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December 27, 2014

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Researcher says Vegas’ mob past has been overblown

The images of films like "Bugsy" and "Casino" remain inextricably intertwined with many outsiders' visions of the city, even while Wall Street tightens its grip on the Las Vegas Strip.

But David G. Schwartz believes the images of a city in the grip of "cartoonish pin-striped gangsters mucking around" isn't a very accurate view of Las Vegas, either past or present.

"If you think of guys in pin-striped suits as symbolizing organized crime in the casino industry, that's outdated ... that's a relic of Prohibition in the 1920s, and that was the 1950s," said Schwartz, coordinator of UNLV's Gaming Studies Research Center. "There's a lot of white-collar criminals and organized crime connections, but it's not as picturesque as it seems. It's not like Al Capone.

Perpetuating this image isn't helpful for Las Vegas, he argues.

"If there's a perception you're in a town that's founded by mobsters, that doesn't build a lot of civic pride," Schwartz said. "It has a big impact on how the (casino) industry is still perceived. It's still perceived as a vice, and that's still pretty deeply rooted."

Schwartz has deeply researched the history of the gambling industry in Las Vegas, and has just completed an as yet-unpublished book on its rise. Last week, he outlined his views at a seminar at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel is perhaps the most well-known face behind the mobster history associated with Las Vegas. Seen by many as the visionary behind the construction of the Flamingo, Siegel was gunned down in Los Angeles in 1947, several months after the Flamingo became one of the first resorts to open on Las Vegas Boulevard. Today, Siegel is viewed almost as one of Las Vegas' founding fathers.

Schwartz argues the title of founding father of the Strip more rightfully belongs to Thomas Hull, who opened the El Rancho Vegas on what became the Strip years before the Flamingo. But Hull was a "hotel/motel guy from California," not nearly as colorful as Siegel.

"Was he (Siegel) a great visionary?" Schwartz asked. "No, he wasn't. It (the Flamingo) wasn't his idea, it was Billy Wilkerson's idea. He did have some ideas about class, but that translated to gold bathroom fixtures that drove up costs. Was he a great leader that could command respect? No... he was a cross between Bobby Knight and Vince McMahon.

"He was a guy who went to Hollywood to become a big shot, didn't, and came here to become a big shot. He never was a big casino guy."

And as for the other mob figures?

"It's a problem of perspective ... how do you define mob-related?" Schwartz said. "Was he a bootlegger in the '20s? Was he seen in dinner with someone? It was a much different town then. A lot of people went out to dinner together that wouldn't go today."

And it certainly wasn't organized, he said. "(Many writers) make it seem monolithic . There were a lot of guys running around with a lot of connections, but it was kind of a free-for-all."

Many of the city's early casino industry figures, Schwartz said, had been driven to the city by Sen. Estes Kefauver's crackdown on organized crime and illegal gambling in the early 1950s. Schwartz described many such figures, such as Meyer Lansky, as investors. "It was like an investment for him ... it wasn't about control," he said. And in the beginning, they were the only ones willing to invest in the business of gambling.

"There was an outcry against gambling in the big cities in the East, and middle-class America became alarmed at the easy gambling," Schwartz said. "They cracked down, and a lot of opportunities moved out here. They created the kind of gambling that was very attractive to middle-class Americans.

"Middle class suburban Americans wanted a vacation place. They wanted to do this in safe places. It wasn't like an illegal downtown casino. You could come here and not be afraid. You might lose money, but you'll have a great time."

This image of Las Vegas in the 1950s was promoted by the media of the time, Schwartz said.

"You can see that very early on, in the 1950s, Las Vegas was getting very good write-ups in the New York Times," Schwartz said. "That was representative of the tenor of most other papers."

That started to change in the 1970s -- ironically, the period when most of the individual owners were being pushed out by corporations.

"With that size, they lost a little bit of intimacy," Schwartz said. "People began to say, 'The good old days were better, when the mob was running the town."'

Today, the thoroughly corporate world of commercial gambling still has to confront that past, and its perception as a vice industry. But Schwartz thinks that will slowly fade with the national reach of the casino industry today, just as the movie industry shook its one-time image as a scandalous industry.

"Thirty years ago, most people did not know someone who worked in a casino," Schwartz said. "Today, when there's half a million people working for the industry all over the country, it's a lot harder to say that. You don't have the same unfair assumptions people make.

"It's a part of American life, not something exotic you find only in Las Vegas or Reno."

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