Old-school restaurateur Freddie Glusman, owner of Piero’s Italian Cuisine, owes his Las Vegas success story to a mother’s tough love.
He had a red Corvette, but little else. It was time to grow up fast.
Raised near Vancouver, Canada, Glusman had moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was 13.
After attending Fairfax High School in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, he served 21 months in the Army, most of it in Alaska.
He was headed for Miami in 1957 to sell linens when he made a life-altering stop in Las Vegas.
“I was broke when I came into town. Three car payments behind on my Corvette. My mother wouldn’t give me any more money,” said Glusman.
FINDING A WAY
“I went to work for my cousin at Broasted Barbecue on Francisco Street, which is now Sahara. Right there on the corner at Sahara in the (novelty store) shopping center.
“Then I went to work selling magazines about all the stars who appeared in the lounges. Then I managed the El Rancho men’s shop when it burned down.
“I lived right here, on Fletcher Road,” said Glusman, seated at the first table inside the main bar at Piero’s, 355 Convention Center Dr.
“This was Fletcher Road before it was Convention Center Drive. I lived with my buddy who ran the Stardust pool.”
MAKING FAMOUS FRIENDS
“I met Don Rickles in ’59 when he worked for the Sahara in the lounge,” said Glusman. “I used to take him out with the showgirls 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock in the morning and we used to go to Lake Mead water skiing. Taught him how to water ski.”
Glusman ran with a hard-charging crowd that included Alex Shoofey, who was on a fast track as a Las Vegas executive.
Glusman was dating a cocktail waitress at the Sahara when he met Kirk Kerkorian and Kerkorian’s mother and sister, Rose.
“My philosophy in life was make friends with the right people rather than a bustout,’’ said Glusman.
He was good at that, meeting people, and everyone remembered his quick wit and gravelly voice.
Pia Zadora, who performs a cabaret show at Piero’s, describes it as “a voice that could chop wood.”
“I started smoking at 9,” croaked Glusman.
WORKING HIS WAY UP
“My first real job was selling carpeting and draperies. The boss from the Dunes used to come in from Chicago.
“I used to pick him up on Thursday at the airport. Used to take him to the hotel. Used to take his wife and entertain the wife for three days, selling her carpeting and draperies and furniture for the Dunes. Just to keep her occupied, (to keep) her away from him. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and leave Sunday.
“She would decorate the rooms and he gave me carte blanche.”
The woman’s husband was Jake Gottlieb, one of the new owners who had connections with the Chicago Outfit.
SIN CITY’S NEW IDENTITY
The Dunes was struggling after it opened in 1955 — the 10th resort on the Strip — and was sold in 1956 to Gottlieb and Major A. Riddle.
They decided to spice things up.
In what was viewed as a desperate move, the Dunes became the first hotel-casino to offer a topless show. The results were immediate; record crowds showed up.
Already branded as a mob town, Las Vegas was getting a reputation. Add a roaring lounge scene and the intoxicating Rat Pack phenomena and the city was taking off.
“In 1966 I owned a dress shop at the Tropicana. Named it Fredde’s. F-r-e-d-d-e with the accent over the e,” he said.
When The International opened in 1969 with Glusman’s best friend Shoofey as president, Glusman ended up with a women’s store there.
Plus, he said, “a boutique and a pro shop there. And I had the Flamingo dress shop and then I had the Stardust.”
He was doing so well financially that he bought 37 lots at the newly opened Las Vegas Country Club, where mobster Moe Dalitz lived in a tower.
ELVIS AT THE INTERNATIONAL
When Kerkorian decided to build The International, for years the world’s largest hotel, he hired Shoofey away from the Sahara, where he was president.
“Alex was my best friend,” said Glusman. “We were around each other 14 hours a day. I was always there. I was like his go-fer. That’s how I married (singer) Dihann Carroll and met all the stars because I used to take care of ‘em for Shoofey. Because he was in the office all day, he needed someone to take care of ‘em, right.”
And that’s how Glusman happened to be in The International showroom one day when Shoofey met with Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker.
“Alex signed the Elvis deal on a table cloth for $150,000 a week.”
“The Colonel,” said Glusman. “The best, the greatest. Loved the Colonel. I sent him stone crab when he was dying.”
Later, when Elvis mania restarted during his long run at The International, which later became the Hilton, Shoofey couldn’t even get a seat in the showroom on some nights.
So Glusman recommended a private red phone be installed in the showroom.
“Bang,” said Glusman. Problem solved.
THE GLICK YEARS
By 1974, Glusman had a new business partner, a 30-something San Diego businessman named Allen Glick, who bought the Stardust.
The media portrayed Glick as a frontman for the mob, which was coming under siege for its alleged skimming operations up and down the Strip.
“I met Glick in San Diego. He lived there. La Jolla. He was an attorney.
‘He built The Sporting House (athletic club) with a partner. He got rid of the partner. I took it over. Glick gave it to me when he was asked to leave town.”
Glick’s departure came after the FBI raided his offices at the Stardust. Heat was coming from several directions, so he bolted.
THE FRANK ROSENTHAL CONNECTION
“I knew Rosenthal when he first came into town. They wanted him to go to work at another hotel and the guy at the other hotel (reportedly the Desert Inn) wouldn’t put him to work. So the only place to put him was at the Stardust.”
Rosenthal owned two lots on Augusta Drive in the Las Vegas Country.
“One day Frank called me and said ‘what are my lots worth? I want to sell ‘em.’ He eventually sold one to Fletcher Jones and one to Art Marshall.
“Now he calls me again because I go to the same barber shop. And I had a hair transplant. And he wanted a hair transplant. His barber called me and said ‘Frank wants to talk to you about your hair transplant.’ I said have him call me. So he called me about the hair transplant and asked ‘who did it?’
“O.K. I’m in bed, six months or eight months later. FBI knocks on the door,” recalled Glusman.
“So the FBI is at the door. So my wife, Jeanie, comes upstairs in the bedroom and says there are two agents downstairs. They want to serve you. I said ‘have ‘em come up the stairs and serve me in bed.’ That’s true. They came up and served me and I had to go to a grand jury.
“The grand jury was on Rosenthal. They asked me. ‘you know Frank Rosenthal?’ I said yes. ‘Have you talked to him recently?’ I said yes. ‘What was it about?’ I said he asked me where I got my hair transplant. They let me go.”
(His wife, Jeanie, was Dick Danner’s daughter. Danner, a former FBI associate of Howard Hughes and Bob Maheu, was president of the Frontier and Sands hotels.)
Rosenthal popped back into Glusman’s life about five years ago, shortly before the retired gangster died in Florida.
“He called and wanted to set up an anniversary party. You know he’s in the black book. But I got too many customers who don’t like Rosenthal. O.K.? He didn’t even come in.”
Glusman recalled the day Rosenthal nearly died in a car bombing 31 years ago today, in the parking lot outside Tony Roma’s restaurant, which closed this year.
“When Rosenthal got bombed, the phone rang at Piero’s on Karen when the bomb went off. Two guys who had been sitting there answered the phone. They were waiting at Piero’s to find out if they got him.”
Not long after the assassination attempt, “Glick left me his car,” said Glusman. “It had an automatic starter so you could start it a block away. For years people were starting their cars from a mile away.”
TIME FOR A NEW DIRECTION
Because he and Shoofey spent hundreds of nights dining out, they often critiqued the restaurants and service.
In 1982, Glusman met chef Piero Broglio at Gourmet Corner on Sahara.
“I had him do the menu for me at The Sporting House coffee shop.”
A few months later, Glusman and Broglio opened up a small restaurant named Piero’s on Karen Avenue, adjacent to the Las Vegas Country Club.
They quickly had a hit on their hands. One night reputed mob hitman Tony “The Ant” Spilotro called for reservations.
“I told him we were sold out,” said Glusman.
Spilotro had run off business at Glusman’s disco, The Oz.
“Who wants that in a restaurant? No one wanted to associate with him.”
The Glusman-Broglio partnership didn’t last long. They had a beef while hosting a special event for Italian opera star Lucian Pavarotti.
Two Indian doctors – one of them was endoscopy clinic owner Dr. Dipak Desai, who would make headlines two decades later — requested vegetables. Broglio balked at the request.
Glusman and Broglio parted ways after four or five months, but Glusman kept the name, and in 1988 moved from the Karen location to the former mob hangout Villa d’ Este on Convention Center Drive.
But instead of opening a Piero’s in a space that was 10 times larger, Glusman decided he needed a starter restaurant for a year. He named it Freddie G’s Steakhouse.
He’s celebrating 25 years at Piero’s, a celebrity hotspot thanks to Glusman’s pal, longtime UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, who brought in ton of business.
Glusman’s chef, Gilbert Fetaz, has been with him since the blowup with Broglio.
As the interview ended, a tennis writer who was in town for a tournament, stopped to chat with Glusman.
When he noticed my reporter’s notebook and tape recorder, he asked, “Are you writing a book?”
No, just a Q and A, I said.
“What’s the theme?”
Glusman thought about it for about two seconds.
“I know where the bodies are buried,” he said.