LAS VEGAS, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Twenty years ago a false report by NBC News claimed that Wayne Newton was owned by the mob. At that crucial time, when mob influence in Vegas was actually dying out, there was nothing worse you could say about someone.
Wayne sued NBC and eventually won the largest jury award in American judicial history. Unfortunately, it was later reduced to practically nothing by a federal appeals court ruling that, while NBC was wrong, they didn't show "malice." Meanwhile, Big Wayne lost his chance for a gaming license and the better part of an $80 million investment in the Aladdin Hotel and plunged into a financial hell that he didn't work out of until the mid-1990s.
That was then. This is now. In these Vegas boom years, using the word "Mafia" has lost its power altogether. If you were to accuse someone of being in the Mafia today, the Nevada State Gaming Board would likely dismiss you as a crank. Talking about mobsters is like discussing a marketing theme or a storybook legend, with no more power than the word "pirate" at Treasure Island or "evil sorcerer" at Excalibur.
The Teamsters Central States Pension Fund is a distant memory. The Flamingo Hotel, where Bugsy Siegel spent so much of the East Coast mob's money that they decided to stay for 40 years, now proudly features Bugsy's Bar, Bugsy's Video Poker Parlor, and Bugsy's Bagel Company, with a logo displaying the face of the long dead serial murderer on a bullet-riddled playing card. It took exactly 56 years for the Flamingo to go from Mafia-owned to Mafia-themed.
Wayne Newton headlines at the Stardust now, but when I ask him if he remembers Tony Cornero, the ditzy small-time gangster who launched the hotel and designed all its gaudy celestial fixtures before being muscled out by the big boys, he can't place the name.
The grisly throat slitting of Gus Greenbaum and his wife, the most spectacular of all mob killings for many years, is just a good story. ("That was in Phoenix, right?")
When the Desert Inn closed last year to make way for Steve Wynn's "La Reve" fantasy hotel, local old-timers reminisced about "Mr. Hughes," as Wayne calls him, who checked into the Desert Inn penthouse for two weeks in 1966 and didn't leave for four years. When Ohio gangster Moe Dalitz tried to evict him, Hughes bought the place -- and then hired Moe Dalitz to help him run it. And wasn't that Moe a character? He drove a canary-yellow Volkswagen Beetle, hunted mountain lions, and once called Sonny Liston the "n" word to his face and Liston didn't do a damn thing.
Stories, all stories, like cartoon characters marching through a mythic history, fodder for harmless lounge-comic jokes. For the Las Vegas of our collective national memory -- the Las Vegas of Mario Puzo and Elvis and Nick "The Greek" Dandalos and "The Green Felt Jungle" -- is thoroughly vanished, and it all happened in the last 12 years.
On any given day there are at least 10 musical impersonator shows in the city, including one at the Sahara called "The Rat Pack Is Back," as though Las Vegas is cannibalizing itself, chewing up its graven images for afternoon bus business.
And yet the year 2000 was the best money year in the history of the city, a year that, with 37 million visitors and 90 per cent hotel occupancy, may qualify Vegas as the most efficient gambling operation in the history of the world. It proudly bills itself as "the fastest-growing city in America" -- about 7,000 people move here each month -- and it's starting to have the kind of "world class" pretensions once monopolized by civic boosters in Dallas and Atlanta.
Over the past year or so I've interviewed more than 70 people in Vegas and on both coasts, everyone from casino owners to Wall Street analysts to call girls priced so high they could live on one "date" a year.
What I found in Vegas is not so much a bustling gambler's haven full of Damon Runyon characters, but a monolithic corporate empire so set in its ways that it functions as one big Uber-Casino. In fact, the multi-million-dollar Strip hotels are now connected by so many tunnels, pedestrian overpasses, monorails and trams that you can travel two miles without ever actually setting foot on the Las Vegas Boulevard sidewalk.
A first-time visitor might think the Strip is a single hotel with many wings, distinguished mostly by price range. It would surprise no one if a year from now, one or two companies controlled 90 percent of the gambling in America, like a Standard Oil Trust, with Kirk Kerkorian as the new Rockefeller.
Ironically, this is exactly what Howard Hughes had tried to do in the late '60s when he bought, in rapid succession, the Desert Inn, the Sands, the Castaways, the Landmark, the Frontier, the Silver Slipper, and Harold's Club in Reno. But when he tried to add the Stardust to his empire, Attorney General Ramsey Clark stopped him cold with an antitrust suit, arguing that no one company should be allowed to own 25 per cent of the Strip. Today we're one merger away from a single company owning half the Strip and half the gaming in 11 other states, with nary a peep from John Ashcroft. Corporate efficiency has accomplished what criminal greed never could.
The Italian mob in Chicago, the Jewish mobs in Cleveland and Cincinnati, the various syndicates in Miami, New York, New Orleans and Kansas City were all crowded out of Vegas, finally, by the more powerful perversity of junk bonds in the '80s.
The mob could create fast money, but there were too many people to take care of. In the late '60s, for example, Frank and Dino were still taking most of their performance fees at the Sands in the form of fresh Ben Franklins passed by a pit boss. Michael Milken, on the other hand, didn't need to palm greenbacks because he could create money out of thin air.
By 1986, when Chicago mob enforcer Anthony "The Ant" Spilotro was found buried under a cornfield in rural Illinois, the last mob skimmer had left the counting room. Speculation has it that Spilotro had been executed for the ultimate sin: losing control of Vegas. (Spilotro was suspected of 26 murders, convicted of none, and spent the last several years of his life fighting inclusion in the infamous Black Book of people permanently excluded from casinos. His lawyer: current Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman.)
But Spilotro didn't so much lose Las Vegas as he was, to use the language of Wall Street, under-capitalized.
Today, if you stand at the famous "Four Corners" of the Vegas Strip, the most crowded intersection in Nevada, you will be within a five-minute walk of 19 casinos, 50,000 hotel rooms, 39,000 slot machines and $14 billion in invested capital -- or more than 46 times the total investment of the Mafia in its 40 years in the city.
What I'm describing is less than a fourth of the Vegas gambling economy.
During the past five years the strongest performing casinos have been so-called "locals" joints in the outer suburbs of Las Vegas, riverboats in the Chicago area, and the boom city of Tunica, Mississippi, a mini-Vegas among the cotton fields where the Horseshoe Casino, for example, routinely earns a 50 percent return.
The Four Corners corporations have major investments in every American gambling market, as well as South Africa, Australia, Canada, Uruguay and the Isle of Man, so that what you're really looking at, when you stand at Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard and see the half-scale Eiffel Tower and the dancing Bellagio fountains and the erupting Mirage volcano and the New York-New York roller coaster, are facades behind which are hidden thousands of corporate cubicles, board rooms and office suites, the headquarters of four massive multi-national corporations.
Las Vegas is no longer in the business of begging the gambler to visit. Increasingly, the desert outpost runs the roulette wheels everywhere from Atlantic City to Maryland Heights, Missouri, to Nelspruit, South Africa, with the next big gambling frontiers in New York state -- where the legislature just opened the floodgates for casinos in the Catskills -- and the island of Macau, where everybody is jockeying for a license.
Vegas, in other words, has become an export product.
Their basic commodity is Gambler's Lite, an American invention, like home-delivered pizza or video games, that encourages the customer to come on over to the casino and sit a while and don't worry because it's not REALLY about gambling, it's about spending an evening out on the town. The only thing that sets the companies apart is the packaging.
Compare this to casinos in any other country, where the gambling is still 90 percent male, dress codes are enforced, and the gaming floors are infused with intensity and a vague sense of menace. In other words, like Vegas in the '50s.
Sometimes I wish Bugsy, and Moe, and Tony, and Gus, could be sent back from the inferno just for one day to see what happened to their crooked little casinos. I can imagine them going onto the various casino floors and being amazed, first, by the number of slot machines -- "What is this, a women's joint?" -- and then by the number of badly-dressed tourists -- "You need to throw some of these bums out" -- and finally by the lack of Italian accents.
"Where are the wise guys?" they would wonder.
They're still here. They just have executive offices now.
(E-mail Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's Web site at joebob-briggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.)