Las Vegas, Show Business and the Mob

Las Vegas, Show Business and the Mob

Thursday, 1 December 2011

By Johnny Hughes

Show business and gambling have always gone hand in hand. The recent poker scandal involving Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Tobey Maguire gained a lot of attention for high stakes, illegal poker, much like the Frair's Club cheating scandal in Los Angeles in the 1940s.

That also gained worldwide press because of the stars involved: George Burns, George Jessel, George Raft, Chico Marx, Phil Silvers and especially Mafia biggie Johnny Roselli, whose application for Frair’s membership was promoted by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. The Mob was in on the movie industry and show business figures were used to dealing with them and socialising with them. Roselli controlled the biggest talent booking agency in Las Vegas and helped his friends. He was also a loan shark to the famous in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

From the 1930s on, the Mob show-clubs in places like Atlantic City featured top entertainers and had in the back every game you’d see in a Las Vegas casino. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, as well as Frank Sinatra, got their starts in these clubs and had long ties to the mob. When Martin and Lewis were booked at the Flamingo in Las Vegas in the late 1940s, Lewis’ gambling addiction quickly left him heavily in debt. The Mob set him up a budget and a payback plan and he paid them back. Frank Sinatra had played their clubs and palled around with them and they promoted his career, as they did Martin and Lewis. The scene in the Godfather, where a horse's head is put in a producer's head to secure a movie part was about Sinatra. Johnny Roselli, the Mafia's go-to guy on the West Coast and Las Vegas, went to the movie producer and Sinatra got a career-mending, Academy Award-winning part in From Here to Eternity.

In Galveston, Texas, the Maceo brothers controlled gambling from the 1930s to the mid-1950s. They had a fancy casino featuring the Balinese Room, where performers included Guy Lombardo, Phil Harris, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jack Teagarten, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra.

In the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, the Mob controlled the Las Vegas Strip hotels and showrooms and paid talent higher than anyone. Sinatra helped them by making the star-studded movie Ocean's Eleven, and by having the Rat Pack: Sinatra, Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop play the Sands. These events really elevated the drop at the joint.

Frank Sinatra owned nine per cent of the Sands at one time. Sinatra was a blackjack sucker, and the Mob may have torn up some of his markers. Howard Hughes had dated Ava Gardner, who became Sinatra's wife, and the two men did not like each other. When Hughes bought the Sands, Sinatra still sang there and had a contract. However, he went kind of crazy, getting big drunk, cursing patrons and dealers. One day he lost $50,000 at blackjack only to be told his credit was cut off. He really freaked. By some accounts, he broke a plate glass window with a golf cart. He finally got to see Carl Cohen, the casino manager. Sinatra cursed him using racial slurs and threw a chair. Cohen hit him in the mouth, knocking the caps off his two front teeth. Sinatra left the Sands, never to return. When Cohen walked through the casino, the employees all applauded. Later, Sinatra quipped, “Never fight a Jew in the desert.”

Sinatra did demand, however, that Sammy Davis, Jr. be allowed to stay in the hotel, when African Americans were still sent to their own area in Las Vegas. Sammy Davis did a lot for civil rights in the town. I was there when he died. They dimmed the lights on the Strip and devoted the whole local news to him. They ended with my pal Jerry Jeff Walker's tune Bo Jangles.

Fats Domino was a rock and roll founder, legend and gambling addict. He estimated he lost $2 million. He liked to watch those galloping dominoes jump across the green. Like Jerry Lewis, Fats got heavily indebted to the casinos, and paid them back as a performer, like so many others.

Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, was the worst gambling addict of them all. He had been a carnival barker, owner, hustler. He had dancing chickens, chickens on a hot plate. With little experience and a checkered past, of which little is known, Parker became the manager of Eddie Arnold, a country star, and then Elvis. The Colonel dominated Elvis, got the same income as his star performer and kept them in Las Vegas eight years because he owed the Hilton a reputed $30 million when Elvis died. Elvis did 837 consecutive sold-out shows to 2.5 million people. With all that income, Colonel Parker left only a $1 million estate. He would stand at a dice table hour after hour betting as high as they'd let him, sometimes spending 14 hours a day gambling.

Casinos used a system of getting show business people or key employees in debt as a golden handcuff, a way to keep them management strategy, and it worked.

There were fancy casinos in Texas, New York, LA and elsewhere in the 1920s and 1930s. With prohibition making bars illegal, they might as well add gambling. Same with bars with shows. The Mob was always there, but expanded. The late forties brought mobsters to Vegas. They already knew how to run casinos, and no one else did. If you were a dice man, pit boss, croupier, and even a poker player, you learned your trade in an illegal environment, and many early Vegas pioneers had records. However, these were not looked at heavily by the gaming board or authorities, at first. Show biz stars already worked with the Mob in their show rooms before they worked Vegas. Sinatra, Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis, Sophie Tucker. A huge movie star, comedian, Jimmy Durante owned a nightclub in Chicago and Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and movie actor, pal of mobsters, George Raft shot dice there.

In 1940s Los Angeles, mobsters and movie stars hung out together. Big movie star Lana Turner dated Johnny Stompanado, a lieutenant of gambling boss, Mickey Cohen. Turner's 14 year old daughter stabbed Stompanado to death.

Gladys Knight was another gambling addict/Vegas headliner, being a sucker for baccarat and blackjack. She ruined her career, gambling in the casino with her name on the marquee out front.

As to the question, did the Mob run things better? Yes and a big no. Yes, on the floor, restaurant, show room. No, on killing each other and killing the goose laying the golden egg when the skim was caught.

My cousin, Bill Stapp, worked for the Mob casinos, Howard Hughes, and later the corporations for 40 years. He has a lot of personality and made big tips at the Sands when the Rat Pack were there, and later the Dunes with Big Sid Wyman. Each dealer could keep their tips rather than pooling as they do now.

First casinos were a money laundering prop. Everyone came in for a piece; several owners, unequal pieces. Secret pieces. All those guys got their start working dice or poker at smaller casinos. In gambling, as you know, customers go on tilt, huff around and calm down. A gambling manager needs a thick skin. The Mob guys were good at that; at comps, walking around management. Benny Binion was not in the Mob, but he had a saying that sums this up: “Make the little man feel like a big man.” In Las Vegas, you could see the biggest stars on the floor and even gamble with them. Sinatra or Martin would take over my cousin's blackjack table and just give house money away and hustle him tips.

When celebrities were in the casino, the casino bosses might take the stick at the dice table. Big Sid Wyman, of the Poker Hall of Fame, is one of my favourites. He was known for great casino management and marketing innovations. He brought the first topless revue, the aeroplane junkets from New York and the biggest cash poker game of all time right outside the showroom door at the Dunes, with nine other Poker Hall of Fame members.

Cuban band leaders Desi Arnaz and Xavier Cugat got their start singing at Mob joints in Cuba. Desi was a long-term Vegas headliner, and married to the much, much bigger star, Lucille Ball, aka Lucy. He was a big, loud sucker, a skirt chaser, and an embarrassment to Lucy. One night he was off big loser at the craps and being obnoxious. Big Sid Wyman had taken the stick. This was at the Rivera, of which Sid was part owner. Desi got in a shouting feud with a lady at the table and Wyman told him to calm down. Desi threw a drink in his face. Hey, Wyman was a media guy too! He leaked it to the columns, Walter Winchell and the newspapers all across the United States. Perfect revenge. Wyman was referred to as “a croupier”. Later, Lucy left Desi.

The people who brought you alcohol and gambling also brought lots of show business. Movies, live shows, records. I managed Joe Ely on MCA Records. The early record business was seriously crooked with payola and Mob money went into lots of movie and record companies. When they put up seed money, their hooks are in.

Martin and Sinatra had great talent, but they had the backing of an organisation with power and influence coast to coast. MCA was big in television, movies. They tap someone on the head, he is a star.

The gambling world creates great loyalties. You give accommodation to those who gave you accommodation starting out. The gambling world creates great courtesy from management. But their bosses are scary, don't forget that!

Texas Poker Wisdom is available on all Amazons.

Tags: Johnny Hughes, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Ben Afflecck, Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, columnist