Friday, April 8, 2016

The Rocky Beginnings of Las Vegas' First Resort

Behind the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip’s oldest casino lies a sordid past. Organized crime, unrequited love, corruption and half-truths make up the history of Flamingo. To this day, it’s not entirely certain what transpired more than 70 years ago.

Flamingo is the oldest casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, a mobster who made a fortune on a popular horse racing publication, moved to Las Vegas in 1945 and quickly made a splash by turning a nearly $200,000 profit flipping El Cortez, one of the first casinos to crop up in the desert. Thanks to unfriendly city officials suspicious of his criminal past, Siegel decided to develop a new property just outside the city limits. He approached Billy Wilkerson and convinced the Sunset Strip mogul to sell him and his “associates” a majority stake in the project that would become Flamingo Hotel and Casino.

The origins of the property’s iconic name are oft debated. Legend has it that Siegel named the property after his mistress Virginia Hill, a longtime courier for the mob. She had long, slender legs and lovely red hair. He called her his fabulous flamingo. Others claim that Siegel, who owned a stake in the Hialeah Park Race Track, saw the population of flamingos who frequented the track a good omen. Still others say the name was given by Wilkerson from the get-go.

Flamingo is home to a flock of nearly a dozen Chilean flamingos.
By 1946, Siegel’s new project had fallen severely behind schedule, and the budget had soared from an estimated $1 million to more than $6 million. In hopes of securing money to fund the hotel’s completion, a grand opening was scheduled for Dec. 26 of that year. Jimmy Durante was the headlining act. Siegel invited a number of Hollywood stars. However, terrible weather prevented many guests from making the trip. There was not enough time for the dealers to be properly trained, so the guests who did show won. They won big, taking Siegel for more than $300,000. The hotel rooms had yet to be finished, so the gamblers took their money and left. The opening was a flop and the Flamingo was closed.

The resort finally reopened March of 1947 and began to turn a profit. It wasn’t enough to save the life of Siegel. The mobster turned hotelier was found murdered in Hill’s Beverly Hills apartment. The same day of Siegel’s murder (within minutes, according to the legend), his associates announced their takeover of the Flamingo from the casino floor. Since 2005, the property has been controlled by Caesars Entertainment Corporation, which also owns eight other Strip properties and more than two dozen casinos around the world.

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