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.

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!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Vegas and the Mob

The Mob didn't start the gambling in Nevada, and especially not in Las Vegas. In fact, they were relative latecomers, since Nevada had gambling for years before it was officially legalized in 1931. Because Nevada was such a large state with such a small population, there wasn't much reason to spend any capital to setup shop there, not when Chicago was making a killing (sometimes literally) with their own casinos in Illinois, and Lucky Luciano's Family was doing just as well with joints in The Big Apple, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, and Arkansas.

However, once Las Vegas started to grow, both air travel and auto travel became more common and less expensive, and a new thing called air-conditioning became commonplace in the desert, Vegas started looking good.

In fact, although Bugsy Siegel never warmed up (sorry, no pun intended) to the idea of living in Vegas, he spent more and more time in the town because it was legal. Times were getting tougher in Los Angeles, and while he much preferred Beverly Hills to downtown Vegas, nobody was trying to whack him. Of course all good things come to an end, right?

If you ever wondered how the Mob (starting mostly with Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel) moved into Vegas, took over casinos, and then managed to skim millions of dollars while the FBI stood by watching, and listening, well the new book, Vegas and the Mob, answers that question! 

Read about the new casinos the Mob built, who fronted for the Mob, and what happened when the Mob got crossed. Through forty years of frenzy, the Mob sucked their casinos dry of the profits that should have gone back into rebuilding, so people like Howard Hughes and corporate investors of the 1970's were able to find bargains in the desert, even if at the time of purchase they seemed like bad investments.

Vegas may be clean and free of the Mob today, but it wouldn't be what it is, without the Mob!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

"Bugsy" Siegel Still an Icon

"Bugsy" Siegel is still an enduring icon of Hollywood, the Mob, and Las Vegas. Quite a legacy, really. Growing up in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn (Feb. 28, 1906), no one expected the tough, skinny kid to even live long enough to have an impact on the world.

Siegel was already street-wise by the age of nine, rolling drunks and stealing from merchants, and he and Moe Sedway set up their own protection racket in the neighborhood, but his life took a real turn when he and new pal Meyer Lansky got involved in a fight with a dozen other kids over who would run a craps game on a stretch of sidewalk outside a sweet shop. A gun was drawn, but knocked to the ground, and it was Ben and Meyer who found themselves fighting over it. Meyer was stronger, and smarter, and as the boys ran from the sound of police whistles, Ben cowed to Meyers age and influence.

When The Volstead Act was enacted making bootlegging the greatest gift a government could ever do for criminals, Ben was 14. Old enough to drive, and he and Meyer had their own gang of all-Jewish hoodlums later dubbed the Bugs and Meyer Mob. They were tough, but there were already stronger gangs handling booze, and soon the partners were working for Arnold Rothstein's group, with Frank Costello, Charlie "Lucky" Luciano, and soon Albert Anastasia.

Benjamin Siegel got a taste of the good life when the money from bootlegging started rolling in, and he wasn't about to give it up. Ben's solution to business problems certainly wasn't negotiation, it was death, and he had no issues with helping out other gangs, for a price, as a very successful hitman.

While Siegel was charismatic and tough, Lansky was shrewd and grew more polished, and trusted by rival groups. During the late 1920's, the gangs of New York were considered Murder, Incorporated, as Siegel started joining in on even more Mob hits. At the direction of Lansky (for Frank Costello - future boss of the Genovese family), Siegel joined Joey Adonis, Albert Anastasia, and Vito Genovese to gundown mob boss Joe Masseria on tax day, April 15, 1931.

On his own, "Bugsy"pushed and bullied his way into any business he wanted, and took offense to any slight from a rival. When bootlegger Waxy Gordon wouldn't share some gaming locations in New York, "Bugsy" and Meyer paid-off an IRS agent to look at his income and Gordon was indicted for tax evasion. Cranky, Gordon sent a trio of brothers to kill Meyer and Siegel, but the story got out before they were successful, and two of the Frabrazzo brothers were killed.

That wasn't enough for "Bugsy," and in September of 1932, Ben checked himself into a hospital with stomach cramps. That evening, he slipped out of the hospital, picked-up two trigger men, and they went to a small, poorly lit home where they posed as detectives to entice Tony Fabrazzo to come out onto the stoop. When he did, "Bugsy" came out from the darkness and rained the remaining brother with lead.

Afterwards, Siegel felt better, returned to the hospital, and had a sound nights sleep. His alibi was scrutinized closely, but it held up. However, by this time, while working for local Mobs as well as the Chicago outfit led by Al Capone, "Bugsy" had truly earned his nickname and twisted the internal workings of every major crime family in the country. His future looked best far away, and he moved to California, leaving his wife, Esta, in Scarsdale.

Officially, his move was to cement a relationship with Jack Dragna, crime boss of California, but "Bugsy" wasn't happy with just that. While on the West Coast helped establish a drug route from Mexico to the US, infiltrated and extorted Hollywood unions, took-over the Trans-Union race wire through Chicago, and set up plenty of gaming houses in Los Angeles.

The money was good on the coast, and he made plenty with the Santa Anita Horserace track and his involvement with the Agua Caliente casino in Mexico, but he also took a huge chunk of money from the Trans-Union, about $25,000 a week. He considered every racebook in Nevada to be his own income, since they had to pay a weekly fee to get results and stay in business. While he was a great earner for the Mob, he was a loose cannon.

He had offices in the boiler room of the Las Vegas Club, and also owned the El Cortez in downtown Vegas in the early 1940's, but he did think a larger club out on the Los Angeles highway would be very successful. He and Moe Sedway had purchased some sandy desert, and eventually made a deal with Hollywood restauranteur Billy Wilkerson for a nice hotel.

Once Wilkerson got the money coming in and the groundbreaking started, so did Siegel. He got Wilkerson to agree to his help in acquiring materials, which were hard to come-by in the postwar market of 1945, and soon US Senator Pat McCarran arranged the priority lists to allow the newly named Flamingo to get whatever it needed.

When cash ran short, Siegel talked more businessmen into investing, and of course the Mob had a stake in the property. Before it was halfway finished, Wilkerson was a bystander, Ben's girlfriend Virginia Hill was in charge of decorating, and the construction was hemorrhaging money. By opening time the $1.5 million dollar property had cost nearly $5 million, and the Mob was holding the bag for $3 million of it.

"Bugsy" was determined to open for New Year's Eve 1946, but the hotel rooms weren't done. The casino and restaurant opened on December 26th, but the mobster's luck was bad, as a winter storm kept the Constellation he had chartered to fly his Hollywood guests to Vegas were grounded on the tarmac in Los Angeles.

Old friend and Hollywood star George Raft made it to the Flamingo, losing $65,000 for the week, but the club had a rocky start and lost $300,000 as players got lucky, and regardless of the mobster's reputation, the old hands in Vegas weren't impressed:  dealers and pit bosses stole easy pickings and put the casino in bad shape.

The club was shut down while construction was finished and a new opening took place on March 1st, when the showroom featured Jimmy Durante, the Xavier Cugat Band, and "Baby" Rosemarie. Rosemarie (of later Dick Van Dyke Show fame) recalled waiting for her first number when a handsome but tough-looking gentleman walked up to her, gave her a stack of $100 bills, and told her to go learn to play craps. She did, losing half the cash, and later was scared to death when she had to return what was left to him. Apparently he just laughed, refusing the money, but he had little to laugh about.

Although the property started to earn a little money, it was too late. He had too many enemies by this time, and even Meyer Lansky's pleading couldn't help him. He was gunned down in Virginia Hills home in Beverly Hills while calmly reading the paper. The best guess is that Moe Sedway arranged the hit, using Frankie Carbo as the driver and an unknown sharpshooter at the window of the once-named living room. The hit left "Bugsy" less handsome, but more famous than ever.

Simultaneously, the Flamingo was taken-over by Gus Greenbaum, Davie Berman, and Morris Rosen. Sanford Adler of the El Rancho casino up the street was chosen to front for the club, but manager Rosen had to knock the man down a few times before he packed-up  and headed to Reno where he still had some influence.

With Siegel's death, money skimmed from the count room finally started making it's way to Meyer Lansky so he could share it with the Mob families of New York, Chicago, Kansas City, and even Miami. While Siegel's cash had nearly dried up, Lansky was reported to have saved nearly $300 million from his decades of involvement with the Mob and casinos from New York to the newly legal clubs of Nevada. Who ended up with lion's share of that cash after Lansky died in 1983 has never been established.