I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that tired old line, “Las Vegas was better when the Mob ran the town.”
This is typically muttered by old-timers who find reserved seating in hotel showrooms to be too impersonal, or don’t like the fact that the person who sold them the ticket or directed them to their seat didn’t know them from Adam.
“Vinnie always greeted us by name, and made sure we had a great seat when Dean and Sammy were in town,” goes the refrain. But of course Vinnie remembered their names not because they were special, but because they pressed two Andy Jacksons into his lobster-like fist.
Or perhaps this Mafia nostalgia is just a reaction to the number of celebrity impersonators roaming the Strip of today, or smut peddlers handing out pictures of nekkid girls as a rolling sign passes by of another nekkid girl who looks just like the one on the handbill, promising anything the heart or loins could want.
Maybe the nostalgia connected to the bent-nose guys of yesteryear working behind the scenes is connected to our fascination with crime and whodunits, the James Ellroy-drenched film noir infatuation with the notion that this modernized western city we call home has a heart as black as the ones that Bugsy and the boys wore back when.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the Mob Museum and think it’s a great attraction to our city. But that’s where the Mob belongs — in a museum. I, for one, would rather see that 10 or 15 percent share that the boys used to slice from the swing shift profits go to our state coffers, and help keep classroom sizes down and good teachers on the payroll.
I’ve been here long enough to remember some of the dudes the old-timers claim made this city so much better back in the day. In my four decades as a scribbler, I’ve interviewed a few serial killers and hitmen, and on two different occasions was “honored” to be on the final phone call list of death row inmates scheduled to be executed the following day.
Trust me: There is nothing uplifting about those encounters. They are out and out depressing.
I vividly recall a moment from the year 1981. The location: Alias Smith & Jones Restaurant, on the east side of town. Alias was a popular watering hole until it burned down in a suspicious fire 15 years later.
I was on a first date with a young woman, sharing chicken fingers, when my companion nudged me in the ribs. There was a look of concern in her eyes.
“That man keeps staring at me,” she whispered, nodding toward a side table. “He’s making me uncomfortable.”
I took this as a subtle challenge for a guy on a first date hoping to impress. Should I reveal my inner machismo and quickly rise and confront the gawker and tell him to put his eyes back in his head? Or should I let her comment slide and profess to be a devotee of Gandhi and Mother Teresa?
When after a mandatory five-count I glanced over to see who was visually stalking her, I felt an instant chill. A short, stocky man with coal-black eyes and dark hair was sure enough shooting lasers at my date, and when I busted him in the act he turned his gaze directly at me. This wasn’t the type of eye contact you easily forget. The man in the booth across from us that night was none other than Anthony Spilotro, or as he was called behind his back, “Tony the Ant.”
Spilotro was notorious as a mob lieutenant from Chicago who considered Las Vegas his own private playground in the ’70s and ’80s. If there was a lucrative business operating anywhere in town, Tony and his pals wanted to partner up with it. One of his side ventures was a group of burglars known as the Hole in the Wall Gang, because of their proclivity to gain entry by boring holes in walls and roofs of jewelry stores.
My late friend Ned Day, an esteemed and widely read columnist for this newspaper during that era, had the cajones to refer to Spilotro in print as “a fire hydrant that walks like a man.” I wasn’t nearly as brazen.
I had been told by the late drug czar Jimmy Chagra that he was seated near Spilotro in Jubilation Nightclub in the late 1970s when he witnessed a cocktail waitress spill a drink on the mobster. Tony called the woman the worst name you can call a female and demanded an apology. She declined, exclaiming that she apologized only to gentlemen.
Two days later the waitress’s picture appeared in the morning paper as a missing person. Her body has never been found, and Chagra was convinced her death was caused by that spilled drink. Now while having Jimmy Chagra throw aspersions on Tony Spilotro is clearly a case of the pot calling the kettle black, there were a lot on instances back then when a single misstep or ill-timed comment could earn a victim a one-way trip south and a big sleep under a desert sky.
In the movie “Casino,” Joe Pesci played a character named Nicky Santoro, closely based on Spilotro. In scenes that are not easy to forget, Pesci’s character brutally murdered several people, in particular one poor sap whose head he put in a vice, squeezing it until his eyes popped out. This was based on the actual murder of a fellow thug named James Miraglia.
It is estimated by FBI sources that Spilotro may have committed as many as 20 murders during his reign of terror in Las Vegas. But the killing stopped in June 1986, when The Ant and his younger brother Michael were tortured and buried alive in an Indiana cornfield.
It goes without saying that on that night in 1981 at Alias Smith & Jones I didn’t valiantly rise up from our booth in the restaurant and get in Tony’s grill. Nor did I tell my date until we were safely in the car and miles away from the restaurant that the man who found her so alluring was the Chicago syndicate’s main enforcer in Las Vegas. When I did fill her in, she asked if I thought she should move back to the Pacific Northwest.
While it’s true that the Harvard and Yale-educated attorneys and accountants who run Strip hotels today might not be nearly as colorful as the grifters and second-chance guys who put Las Vegas on the map decades ago, waves of nostalgia don’t splash over me when I think of that motley crew.
Our city still has a world of problems to address, but I’d rather leave the answers to these challenges to the newer breed of gaming executives. Had the boys with the colorful nicknames been left to operate unchecked, there is no doubt that the Las Vegas we know today would have shriveled up like a human skull left rotting in a vice.
Longtime Las Vegas resident and author Jack Sheehan’s column appears monthly. He loves the city, with all its wonder and weirdness, and thinks it offers the richest menu of writing material on the planet. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (702) 277-0660.