By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I go to Las Vegas -- or at least I went to Las Vegas -- because I loved Las Vegas. Only in Vegas could I dare to imagine that I was a Friend of Frank. Or that I was throwing the dice at Dino's favorite table. Or that I could sip bourbon with Rickles after his last lounge show. That's the heady fantasy that oozed from the D.I. The kind of Rat Pack cool that Hollywood's trying to channel in its remake of the upcoming Ocean's Eleven. (Instead of Frank Sinatra and his gang trying to pull off a New Year's Eve heist on the Sahara, Riviera, Flamingo, Sands and the Desert Inn, George Clooney and his crew go after the Mirage, the Bellagio and the MGM Grand . . . hmm.)
Once inside the doors of the D.I., I knew I was safely delivered from the swelling, heat-stricken herds of shorts-clad schleppers outside, fanny packs around their waists, cottage-cheese containers rattling with quarters, one eye fixed on the video-cam viewfinder, the other on the pulsating Circus Circus sign that reeled them in with 99-cent shrimp cocktails.
At the D.I., most of the fanny-packers were kept out by the mere absence of slot machines. Only a few dozen of them sat off in a corner, and even those were gagged and muted. The result was the two most rarefied of modern Vegas commodities -- lots of quiet, and lots of actual gambling tables. Which meant that if you were going to gamble, then at least you had to sit down, talk to a human, pull out enough money to crank up your heart rate and damn well better remember at least a few rules of craps or blackjack. If you preferred instead to plop down and blithely pump nickels into a video machine that paid off when you lined up the proper configuration of animated bunny rabbits, squirrels, squashes and carrots, then please, just keep on moving toward Circus Circus, or take a left toward the Palace Station.
At the D.I., I wouldn't dare come to the table without a suit and tie. Anything less formal could offend the seasoned dealers who stood behind their tables in starched white shirts and perfectly knotted black bow ties. Mostly middle-aged men and women, usually with 20 years of dealing behind them, their wrists and pinkies flashing with gold and ice, they would call you by your name, and listen to you with at the least the feigned interest of a therapist. When the occasional rube walked in and blew a stack of $25 green "quarter" chips by splitting tens and hitting dead hands when the house was showing a 5 or 6 up, the dealer would inevitably share a knowing glance with the more experienced players. And there I would sit at one of the 21 tables, hours at a time, drifting toward dawn, often straight into the morning, sometimes winning, more often not. But who cared? The treatment was so tender that even at the frayed end of a losing binge, I almost had the urge to stand up, straighten my tie, and shake the dealer's hand, thanking him -- or her -- for spending this time with me.
All that, now about to collapse into rubble at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Desert Inn Road, where nostalgia and memory intersect and finally collide with the corporate bottom line.
IN APRIL 1950, WILBUR CLARK, A SOUTHERN CALIfornia gambler, opened the Desert Inn -- 300 rooms trimmed in pink and cactus green. Crowned by a spectacular Sky Room Lounge, this "fifth lady" among the Vegas resorts was the grandest yet. Within a year, Sinatra made his first Vegas appearance in the D.I.'s Painted Desert showroom.
"Its opening spurred the big building boom of the '50s," says Frank Wright, curator of the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society. "From its first days, the D.I. maintained a constant identity as a venue with class."
And that was the whole town's appeal as it began to mushroom. Any notion that the Old Vegas was a cowboy town with saloons and sawdust floors, says Wright, is just myth. "The whole cowboy theme was consciously concocted in the '50s as a marketing strategy by the Chamber of Commerce," he says. "From its origins, Las Vegas was fueled by gamblers fleeing places they had been chased out of. Mostly from Los Angeles. It was worldly, sophisticated and cosmopolitan from the first day." (It wasn't so much Bugsy Siegel but Guy McAfee who was the motor force in pumping up the original Vegas. McAfee was himself an L.A. product, and claimed that it was the Sunset Strip that inspired him to baptize the then-barren stretch of Nevada desert as the new "strip.")
Clark's early gambling career took him from San Diego to Manhattan Beach and most probably to the infamous Rex gambling boat that once sat off the shores of Santa Monica. "The D.I. is a whole story like the Flamingo," Wright says. "Its inspiration came from a Californian who eventually had to turn to the mob." Indeed, Clark didn't have the $3.5 million to complete his Vegas dream hotel on his own and quickly brought in a crew of Cleveland-based angels as his partners, including underworld figure Moe Dalitz of the so-called Purple Gang. At one point, Frank Sinatra mulled over the possibility of taking over the property. But it was Dalitz, floated by Teamster union pension money, who completed and was soon running Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn, and whose casino made a juicy $3 million in its first year. But Clark remained as an effective front man and lent credibility to Dalitz, who came to be revered by locals as a generous philanthropist. "The truth is that within a year after the D.I. opened, Clark's role was reduced to checking that his name was still on the matchbooks and napkins," says Hal Rothman, a historian at the University of Nevada.