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

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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.

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Anonymous said...

Hey, I just want to let you know there was at least one women dealer before 1970's. My grandma knew Bugsy and she was the first women dealer on the strip. She was good friends with Virginia Hill. Just thought I'd let you know.