Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Reno in July - so sad





Well, this is just a little scary for Reno - on July 7th at 1pm. If you don't know the scene, this is Virginia Street with the Eldorado on the right (Circus Circus behind and Silver Legacy forward). Many moons ago I spent my first night in Reno at the Thunderbird Motel, and I was happy to get a room.

Why was I happy? Because the town was full of gamblers. No, it wasn't Hot August Nights, or a Bowling tournament week, or any other event - it was just a weekend in Reno during the summer, long before California and dozens of other states offered casinos and poker games.Things have changed.

I will admit that there were some rainstorms around the Forth of July this year and that may have had an impact, but the empty street is so sad to me. I learned to play Texas Hold'em in Reno, starting at Mr. C's casino attached to the Sands on a 25-cent to $1 table. At the time there were lots of places to play and more than 100 tables in town. Today, just a few clubs still have live poker.

Your best bets are the games at Grand Sierra (formerly the MGM/Bally's/Hilton), the Peppermill and the Atlantis away from downtown. Right downtown there are games at the Club Cal-Neva and the Eldorado. This particular day the games at the Eldorado included what they said was the last 7-card stud game in town and a couple Hold'em games. They were $3-6 limit and $1-2 blind no-limit and that was that.

On the other hand, there are still plenty of good blackjack games in town, whether you want to play $3 or $100 a hand (many clubs still hold the upper limit at $500, but several offer $5 to $1,000 games). And, for those of you who want a game to yourself, there were plenty of empty tables all across the downtown corridor.

As for myself, the best games I saw were at Circus Circus, mostly because I won, and because my girls were having a great time upstairs in the Big Top arcade. Eventually they had a plastic bag filled with stuffed animals and candy, and the gaming paid more than the arcade games cost. Yup, you can still make money in Reno!


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Meyer Lansky's Mob Influence

Meyer Lansky was influential enough to draw hundreds of inquiries from law-enforcement agencies during his lifetime, from the FBI, CIA, Highway Patrol offices in dozen's of states, local police, detective agencies, you name it, somebody wanted to know more about him. Strange, because as dirty and sticky as his hands were for the Mob, no charges seemed to stick to him.

Lansky was born  born Meier Suchowlanski July 4, 1902 (died Jan 15, 1983)  in Grodno, the Russian Empire. His father immigrated in 1909 to Manhattan and the family joined him two years later. By the time he was 13, Meyer was a tough-nosed hood who rolled drunks, manhandled local push-cart owners and hung with a group of like-mined young men who would eventually form a part of Lucky Luciano's main strong-arm groups and bootlegging gangs.

Although gang members like Bugsy Siegel seemed to love fights (and Siegel took real pride in his murders), Lansky was more cautious. When Joe Masseria needed to be hit, Lansky handled the details, Siegel, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia and Joe Adonis handled the guns. Lucky Luciano held control of the New York Mob for more than two decades, and the men who handled his dirty work at the Villa Tammaro restaurant in Coney Island (on tax day, April 15, 1931) all had long careers in organized crime.

Siegel and Adonis were assassinated, Lansky and Adonis were deported to Italy. Lansky, always in the background when crimes were committed, lived a quiet life in Florida until he died January 15, 1983. Although he handled hundreds of millions in illegal funds from Mob crimes, he wasn't lavish in his lifestyle.

After the end of Prohibition in the early 1930's, Lansky setup gambling joints in Florida and Louisiana. He had at least a passing interest in Kentucky and Ohio clubs, but the New Orleans business was special to him, with slot machines sales and income topping the bill. After Lucky Luciano was deported in 1936, Lansky took advantage of the Swiss Banking Act of 1934 and setup a series of shell organizations to help launder both Mob money and his own.with a final holding spot of numbered Swiss bank accounts.

His legitimate business operations had a tendency to lose money, but his casinos were always profitable. As more pressure came from local police and sheriff associations, Lansky paid handsomely to keep his name clean and outside of legal hassles. And, Lansky approved of a move into Nevada casinos in both Reno and Las Vegas. Mob money went straight into clubs like the El Cortez and the Las Vegas Club, with Bugsy Siegel and Dave Berman putting up a chunk of cash.

When the building of Billy Wilkerson's hotel on the Las Vegas Strip stalled, Lansky was instrumental in convincing his bosses that a more public organization and ownership of the soon to be Flamingo was a good idea. Unfortunately, Siegel was a better hitman than a businessman. The construction was a financial disaster, the casino opened and lost money, and only the death of Siegel would keep the Mob happy.

Lansky didn't give the order for Siegel's hit, but he had to give his OK. A meeting in Havana with Lansky, Luciano and a dozen other family heads sealed Bugsy's fate. He lasted until June 20, 1947. After that, the team of Gus Greenbaum and Dave Berman handled things at the Flamingo with Moe Sedway managing the casino. Lansky got his weekly cut of the skim via bag man (including Siegel's ex-girlfriend, Virginia Hill) and funneled the cash through a complicated series of shady but legal enterprises to turn the untaxed cash into clean money. He sent his own share to Switzerland, again, sometimes with the help of Virginia Hill.

With the burgeoning success of Las Vegas, Lansky set his own brother up as a manager at the Thunderbird casino in town and later, when Cuba accepted Meyer as an adviser and then casino owner, he was a part of the Nacional Casino in Havana. Enormous profits were skimmed at the Thunderbird, and the Cuban casinos were a huge source of income.

Lansky and Cuba

It was Lansky who arranged a $250,000 bribe in 1952 for President Carlos Prio Socarras to allow Batista to return to power. Once the military coup of March 1952 took place, Batista allowed gambling to be a major part of the Havana experience. Over the next six years, Batista took a nightly share of the profits from all casinos slot machines, often ignoring the cut of the craps and blackjack tables. This allowed the Mob to help finance the building of several more casinos (although the Cuban government was footing a large share of the cost also).

While the Mob profited, the citizens of Havana as a whole didn't see much of a change in their living standards. Wealthy tourists flew to the island, spent lavishly in the hotels and casinos, and money flew away to the states (and Switzerland). Casinos like the Capri, Commodoro, Deauvill and Sevilla-Biltmore were split between several Mob families.

The Nacional, Montmartre Club and the new Habana Riviera were very successful for Lansky and the New York group, with the Riviera making more than $3 million in its first year of operation. Unfortunately for the Mob, their greed (and Batista's), were too much for Fidel Castro to stomach. The Cuban revolution of 1959 put an end to the gambling as rebels stormed the hotels, trashed the casinos, broke into the slot machines and even parking meters outside, and the tropical dream came to an end for Lansky. By that time, even his illegal clubs in Miami were under a cloud and soon to be closed.

Back to Vegas

Although the Mob's losses in Cuba (and Lansky's, estimated at nearly $10 million) were substantial, Las Vegas was still a great stream of skimmed cash. When the US Government indicted several casino executives of illegal cash transactions, Lansky was never touched, although he drained millions from clubs like the Thunderbird, Flamingo, Tropicana, Sands and even Caesars Palace.

He was indicted for income tax fraud and fled to Israel (if this sounds familiar, yes, the Hyman Roth character in Mario Puzo's The Godfather was patterned after Lansky) but returned to the US and stood trial in a botched case that he easily beat. He lived another ten years, lamenting his losses, dabbling in real estate, and at one point, transferring $15 million to his brother Jake's bank account when he was having more trouble with the IRS - this according to his daughter Sandra.

How close was the Hyman Roth character to Meyer Lansky? Roth's statement to Michael Corleone of "Michael, we're bigger than US Steel," was a direct quote from Lansky to his wife in their Miami home that was picked-up on tape by the FBI. Lansky passed away January 15, 1983 a free man.






Monday, January 6, 2014

Reno's Club Harlem

Club Harlem was one of the original integrated casinos in Nevada. Located at 221 East Douglas Alley, the bar first opened in 1946 under the watchful eye of its owner, William Bailey. Although cited for illegal gaming, the small property was later licensed in 1948 for slots and 21.

Bailey moved to Reno in 1934 from South Dakota (born 1903) and found numerous places to work before joining the army in 1940. When he returned to Reno in 1944 he invested in the Peavine Club at 219 Peavine Street, along with several other small bars.

The Peavine was originally opened by Harry Wright, and offered drinks, slots, craps, 21, and a rough crowd. The games may or may not have been on-the-square, and in December of 1944, craps dealer Walter Ector shot Joe Jones when he was accused of using loaded dice. The following year, Wright himself was shot by John Berton during a brawl. The 67-year old owner decided to sell his share of the club to Bailey, who ran the property for two more years before the building was condemned.

After opening the Club Harlem, Bailey was also shot while dealing dice. For a while, the casino was placed off-limits to Reno Air Base personnel and the 21 games had to be dealt from a wooden shoe due to questions about cheating. When that wasn't enough, a pit boss from the club was arrested at the  New China Club next door - for cheating. My oh my.

In the meantime, Bailey worked continuously as a civil rights advocate and president of the Reno-Sparks NAACP. Long before the much-better known Moulin Rouge opened in 1950's Las Vegas, Club Harlem was a leader in Nevada casino integration. When local entertainers finished their gigs at other casinos they weren't welcome to enjoy the casinos themselves. Instead, they often walked down the street to Club Harlem.

When Sammy Davis, Jr. was working with the Will Maston Trio at the Mapes, he could be found afterwards at the Club Harlem. B.B. King performed regularly at the Club Harlem, as did other entertainers like Louis Armstrong. Another favorite at the club was Pearl Bailey, a cousin of the owner!

Bailey sold his interest in the club to Norval Embry, who ran the club from 1958 until 1968 when it became the Soul Club. It operated as a bar and lounge for another ten years before being torn down to make way for Harrah's parking garage on Center Street in 1977.

For you chip collectors, one of the $5 chips shown above sat in a tiny alcove by the Virginia Street entrance of the Senator Hotel for a dozen years before a thief reached over a small glass partition and brought it to a Reno coin shop, hoping to get $5 for it. By that time it was selling in the $150 range and the seller did get more than they were expecting.

Many more stories about Reno, Las Vegas, and Lake Tahoe are found in Nevada's Golden Age of Gambling!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mob City - Reno Connection

When Lucky Luciano organized the first Commission of the American Mafia, the cities with representation were all large, heavily invested in the riches from Prohibition, and had a ready delivery system for the booze that came in, usually along waterways and docks controlled by gangs.

Detroit, Buffalo, and Cleveland (although each currently seeing a decline in jobs and population) were heavily populated and had numbers rackets, union infiltration, loan sharking operations, and cargo hijacking on the docks that provided additional income to the families. Smaller cities were less profitable to manage, although not necessarily any less tough or less corrupt.

The Reno connection was more important for individual gang members in the 1920's and 1930's and it wasn't until later that the Chicago Outfit, the Detroit Partnership, and the New York Mob enjoyed a piece of the gambling in Reno. In the 1920's, Reno had its own Mob, a handful of men who controlled the gaming, speakeasies, prostitution (which was legal), loan sharking, and may have had a hand in opium and heroin distribution.

George Wingfield was the original architect of Reno's banking services and owned a piece of a dozen casinos in town, even before Nevada legalized open-gaming. And it was George and Bill Graham who made sure the gaming bill passed in 1931 by showering their legislators with campaign contributions. The new book, Mob City: Reno Connection reveals the power the small town Mob had over Reno and how the city grew into the "Biggest Little City in the World."

Mob City is a rewritten and updated version of The Roots of Reno, but includes a shorter verse on Goldfield and Tonopah before taking the reader to Reno in the '20's, filled with road gangs like Alvin Karpis, Ma Barker and her Boys, and "Baby Face" Nelson, and continues on to the fall of the Wingfield banks, the control of early casinos, and  the eventual fall to Chicago, Detroit and New York.

If you enjoyed Vegas and the Mob, this new book will fill you in on what was happening before Vegas was the Gaming Capital of the World.  



Monday, September 2, 2013

Totally Nevada since the 1970's

I've been Totally Nevada since I was a kid in the 1970's. there were so many things to do (skiing, horseback riding, swimming at Lake Mead and Lake Tahoe, sneaking into the Sahara pool on the Strip, and wandering the casinos looking for loose quarters in the coin trays of slot machines, to name a few) I was always busy.

I played Keno with my dad overlooking downtown Reno from the Horseshoe restaurant, did the same from the coffee shop at Barney's at Lake Tahoe, and waited until he had put a few nickles in the slot machines at the Commercial hotel casino in Elko before wandering out of that coffee shop to pull the handles when I was just 10 or 11 years old.

I don't blame my dad for getting me started with gambling, I thank him. And after all, I was obviously getting fed, just like the slots were. And, he did teach me to play poker, but it was my Grandma Marge who taught me blackjack. Her dad was a riverboat gambler who failed to return to the family farm from a trip to New Orleans when she was my age.

On the other side of the family, my great-great-uncle managed to lose the family's fortune in Monte Carlo, causing the Baron and his daughters to move to the US. That's pedigree, not despair. Live and learn.

When I'm not writing about Nevada and casinos, I'm in the casino, and the only thing I see wrong with that is the smoke! Got a question? I'm smarter than I look.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Vegas Used to Be Fancy?

Wow, people used to actually get dressed up to visit the casinos in Las Vegas! This scene from the mid '50's may have been staged, but there were a lot more people going to a nice dinner and show back then.

Of course the dinner show to see Rose Marie, or Jimmy Durrante, or Joe Brown, was an under-$10 affair. If you slipped the maƮtre d' a couple bucks you got a nice seat. $5 put you up front where the singer or comic might just talk directly to you!

When the Rat Pack was making headlines in the '50's and early '60's, you could count on seeing Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin for a reasonable price, and they often hung around with other stars after the show to have a cigarette and a couple shots. of course that's when it was Vegas and the Mob!

When the Moulin Rouge casino opened in 1955 with stars like Count Basie, Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte and Louis Armstrong performing, their small showroom filled-up for the end of the second show with other stars like Marlene Dietrick, George Burns, Judy Garland, and Jack Benny, who were playing at other clubs in town. Nobody wanted to miss out on the Class A entertainment and the casino management went so far as to add a third show at 2:30am, because as Chickie Berman used to say, "Nobody important gets up before noon anyway."

Life Magazine put the new club on its cover and touted the Moulin Rouge as the first racially integrated casino in Las Vegas, but the casino's success was also its undoing. Profits were being siphoned from the count room, bills went unpaid, and casinos on the Strip like the Sands pushed their weekly entertainment budget to astronomical levels, paying some stars more than $100,000 a week.

The Sands also slowly began allowing African American entertainers to enter using the front door of the property, and to even stay in some of the hotel bungalows. The change was quick and dramatic, and the Moulin Rouge closed just five months after it opened, but its impact was significant and within a few years all of the casinos in Las Vegas were fully integrated.

Today, you don't have to put on a coat and tie to enjoy the top stars playing at the Mirage, MGM, or the Luxor, but you can expect to pay $100 to see a big-name on the stage. That price doesn't get you dinner anymore, but there are a lot more choices in town than there were 50 years ago. Enjoy!