The Flamingo casino, financed in large part by underworld investments funneled through racketeer Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, opened its doors for the first time on December 26, 1946.
|Cugat and Durante|
At the time of the opening, the Flamingo's hotel section was still under construction, and management hoped it would be completed by March 1, 1947. Advertisements for the three-day opening urged southern California visitors to "fly up any day and come back the same night." Chartered planes departed for Las Vegas at 5:30 in the afternoon and returned guests by 1 a.m.
The Flamingo was billed as the "most luxurious night club in the world." Its advertisements vaguely (and somewhat conservatively) placed its construction cost at "better than $5,000,000."
That figure had risen dramatically in the months leading up to the opening, and it would continue to rise. Back in early October, the final cost had been estimated at between $2.5 million and $4 million.
The exterior of the casino was beige and brown. It was lined with bushes illuminated with red and blue lights. Numerous potted palm trees were placed around the establishment. An artificial green lake stood at one side. The large bar had green leather walls with many mirrors, a black ceiling and "tomato-red furniture."
Not the first
Flamingo may have been the "most luxurious night club" at that moment, but it was not the first Las Vegas hotel-casino to cater to wealthy gamblers.
El Rancho Vegas (opened on The Strip in 1941), El Cortez (1941), Nevada Biltmore (1942) and Hotel Last Frontier (1942) were already in operation and reportedly doing good business. Columnist Erskine Johnson noted in June 1946 that those ventures, set in motion before U.S. entry into World War II, remained "jammed" with visitors:
Movie stars, millionaires, socialites and plain John Does are standing two deep at the roulette and dice tables. Every gambling casino in town - and there's one on almost every corner - is grossing from $3000 to $5000 a night. And every night is like New Year's Eve.
Johnson reported rumors that the funding for Flamingo construction was coming from Barbara Hutton, heiress to portions of the Woolworth retail and Hutton financial services fortunes. According to Johnson, Hutton was "sinking a small fortune" into the project, "which will be a gilt casino with hotel attached."
|Los Angeles Times, Dec. 24, 1946|
Flamingo construction was repeatedly delayed for various reasons. At least twice in the summer and fall of 1946, the project was halted for a review by the federal government's Civilian Production Administration (CPA).
The year-old CPA, a postwar version of the War Production Board, was tasked with prioritizing the use of construction resources. In spring 1946, CPA had put a temporary stop on all non-essential commercial building not already started in order to concentrate resources on the housing needs of returning U.S. servicemen.
Columnist Hedda Hopper called attention to the Flamingo construction and a wider building boom in the Las Vegas area in a September 10 column. She also mentioned financial backer Siegel by name:
A huge night club, backed by Bugsy Siegel and called the Flamingo, was started only a few months ago. It features four swimming pools, and reservations are already being taken for a November opening. Yet our returned soldiers can't even find a shed for shelter.
The "only a few months ago" remark was a problem, as it suggested the building effort began after the March 26 effective date of CPA's Veterans Housing Project No. 1 regulation. A federal compliance commissioner reviewed the project in mid-September and announced that work on the night club had started before March 26 and that the planned hotel and connecting shops of the horseshoe-shaped complex were merely phases of the project already underway and not separate projects.
That decision was pushed aside in early October, as the CPA ordered a halt to the project and conducted a further review. At that moment, reports indicated that just $400,000 - about one-tenth of what was then the expected project cost - had been spent on construction.
Focus on casino
Resources appear to have been channeled into the completion of the casino before year-end. The casino was mentioned regularly in the press during the month of December.
- Columnist Leonard Lyons wrote on December 19 that the movie and radio comedy team of Abbott and Costello had committed to work at the Flamingo for pay of $15,000 a week.
- Columnist Louella O. Parsons commented a few days later: "Quite a lot of people are goig to Las Vegas the 26th and 27th for the opening of the Flaming." Parsons mentioned that Cugat and Durante had been booked as entertainers.
- Columnist Hedda Hopper immediately expressed surprise: "I can't believe Jimmy Durante will give a two-week guest shot to the new Flaming gambling casino in Las Vegas."
|Benjamin Siegel and George Raft|
One of those covering Flamingo's opening was journalist Bob Thomas. He reported that "a covery of movie names flew over for the opening, including Lon McAllister, George Sanders, Sonny Tufts, Charles Coburn, Vivian Blaine, George Raft, Eleanor Parker and George Jessel."
Thomas said the older hotel-casinos in the area responded to the big-name talent booked at the Flamingo by providing their own entertainment. El Rancho Vegas, he reported, hired comedians the Ritz Brothers and singer Peggy Lee.
He noted that Las Vegas at that moment had "more big-time entertainment than one could find in a week of touring Hollywood night spots."
While the entertainment brought publicity to the Vegas establishments, Thomas reminded his readers that the casinos' wealth was generated through constant gambling. He noted that in the Flamingo casino, patrons at roulette, crap, 21 and chuckaluck tables were busily helping "to defray the $5,000,000 cost of the place." And he confessed, "I made my contribution at a nickel slot machine."
In a United Press report of the opening, the financial backers of the casino were named as Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel; Harry Rothberg, vice president of American Distillers; Billy Wilkerson, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter; and Joe Ross, Hollywood attorney.
The enthusiastic contributions made by gamblers were not sufficient to please Flamingo's investors. In the weeks following the opening, there were reports that the casino's income was not close to covering its expenses and there was evidence that Siegel was scrambling to keep the business afloat. Newspapers said he took out a $1 million loan in order to pay off a contractor.
Siegel's underworld friends expressed their unhappiness with his management of the casino on June 20, 1947. On that evening, less than six months after the Flamingo's opening gala, Siegel was shot to death.
- "An evening in Las Vegas," Los Angeles Times, advertisement, Dec. 24, 1946, p. 4.
- "Flamingo hotel permit allowed," Nevada State Journal, Sept. 15, 1946, p. 21.
- "Las Vegas club building halted," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 1, 1946, p. 6;
- "Nevada politics," Nevada State Journal, Oct. 20, 1946, p. 19.
- "New colossus on the desert," Des Moines IA Register, Jan. 1, 1947, p. 5.
- "State boss of bookmaking slain in south," San Mateo CA Times, June 21, 1947, p. 1.
- "Work halted on Las Vegas club pending probe," Santa Cruz CA Sentinel, Oct. 3, 1946, p. 8.
- "Work is halted on Vegas club," Nevada State Journal, Oct. 3, 1946, p. 4;
- Hopper, Hedda, "Hedda Hopper in Hollywood," Miami News, Dec. 23, 1946, p. 11.
- Hopper, Hedda, "Looking at Hollywood," Los Angeles Times, Sept. 10, 1946, p. 11.
- Johnson, Erskine, "In Hollywood," Visalia CA Times-Delta, June 14, 1946, p. 10.
- Lyons, Leonard, "Broadway Medley," San Mateo CA Times, Dec. 19, 1946, p. 12.
- Lyons, Leonard, "The Lyons den," Oakland Tribune, Dec. 22, 1946, p. Mag. 5.
- Parsons, Louella O., "Deborah Kerr and Gable cast in another picture," San Francisco Examiner, Dec. 23, 1946, p. 9.
- Thomas, Bob, "Las Vegas is called new Barbary Coast," Oakland Tribune, Dec. 30, 1946, p. 6.