer. Immediately he reached up and pulled a red thing from his forehead, squinted at it and said, "What's this?" One of my fake fingernails had flown off and hit the guy between the eyes, sticking there. Before I could answer, I was yanked off the table and a young dealer choking with laughter took my place.

What are You Doing with that Roulette Wheel?: "All right," the pit boss groaned, eying me like I was something from another planet. "Since you said you can deal roulette, let's see if you can do better on the wheel." I could tell he wasn't any too pleased and I'd better get it right this time or else.

To be continued.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Slick's Las Vegas Then & Now: 6th in Series

The Las Vegas Strip is Born

If you traveled south from downtown on Las Vegas Blvd., you’d hit The Las Vegas Strip where most of the mob-run casinos and hotels sprang up. (Photo at right around 1977.) There was the Stardust, a carpet joint, that the Chicago Outfit called home. The Riviera was licensed to Ross Miller who ran an Outfit strip joint on Chicago’s Wilson Ave. His son became governor of Nevada. The Desert Inn was managed by Moe Dalitz and his Cleveland mob, as I mentioned earlier. Doc Stacher, a New York mobster, owned the Sands until it was purchased by Howard Hughes in 1967, making it legitimate. The Dunes at one time was owned by Major Riddle, a Chicago bookmaker, and Morris Shenker who represented Ray Patriarca of the New England Mafia. It’s also been said Shenker was associated with the St. Louis mob. The Bellagio now occupies the land vacated by the Sands after it was imploded. Further south on the Strip, Frank Costello and Sam Giancana had a piece of the Tropicana, just to name a few. Of course there was Ben Siegel’s infamous Flamingo. That’s just a quick recap from my own failing memory. You can probably understand why this section is so short.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Slick's Las Vegas Then & Now: 5th in Series

Glitter Gulch
The Union Plaza Hotel and Casino in downtown was the beginning of Las Vegas as people came to know it. Glitter Gulch was the nickname for the casino area bordering Fremont Street and beginning at the Union Plaza. It wasn’t always that way. The Union Plaza opened in 1969. But the original site was the Union Pacific Railway depot.

When you got off the train, you looked down a Fremont Street open to the sky. The Fremont Street Experience wouldn’t happen till years later. On your left was the Las Vegas Club and on the right, the Golden Gate. Going east on Fremont was the Pioneer Club then the Golden Nugget. Across the street was the Mint and Horseshoe. A block down stood the El Cortez.

Vegas Vic, a waving cowboy sign in front of the Pioneer, boldly greeted visitors until 1966 when Lee Marvin, who was filming The Professionals and staying across the street, complained that the sign was too loud. After that, Vegas Vic only waved his arm. The arm stopped waving in 1991.

Fremont Street was quite the place. The Horseshoe took any bet you wanted to make from 25 cents to $10 million. Your first bet set your limit. The Golden Nugget had a floor inlaid with real silver dollars. Every May, Glitter Gulch celebrated its frontier heritage with Helldorado. (Pictured above right.) People went to “jail” if they weren’t wearing a Western outfit. Needless to say, many came with cowboy boots and hats in order to stay out of the poky. The celebration continued until 1990.

Not only were the downtown casinos a place for dealers to learn their profession, you could find all the good old boys there playing poker and cutting deals.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

No Comment

This just in from an AP news report:

Mobster blames alcohol for arrest

St. Louis--A gangster-turned-FBI informant whose exploits were the basis of the 1990 Martin Scorsese mob film "Goodfellas" said Tuesday his struggles with alcohol again are to blame for his weekend arrest after a drunken disturbance at a hotel.

Police hauled 66-year-old Henry Hill of Topanga, Calif., away in handcuffs Sunday after the dust-up in a Drury Inn lobby in Fairview Heights, Ill., while he was in the St. Louis area for a three-day showing of his artwork and to sign autographs at a nearby Larry Flynt strip club.

Free on bond on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, Hill told The Associated Press on Tuesday he doesn't remember much about the weekend flare-up at the Drury.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Slick's Las Vegas Then & Now: 4th in Series

Casino the Movie

When people ask me if I’ve seen the movie Casino, I tell them not only did I see the movie, I lived it. I’m asked about the movie so often, I decided to go into a lot of detail for folks who want the inside story from a guy who was there.

Back in 1970 I walked into the Stardust and who do I see but all the guys I knew while living at mob headquarters in Chicago. There was Wheels now one of the floormen and Harry Tinderella, another mob guy. There was a former Chicago cop dealing blackjack. I spotted my old friend, former card mechanic Phil Diaguardi, now a shift boss. And Bobby Stella, the casino manager, used to run the Owl Club in Hammond, Indiana for the mob.

In the movie, the Tangiers is actually the Stardust hotel and casino, though filming took place at the Riviera.

Many of the movie’s characters were based on guys I knew. Stevie Blue or Bluestein headed the powerful culinary union in Las Vegas. You couldn’t work as a waitress in any of the casinos unless you joined the union. Steve was Frankie Bluestein’s father. Frankie was maitre d’ at the Hacienda. In the movie, Frankie’s character was killed by the police, imitating what actually happened to him in real life. Steve’s other son, Ronnie, worked at the Fremont Hotel, another Outfit property.

Tony Spilotro, whose name was Nicky Santoro in Casino, was dead by the time author Nick Pileggi interviewed people for his book that they based the movie on. (Joe Pesci convincingly portrayed Tony in the movie.) So it’s mostly Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal’s viewpoint (Ace Rothstein in the movie) that comes across in Casino. Robert DeNiro played Ace. Sharon Stone as Lefty’s wife Geri rounded out the top actors. I never met Geri, but the chip hustler sure knew how to wrap guys around her little finger, including Lefty…and Tony Spilotro, too.

Frank Rosenthal was one of the best sports handicappers and bookmakers in the business. He was directly responsible for bringing sports books to the casinos. The mob and Tony Spilotro made a lot of money off Lefty’s picks. In the movie and real life, Lefty’s car, with him inside, was blown up in the parking lot of Tony Roma’s Rib Shack on Sahara Avenue. He escaped death because his 1981 Cadillac Eldorado had a metal plate under the driver’s side. It was standard equipment for that year and model.

The guy called Tony Dogs in the movie was based on Bill McCarthy. In Casino, he was the guy who gets his head squeezed in a vice to make him give up his partner. He talked after his eye popped out. The incident actually took place in real life at a different time. Bill and his partner, Jimmy Miraglia, were later found in the trunk of a car with their throats cut. It was the classic mob-style ending. Insiders called it “trunk music.” Spilotro told people that Bill McCarthy was the toughest guy he ever met. That’s some statement coming from Spilotro, with double-digit notches on his belt for the guys he allegedly whacked.

Allen Glick, the Outfit’s frontman at the Stardust, was portrayed by Kevin Pollack. Glick secured a loan from the Teamster’s Pension Fund for $67 million to buy the Stardust, Sahara, Marina, and Fremont hotels. I guess the power went to Glick’s head and he thought he owned them. He was very quickly set straight. His business partner, Tara Banks, slated to testify against him before the Nevada Gaming Commission, was shot five times in the head. Her body was discovered in her San Diego home. It’s been alleged the hitman was Tony Spilotro.

Alan King played the part of the teamster official, Allen Dorfman, who was overseeing the teamster’s loans in Las Vegas. When federal indictments came down against the mob for commandeering the funds, Dorfman was shot to death outside a restaurant on a cold Chicago day while his friend watched. Soon after, the slot manager who took care of the Stardust skim, Jay Vandermark, disappeared, supposedly to Mexico under an assumed name, but was actually murdered along with his drug addict son.

The restaurant that was a mob hangout in the movie was based on the real Leaning Tower of Pizza owned by New Yorker, Jasper Speciale. He also ran his lone shark operation there until Tony Spilotro convinced him to retire.

Of course, Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman played himself as Nicky’s lawyer. Tom Smothers did a credible job as Nevada senator and U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid. In fact Reid, while on the Nevada Gaming Commission, had heated arguments with Rosenthal during Rosenthal’s licensing hearing as key employee at the Stardust. Rosenthal called Reid a hypocrite for taking Stardust comps for him and his family while opposing Rosenthal in court. Rosenthal shouted that Reid promised he’d back Rosenthal during the hearing. Reid responded that Rosenthal was a liar. Apparently, Reid was also responsible for Rosenthal’s inclusion in the city’s notorious Black Book of excluded persons. Rosenthal retired to Boca Raton, Florida where he died in 2008. Everyone knows what happened to Senator Harry Reid.

The nostalgia of the movie Casino reminds me of Bob Hope’s theme song, “Thanks for the Memories.” Younger readers probably never heard of him.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Slick's Las Vegas Then & Now: 3rd in Series

This is the third chapter from Slick's new book, Slick Hanner's Las Vegas--Then & Now.

People Ask me…

The first big question people ask me about Las Vegas is if the stuff in the movie Casino is true. I tell them they got about 50% correct. If you read my book, Thief, I set a lot of things straight. The character played by Joe Pesci is based on Tony Spilotro who was a womanizer. I knew Tony Spilotro for many years and know many others who were even closer to him. The females who knew Tony said he was like a teddy bear. (See next section: “Casino the Movie” for more info.)

The second question I get asked is which hotels and casinos I would recommend to visit. I believe the best five in order are:
1. The Bellagio with their dancing waters that you can view for free…very romantic. (Pictured above right.)
2. The Mirage where you can watch their volcano exploding for free. (Reminds me of someone I know well.)
3. Treasure Island where you can catch a free pirate show with actors in period costumes dueling aboard a pirate ship complete with exploding cannons for free.
4. Downtown Freemont Street at night with its free laser light show. (Better just see it because I can’t describe it.)
5. You might want to give the new ultra modern CityCenter a look. It’s billed as “one of the great urban places of the world.”

The third question folks ask is whether I’d like to go back to the old days of Vegas. Of course I would. I was lot younger and had plenty of energy. I also missed a lot of opportunities back then. Maybe I’m a little wiser now and would hold on to my money better. I probably let at least a $1 million slip through my fingers. A lot has happened to Las Vegas in the last 40 years as compared to the long histories of New York or London. I’d like to see the town really go again, only this time I’d take advantage of more opportunities.

I remember working in a casino when they hired a new floorman. Everyone said, “What could he know about gambling? He went to college.” Today you can’t get a job in a major casino unless you have a college degree. And you’re hired through the casino’s Human Services department.

In my day, the only kind of a human services we had was called “juice.” If you knew the right people, you got juiced into a job. Even a felony didn’t keep you from working in a Las Vegas casino. Maybe you’d even get a job faster than someone without a felony. And there were no lawsuits against the casinos back then. The mob had their own ways of settling problems.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Slick's Las Vegas Then & Now: 2nd in Series

My Take: How Las Vegas Got Started

Shortly before midnight on June 20, 1947, Ben Siegel was at his girlfriend’s house in Beverly Hills, California sitting on the couch when he was hit by a barrage of gunfire. The first bullet took out Siegel’s right eye. The others found their mark. Ben Siegel, also known as Bugsy, was dead. (Pictured above right)

Just two hours later Moe Sedway, Gus Greenbaum and Morrie Rosen walked into the Flamingo as the new bosses. The killers headed northeast on Route 66 to Chicago. This was the beginning of the Las Vegas the world would come to know.

At that time, there were only three hotels on the Strip. On the south end stood the Flamingo, the north end the El Rancho Vegas, and in the middle the Frontier. The big man looking out for mob interests at the time was Johnny Rosselli. Later on, Chicago Outfit kingpin Sam Giancana thought he needed help, so he sent Marshall Caifano out to look after things. The other reason Giancana sent Caifano out is he kind of liked Caifano’s wife, who decided to stay in Chicago and keep the home fires burning.

In the 1950s, with a little help from the Teamster’s Pension Fund, Las Vegas boomed. Moe Dalitz came to the rescue of developer Wilbur Clark who began building the Desert Inn. Morris Kleinman, Sam Tucker, Louis Rothkopf, Thomas McGinty and Cornelius Jones—collectively known as the Cleveland Mob—gave Clark the capital he needed to complete the 238-room hotel. But Dalitz didn’t make the same mistakes attention-grabbing Ben Siegel made. Dalitz kept a low profile and stayed out of the limelight. Dalitz called it “Wilber Clark’s Desert Inn.” The place even had Wilber Clark’s likeness on their casino chips. In reality, Clark only held a minority interest and did not run the casino.

Next came the Silver Slipper. In 1952, the Sahara and Sands opened. Then in ’55, the Dunes and Moulin Rouge followed by the Tropicana and Stardust in ’56.

The 1960s saw the addition of the Aladdin, Caesar’s Palace, Circus Circus and the MGM. Howard Hughes added the Landmark. At 26 stories, it was the only high rise in Las Vegas. Back then, Las Vegas had three police departments. From Sahara south was Metro, from Sahara north was LV Police and north of that was North Las Vegas PD.

In order to work, you needed a gaming card, either from Metro or North LV. There were no female or black dealers on the Strip at this time. Al Sachs, a Stardust Casino shift manager at the time, hired the first woman dealer on the Strip. She had been a Stardust cocktail waitress until she was juiced into her dealer position by Al. It was all about who you knew. If you knew the right people, you could start out as a busboy and three months later wind up as a 21 dealer.

It’s been said that Marshall Caifano, the Chicago Outfit’s front man, burnt down the El Rancho in 1960. To this day, the lot stands empty on the corner of Sahara and the Strip.

In the 1970s, Tony Spilotro changed places with Caifano as enforcer for the mob in Las Vegas. Spilotro and Lefty Rosenthal, head of the Stardust, carried on one of the most interesting love/hate relationships in the history of Las Vegas. The pair had been childhood friends in Chicago, but now each believed they were top dog in Las Vegas. The movie Casino tells the story from Rosenthal’s viewpoint. You can read my slant on what happened in one of the following chapters “Casino the Movie” and in my book, Thief! The Gutsy, True Story of an Ex-Con Artist.

A lot happened in the 1970s. Women and blacks were finally able to work as casino dealers on the Strip. Vegas and Metro police departments became one, which made getting a gaming card much easier. The only thing that didn’t change was the mob still ran things. But slowly they began to lose their grip on Sin City as people with deeper pockets entered the scene. The change of power began when Howard Hughes started buying up choice hotels and casinos. The mob just didn’t have the capital to compete.

Now, you’d have to live on Mars not to have heard of Las Vegas. In fact, the astronauts joke about being blinded from space by the city’s major wattage display, especially the powerful halogen beacon beaming up from the Luxor’s pyramid.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Slick's Las Vegas--New Book

Starting today I'm posting Slick's new take on Las Vegas: Slick Hanner's Las Vegas--Then & Now, a chapter at a time. We would like to hear your feedback.

Slick Hanner's Las Vegas


William "Slick" Hanner, George Joseph & Cherie Rohn

Who is William “Slick” Hanner?

In the early 1930s, I grew up on Chicago’s North Side. I was a truant and hung out with a gang. I ended up quitting school in the third grade. We were in the middle of World War II and it seemed like every one under the age of 60 was in the service. Nobody cared about a dirt poor Irish kid named Billy Hanner who skipped school looking for adventure.
Me and my friends sneaked into the movies to see our favorite actors—James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Munie, George Raft and Edward G. Robinson. Hollywood glorified gangsters, making them the idols of my day. But even real gangsters had their good sides. During the Great Depression, they sponsored soup kitchens and gave to the needy who included practically everyone I knew.

It was 1947 and the war was over. Truant officers and police were back in full force looking for me. At only 15 I was too young to enlist, so I got myself a phony birth certificate. My brother, a war hero, signed as my legal guardian and I joined the Army Air Corps. The minute I got to basic training it split into two separate branches: the Army and Air Force. After basic, they sent me to Albrook Field in the Panama Canal Zone. The canal was a shortcut for ships between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I was surprised the first time I went swimming. Oceans weren’t like Lake Michigan…they had a lot of salt.

To get out of work, I joined the boxing team. We fought Fort Clayton whose guys beat the hell out of me. Of course I was just a skinny runt and those guys were almost professional boxers. Anyway, my commanding officer wasn’t too happy with me so he sent me to Las Vegas Air Force base (Now Nellis) to build parking lots. When I got my orders, it said Las Vegas, Nevada, but my friends insisted it was Las Vegas, New Mexico. No one had ever heard of Las Vegas, Nevada, an outpost in the desert.

In 1949, I got an honorable discharge, my first real accomplishment. I couldn’t wait to get back to Chicago and that old gang of mine. I was 17, fell in love and married the woman who would become the mother of four of my children. Now my life was very different as a married man with kids. I wasn’t used to having responsibilities.
One thing didn’t change…I still wanted to be a gangster. With that sort of goal, it wasn’t long before me and my buddies ended up as convicted armed robbers. Now I was a felon, a lot worse than a gangster. As a convicted felon, you lose your civil rights. The state of Illinois owned me and my felony cost me my wonderful wife.

I soon found out something else that disqualified me as a hardcore gangster. I couldn’t hurt innocent people. That and the fact that I refused to follow orders made it impossible for me to be a gangster.

In 1970, I wound up in Las Vegas again. Now everyone had vacationed there or at least heard of the place. There was no question who really ran things in Las Vegas—The mob. Many of them were mob guys I knew, while living at Chicago Outfit headquarters, who had been sent out to Las Vegas. Now it was easy to get a job. I had what they call “juice,” or pull. All I had to do was register with the Las Vegas Police Department to get a convicted felon or gaming card which let you work in casinos. That meant I could legally be a dealer, shift manager or poker room manager, all jobs I held at one time or another.

When gaming started to open up in other states, I ran gambling schools and trained dealers in Louisiana and New Mexico. I met a writer named Cherie Rohn. Together we wrote my life story, a book called Thief. I went back to Las Vegas to retire. But seeing how much it had changed prompted me to write this book—the way I remember Las Vegas.