These are hard times for the corporate casino racket, but as I stepped into Emilio Muscelli's home at the Las Vegas Country Club I was reminded of just how far this gambling town has risen from its notorious roots.
Taking a seat in Muscelli's comfortable den, photographs of a long parade of famous Las Vegas entertainers flashed by on a computer screen. From Sinatra and Elvis to Streisand, everyone who was anyone knew Emilio.
Although he was as popular as any mayor the valley has known, Muscelli never ran for office. He was the maitre d' at the Sands, the Dunes, and the International (now the Las Vegas Hilton).
Perhaps Emilio's knowledge of Las Vegas history won't impress the Strip's mega-resort barons as they careen toward bankruptcy and are haunted by their own hubris, but spending a little time with him sure made me feel better. I was reminded, for instance, that Las Vegas has endured plenty of ups and downs in its wild roller coaster existence.
At 86, Muscelli is the Ancient Mariner with an Italian accent. Born in Italy, he came to America in 1948 and landed a job at New York's Copacabana, where Jack Entratter played entertainment director and Murder Inc. owned the store. Although Muscelli attended college in Rome, the Copa provided him an education no university could match.
It was there he met one of the original developers of Las Vegas, an unassuming fellow named Maier Suchowljansky. He was known in the newspapers as Meyer Lansky.
When the Sands opened in 1952, his friends at the Copa played Horace Greeley and sent the trusted Emilio west. Entratter emerged as the 250-room hotel-casino's president. Once ensconced in his position as maitre d', Emilio had a front-row seat to Las Vegas history.
I don't think he's forgotten a thing.
Muscelli's memories of his acquaintances and friends from the entertainment world roll like a newsreel come to life. When you've counted Bobby Darin as a close friend and have partied until dawn with Howard Hughes -- and are still around to tell the tale -- you've officially earned your Strip stripes. From his favorite, Perry Como, to his golfing buddy, Dean Martin, he made the scene with the legends of Las Vegas.
"It was like a family here," he said, his accented English filling the room with warmth. "It was a small town. We didn't have 3,000 rooms. The Sands, it has only 250 rooms. The Sahara, the Desert Inn, the Dunes, they were all very small" by comparison.
"I used to work 24 hours a day. But it was very fun. The girls were very beautiful. I tell you, this town was a lot of fun after 3 o'clock in the morning."
From the way his eyes lighted up, I can only assume there were many a wild night blended into sunrise.
Muscelli remains an encyclopedia of the part of Las Vegas history that was long considered off-the-record and on the q.t. Namely, that "the boys" kept their hands on the casinos many years after Nevada's breathless politicians pronounced the gambling racket free from its shadowed past. He reels off names and dates and places, land deals, stock deals, and the ghosts of Vegas past like the king of the green felt jungle.
If you're looking for Muscelli to downplay the racket bosses' importance, you've read this classy old-schooler all wrong.
"I want to tell the real truth about the history of Las Vegas," he said. "They should be giving credit to those guys, not hiding them. Meyer was at the Flamingo from '46 to '67. ... Meyer's friend was Jimmy Blue Eyes (Alo). When Meyer and his wife would come to town, I used to take them around. I would escort them. ... Meyer Lansky built Las Vegas, Nevada. If it wasn't for Meyer Lansky, Las Vegas would not be much. He is the one responsible."
While I'm guessing the Chamber of Commerce won't be dedicating a statue in Lansky's honor any time soon, his historical importance won't be lost as long as Emilio has anything to say about it.
My gracious host laughed a little, smiled once more.
"I've been a lucky man all my life," he said. "I think I'm the only one still alive."
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.