Iconic Flamingo Hotel Celebrates 75 Years on the Las Vegas Strip

Embracing the past can be difficult, especially when it comes to murder and gangsters.

When the Flamingo turned 50 in 1996, there was no celebration, no fanfare to mark the occasion, no public recognition of the station’s origins and its connection to Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and the crowd.

Las Vegas was in the midst of a culture change. The era of Mafia rule had ended by the mid-1980s. Megastations such as The Mirage, Treasure Island and Luxor were opening up all over the Strip, and Las Vegas was becoming increasingly aware of its public image.

“Bugsy’s image was not particularly endearing for the Flamingo or the Hilton,” Flamingo Hilton spokesperson Terry Lindberg said in 1996, the Las Vegas Sun reported at the time. “It wasn’t George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. We are talking about a thief, a rapist and a murderer. These are not endearing qualities. We want to remember the history of the Flamingo without glorifying it. We have made the conscious decision to move away from the Bugsy legacy.

An undeniable part of the story

A quarter of a century later, as the hotel commemorates its 75th anniversary, those feelings are changing.

The Flamingo doesn’t outright celebrate the mobsters who opened the resort, but there is now some level of recognition of those origins.

In 2020, the Flamingo unveiled the new Bugsy and Meyer’s Steakhouse, a retro-style restaurant named after these two mobsters, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. There’s even a memorial plaque to Siegel which is now in the resort’s famous flamingo habitat.

“I think it’s fair that he recognizes the true story of the Flamingo. It’s an undeniable part of the story, and it’s something that’s unique to Flamingo, and looking into that and sharing it felt appropriate. I certainly don’t endorse the method of operation, but it’s part of Flamingo history, ”said Sean McBurney, president of regional operations for Caesars Entertainment, the current operators of the Flamingo.

Coupled with initiatives like the opening of the Mob Museum ten years ago, UNLV history professor Michael Green said the acceptance shows the city’s maturity, on it, but keep watching. and take care of it. “

Now at 75, The Flamingo is the oldest resort on the Strip. Its past, which encompasses everything from the Mafia to Kirk Kerkorian to the ten-year-old Donny and Marie Osmond series, is a reflection of the history of The Strip and the iconic hallway’s ability to reinvent itself time and time again.

“This is a hotel that is truly a pivotal point for Las Vegas,” said Larry Gragg, professor emeritus of history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology and author of the 2015 book “Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel: The Gangster, the Flamingo, and the creation of modern Las Vegas.

The Bugsy years

Siegel gets most of the credit for opening the Flamingo, but the idea to build a Miami Beach-style hotel in southern Nevada actually came from his former business partner Billy Wilkerson.

Wilkerson was a successful Los Angeles businessman in the 1930s and 1940s who founded The Hollywood Reporter and owned several popular nightclubs on famous Sunset Boulevard. He was also a compulsive gambler who regularly spent several thousand dollars in Las Vegas at a time, according to his son, Willy Wilkerson, who wrote his father’s biography titled “Hollywood Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson”.

One night, Wilkerson confessed his gambling problem and the financial difficulties that followed to his friend Joseph Schenck, the wealthy film director and chairman of 20th Century Fox. Schenck, a gamer himself, had a solution to Wilkerson’s woes: build a casino and own the house.

“The inference was that if you lost, the money would be smartly recycled. So my father, wasting most of the time, could indulge in his addiction and at the same time earn money for his casino. So it was like a win-win. That’s basically where it all started, ”said Willy Wilkerson.

Wilkerson began building the complex in 1945, but by early 1946 the project ran out of money as the compulsive gambler had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars at other casinos in the city.

Flamingo’s lasting impact

Enter Siegel, a longtime mob murderer who had already established himself on the Las Vegas scene through horse racing wire services and investing in other Fremont Street casinos. Wilkerson needed the money, and the mob was a willing partner. Siegel and his associates bought two-thirds of the project and ultimately kicked Wilkerson out.

Siegel raised the luxury stakes for the project, and with it the price to pay. The cost of building the complex fell from about $ 1.2 million to about $ 6 million when construction was completed.

Finally, on December 26, 1946, the Flamingo opened its doors for the first time. And he did so in what would become true Vegas fashion, attracting top headliners for the three-day grand opening, including radio comedy star Jimmy Durante and conductor Xavier Cugat.

But it wasn’t long before problems arose. The resort opened with its incomplete hotel, and a string of gambling losses that historians, including Gragg, attribute mostly to terrible bad luck, ultimately forced the resort to close after just six weeks. The Flamingo reopened with the hotel construction completed on March 1, 1947 and was to be a great success.

The same cannot be said of Siegel.

On June 20, 1947, while in the Beverly Hills home of his girlfriend Virginia Hill, Siegel was shot and killed. This murder remains unsolved to this day, although most historians believe the mob was involved in one way or another. Gragg said more than a dozen people have been suggested as a hitman over the years.

According to Gragg, mobsters Moe Sedway and Gus Greenbaum entered the Flamingo and announced that they were taking over within 15 minutes of Siegel’s death about 300 miles away,

Those early years and the mystery surrounding Siegel’s death helped fuel the mystique of Flamingo and Las Vegas and ushered in a whole new era in town.

“The Flamingo confirms the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. It was a short window of time in Las Vegas that turned out to have lingering effects for decades, ”said Geoff Schumacher, a longtime Las Vegas reporter who now works as vice president of exhibitions and shows. programs at the Mob Museum. “I imagine it’s possible that if Bugsy Siegel hadn’t built a luxury resort on Highway 91 like he did, we might have ended up with the Las Vegas Strip. But he certainly accelerated this progress.

From Mafia to Boards of Directors

When the Strip began to pull away from the crowds in favor of a more corporate and commercial environment, the Flamingo was there to pivot with it.

Kerkorian, who would go on to create some of Las Vegas’ biggest resort casinos, came into Flamingo’s image in 1967 when he bought the resort, severing the casino’s ties to the crowd altogether and helping signal the passage of the Strip to business games.

“In his first year he declared his profits to the state. And they questioned it. Because they said it had never made so much money before. And it hit everyone: Yeah, he wasn’t crushing anything. Who knows how much money has been lost to skimming, ”said Green, the UNLV professor.

Kerkorian did not keep the seaside resort for long. He sold it in the early 1970s to Hilton hotels, which renamed it the Flamingo Hilton.

When the next major hub arrived in Las Vegas with the era of massive integrated resorts in the late 1980s and 1990s, the Flamingo adapted again. By 1993, the resort had over 3,500 rooms and even featured a 200-unit timeshare tower.

Lasting impact

In a way, there is no better reflection of the history of the Strip than the Flamingo itself.

“If you had to make a Strip story and want to do the Flamingo life and times, I think that’s a good way to do it,” Green said.

When the Flamingo first opened in 1946, the Art Deco style of the Miami Beach resort was against the trend for Wild West-themed hotels that was the norm in Las Vegas at the time. It was the first true luxury resort on the Strip, setting a precedent for comfort, amenities and entertainment options that remains firmly anchored in the fabric of the city to this day.

Criminal families had been implicated in owning other casinos in town, but the Flamingo was the first mob-built casino in town.

It survived the Strip casinos that came before – it’s the only one built before 1950 that still remains – and many of those that followed. It was a first part of the shift towards corporate gaming and adapted to the era of integrated megastations.

The now 75-year-old resort is a living example of Las Vegas history, a holdover from an era Las Vegas once tried to forget and now leans towards. It’s been part of the evolution of the city and the Strip, from the Old West to ultra-luxury, from gangsters to corporate executives. Every step forward, every change, every pivot – the Flamingo has been there, changing along with the city.

Contact Colton Lochhead at [email protected] Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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