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Mafia memories

Was Vegas really better off when it was run by organized crime?

John Katsilometes

The restaurant is Piero’s, the fabled Italian haunt that sits just across from the Las Vegas Convention Center on Convention Center Drive. So reliably “old Vegas” is Piero’s that it was used in a scene in Casino, and it also hosted a private screening and cocktail party when the film opened in the winter of 1995.

On its website, Piero’s boasts that the “local color” guys of Vegas still hang out there, and on this Saturday night the restaurant delivers. Sitting at the next booth are two gentlemen, probably in their 60s. One has silver hair, the other brown or black. They are in blue or black suits. Otherwise, their physical descriptions must remain vague. Staring at these guys for that illuminating detail—say, a pinkie ring, gold tooth or the bulky mass that might be a .38 revolver—seems a bad idea.

Fittingly, the conversation is in loud Italian. And every so often, three or four times in an hour-long give-and-take, you hear a word that cuts through the din and across all languages: “Mafia!” Why they spit out this particular word is left to your imagination, and if this conversation were held a generation ago at the restaurant that used to stand on this location, Villa D’Este, it might well have involved legendary mob figure Tony “The Ant” Spilotro and his trusty sidekick, “Fat Herbie” Blitzstein. Even if you forget what you ordered at Piero’s, you remember that animated conversation in a haunt that once catered to the most famous of mobsters.

Longtime Las Vegans say it was better then, better when the mob was a ubiquitous presence in the city. Anyone familiar with Las Vegas lore knows the basic story—the mob had a hold on the city from the opening of Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo in 1946 to the arrival of Howard Hughes at the Desert Inn in 1966; Hughes’ purchase of the D.I. from Cleveland mob leader Moe Dalitz signaled the beginning of the end of the mafia’s control of Las Vegas “houses.”

But was it really better then? Many native Las Vegans who lived through the mob era seem to think so, and the city has even announced plans for a mob museum at the site of the old post office and federal courthouse on Stewart Street in Downtown Las Vegas (optimistic projections are for the museum to open by the end of 2009). The realists, those who have a more clinical interpretation of that time and who are more familiar with the Vegas of today, say the mob era has been romanticized to the point of mythology. As film critic Roger Ebert said in his online review of Casino, “If the Mafia did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.”

Whether the wistful memories about the mob’s golden era in Vegas have also been invented depends on whom you talk to.

***

Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman tells the story about how he and his wife, Carolyn, arrived in Las Vegas in 1964 with just $87 in cash. One of the first hotels they visited was the Thunderbird, which by then had a sordid reputation (the Las Vegas Sun had reported that reputed mobster Meyer Lansky, through his brother Jake, had hidden interest in the hotel; Lansky would later become a client of Goodman’s). The Goodmans took in a show—for free—co-headlined by Sarah Vaughan and Frankie Lane. “They brought us drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and hoped you’d come back and play there,” Goodman says. “The fellas who ran the places were not corporate types. They were suave, debonair; they demanded respect. You would say nothing to their faces that would be in any way demeaning.”

But Goodman stresses that the Las Vegases of then and now were “two different worlds,” the former a place where the point of contact for the city of 70,000 was the Vegas Village supermarket at the Commercial Center. “You would see an almost Damon Runyon-esque collection of elected officials, alleged reputed mobsters—everyone was there. You had personal relationships that were very close, very friendly and cordial. It was a slower city.”

Goodman is quick to say that the mob museum is not a celebration of criminal activity. “It’s something to show our accurate history, to show we’re not imploding part of our history. The mob was part of our past and should be recognized as such.” Goodman, whose reputed mob clients included Lansky, Nicky Scarfo, Blitzstein, Phil Leonetti, Lefty Rosenthal, Jimmy Chagra and Spilotro, adds that, “In being close to all of the casino execs, I can tell you that if someone like Lefty Rosenthal saw a cigarette butt on the floor, they would pick it up themselves—they would not call someone over to pick it up—and they would find out who was responsible for not picking it up and fire that person. Now, these are corporate times and you have to follow rules, procedures and go to a board and establish paper trails to get anything done. But in those days, it was simple: Gambling covered a lot of the red.”

***

Bill Boyd refers to the mob era as “an important era for the growth of our city.” He could well be referring to himself. As the son of gaming pioneer Sam Boyd and the head of one of the world’s largest gaming corporations, Boyd Gaming, Boyd has been instrumental in the growth of Vegas. Sam and Bill Boyd’s purchase of the Stardust in 1984 closed out years of suspicious ownership (and battles with the Nevada Gaming Commission, which issued a $3 million fine against former owners Allan Sachs and Herbert Tobman for slot-machine skimming) and is widely considered the final chapter of the mob era on the Strip. The mob was able to quickly gain footing in Las Vegas simply because it had money. Banks were not lending money to resort-builders, and when Wilbur Clark ran out of funding during the construction of the Desert Inn, he was bailed out by Dalitz and money from the Cleveland mob. Aside from Perry Thomas and the Bank of Las Vegas, the first Vegas institution to loan money to casino operators, the mob was the sole lender to Vegas hotel-casinos. It wasn’t until Hughes and his considerable wealth and power arrived on the scene and started investing in casinos that financial institutions saw that casinos could be a reputable investment.

“That’s why the mob got here originally, and Las Vegas would not have grown as quickly without it, because they were the only lender in those days,” Boyd says. “It’s been an evolution ever since. But if you want to talk about amenities—in those days, there were not the great amenities, the great restaurants, the elaborate hotel rooms that we have today. The shopping—there is no comparison. You might have had a gift shop in those days, but nothing else.”

To those who claim mob-operated hotels were friendlier joints, Boyd remembers that when his company made its move on the Stardust in 1983, he was shocked to learn of a Stardust policy forbidding dealers from speaking to players. “They felt it was far more difficult for players to cheat if the dealers were not distracted, but we’ve taken a different approach,” Boyd says. “I thought that [customer service] was generally good in those early days, but I’d like to think it’s excellent today.”

***

Shirley Brancucci moved to Las Vegas in 1952 and worked at the Sands, then the D.I. and, in 1968, for Rosenthal at the Stardust. She says the claim that Vegas was more appealing in the mob era is “definitely a reality.”

“The city was safer then,” says Brancucci, who worked at the Stardust from the Rosenthal era until the hotel was imploded in September 2006. “It was smaller. People were really afraid to do the things they do now. You would never see any hold-ups in the casinos; there were never any of these random shootings.”

Brancucci also remembers a loose approach to comps. “At that time they weren’t so stringent. You could go into the showroom for nothing, when it was about $15 to see the [Lido de Paris] show. They made enough on gambling; they didn’t worry about restaurants or entertainment.”

Brancucci does allow that job security could be tenuous while working for Rosenthal. “If he came in and said, ‘I don’t like you,’ you’d hit the door. He threatened me with [termination], sure.” This was after Brancucci was promoted to baccarat manager, the first woman to ever hold that title. Rosenthal was hosting his own local TV show by then (flying under the radar was not one of Lefty’s traits) and wanted Brancucci to be on the show to talk about women dealers trying to break into the business. “I didn’t want to be on the show, and he asked, ‘Do you want a job?’ So I was on the show.”

***

Bob Maheu is 90 years old but remembers 1967 like it was yesterday. “When we bought the D.I., it was a very small operation compared to what we have today. For what we paid for seven entities, we could make only a 10 percent investment of one of these major hotels today.” By “we,” he means he and Hughes, who pushed out mob-run hotels simply by buying them. Maheu, a former FBI investigator, was Hughes’ right-hand man in Vegas from 1966 through the early ’70s. The fact that Maheu never met the eccentric billionaire face-to-face did little to dilute his authority. By working through Maheu, usually by using hand-scribbled notes or over the phone, Hughes rapidly snapped up the Sands, Frontier, Castaways, Silver Slipper and even the under-construction Landmark (after the Justice Department blocked Hughes’ attempts to buy the Stardust).

“When we decided on buying additional hotels, that buying spree, the entities we chose were all having trouble with the government, the ones who wanted out,” Maheu recalls. “It was no accident.” And when Hughes took over, there was accountability for money coming and going across the casino.

“Everyone thought that we’d come in with bulldozers and start firing people,” Maheu says. “We didn’t do that. But what we did do was establish some accountability for the accounting of the money. In the old days, you had two guys sitting in the cage, with one guy counting the money, ‘Here’s yours, here’s mine. Now, let’s count.’ I can tell you categorically that when we took over, that stuff stopped.”

***

As senior vice president of public affairs for MGM Mirage, Alan Feldman is by definition a corporate Vegas guy. But he’s also on the board of the mob museum, assisting with collecting material for the displays. And he has ties to the mob—kind of. His cousin Neddy grew up in a Cleveland apartment complex shared by a guy named Moe, who wound up in Vegas ...

“You ask, ‘How do you define association?’” Feldman says, laughing. “My cousin Neddy? Is she a mob associate?” Feldman says the claim that Vegas was a more appealing city in the mob years is “almost an old wives’ tale, from people whose view of the past is colored by deeply tinted rose-colored glasses.”

Feldman says it is important not to fall into the “trap that it was entirely better then as opposed to now. I think that concept, overall, is a crock.” Today’s resorts treat their customers and employees more equitably than in the days when the mob was in control. “Today, to get hired, you first have to have a resume,” Feldman says. “Back then, it was based completely on who you knew. It was, ‘I just got laid off at the iron plant—I’ll call my buddy Moe!’ And Moe said, ‘Hey, come out and run the hotel! You’re a good guy.’”

Today’s resorts are careful to be equitable about philanthropy, too. “We give out more money in a year than the whole industry did in all of the 1960s,” Feldman says. “The sense was, ‘Benny, the Boys and Girls Club needs a new ping-pong table,’ and Benny would pay for it. Now, you have to put in an application for funding. I think, in my mind, rather than to say it was better or worse, it was clearly different.”

So why is Feldman spending his time and energy on the mob museum? “There was a swagger, a tone, an attitude that was good, that didn’t hurt anyone,” he says. “Were those days colorful? Yes. Were they romantic, in a swashbuckling kind of way? Yes. But it’s important to remember that they were criminals, that people wound up in the desert. That really happened.”

***

Dennis Griffin has written three nonfiction books centering on Las Vegas, including, most recently, Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster and Government Witness (a biography of mobster Frank Cullotta). “What I have found in my research is, at the time of the mob, customer service were the buzz words. That’s what the bosses wanted. There was no concern for food and beverage and entertainment to make a profit,” Griffin says. “Gambling was what made the money. After the corporations took over, everything changed, and you needed profits from all areas.” As resort companies became publicly traded corporations, the need to satisfy investors supplanted the need to make nice with locals by doling out free show tickets. “Some even claim that the [slot] payoffs were better in those days, but I’m not sure of that. Some of it’s just talk.”

Griffin says that the mob’s method of self-policing was unique and would not transfer to today’s Las Vegas. “They protected their turf. If you think Tony Spilotro’s gang was going to be tee’d off at a street gang in North Las Vegas and declare war and start having a shooting war, that would not happen. If there were no financial interests, they would not get involved. Everything had a business reason, and there was no reason to police other areas.”

***

Norm Johnson arrived in Las Vegas in 1965 to work as the sports editor for Hank Greenspun at the Las Vegas Sun. He moved on to the Del Webb Corporation and ran the Mint 400 road race for three years (one of his duties was to issue press credentials to a young writer working for Rolling Stone magazine named Hunter S. Thompson). Johnson also worked at the Thunderbird hotel-casino, and at age 75 is still active as a publicist and freelance writer in Las Vegas. “Las Vegas was definitely more customer-friendly when I got here. The town was small, and the locals were treated like gods,” he says. “Everybody was scared that if you were rude, you’d have your hand slapped. Nobody would dare walk into a casino and rob it. The ultimate punishment was, you’d end up in the desert.”

Johnson remembers that Las Vegas residents were issued a casino credit card, called a city ledger, and flashed it for drinks, food, rooms, anything but gambling. “At the end of the month, you got a bill, and you’d pay it in full or pay it down.” But in the wink-nod days of old Vegas, Johnson recalls, reporters never had to pay down their city ledgers. The casino employees knew who was who, too.

“They knew how to treat customers, that’s for sure. They were hands-on. I don’t see Terry Lanni walking through the casino, making sure customers are treated well,” Johnson says. “I can remember walking into the old Thunderbird—I really liked that place, and the Sahara—and if you wanted to go into the lounge, you’d just spot the floor manager, and they knew who you were. You were comped automatically. You didn’t have to have any gaming record—the casino guys knew their gamblers, they all knew the VIPs of the town and were trained to recognize faces.”

To which David Schwartz, director of the center for gaming research at UNLV, says, “It’s a lot easier when you have 10 table games to pay attention to customers. It’s not likely that someone is going to say, ‘Dr. Schwartz is in the coffee shop. Get him a free show ticket.’ The shareholders would not accept that. It’s a different world when you have 2 million visitors then, compared to 40 million today. I think it’s that, as smaller businesses, they were not responsible to shareholders and not publicly traded, and the city was more loose for comping.” And in Vegas, especially among locals, customer service is measured simply by how much free stuff you are given.

***

As the director of advertising and public relations for Harrah’s-owned Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon and the Imperial Palace, Jackie Brett is another member of corporate Vegas. But she, too, speaks nostalgically of the bygone era.

“Most of the people the mob killed were people who owed them money, so unsavory was dealing with the unsavory,” says Brett, who moved to Vegas in 1976 and first visited the city as a kid in 1958. She and her mother drove out from Chicago and stayed at the Stardust. Upon arrival, her mother flashed a card from a Chicago attorney she had just had lunch with—guy named Dan Sullivan. Without realizing it, the Bretts had triggered an all-comp weekend. They saw Pearl Bailey at the Sahara, Red Skelton at the Sands and the McGuire Sisters at the D.I.

“I remember them looking at that card and saying, ‘Anything you want.’” Brett says. “I think it might speak to our youth, though. We probably all think our youth was better than it really was, and that’s true of Las Vegas, too.”

John Katsilometes is the Weekly’s writer at large.

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