Vegas Casino History - Flamingo Hotel

Photo Courtesy (Nevada Casino History)
Flamingo Chip. Photo Courtesy (Nevada Casino History)

Building of the Flamingo Hotel Casino started more than 70-years ago. Before corporate casino ownership, before the Mob had a grip on the industry, and before Bugsy Siegel ever herd of it.Today, the resort is a mainstay on the Las Vegas Strip, located at 3555 Las Vegas Blvd South, across the street from Caesars Palace and close to Bally’s and the Bellagio on the corner of Flamingo Avenue. It is the oldest remaining casino on the Strip.

When it first opened, Bugsy Siegel was in charge, and Casino chips from the that time have sold for over $10,000.

The property covers 40 acres, offers 3600 rooms, 77,000 square feet of gaming space, several bars, gift shops, restaurants, and the Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville restaurant and gift shop, which includes the adjacent Margaritaville mini-casino. Although first opened in 1946 as The Flamingo, the name flip-flopped back and forth over the years: 1947 The Fabulous Flamingo, 1950 The Flamingo, 1952 The Fabulous Flamingo, 1974 Flamingo Hilton, 2000 Flamingo Las Vegas.

Building the Flamingo

Construction of the Flamingo was started in 1945 by Billy Wilkerson, owner-editor of The Hollywood Reporter. Wilkerson was a compulsive gambler who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars at the Mob-owned downtown casinos of Las Vegas. He rented the El Rancho Vegas casino for six months, trying to keep himself occupied and out of the other casinos, but by the end of his lease he had managed to lose $200,000 at the El Cortez, run by Moe Sedway and Bugsy Siegel.

Wilkerson figured the only way he could stay out of the other casinos was by owning his own, so he purchased a plot of land a mile from the El Rancho Vegas and began building his own resort. Instead of the cowboy-theme found at the El Rancho and Last Frontier, Wilkerson envisioned a plush gaming facility with upscale restaurants, accommodation, a glitzy showroom headlining his Hollywood star friends, and big-money players streaming to the new entertainment of Las Vegas.

Unfortunately, Wilkerson was short on cash. He borrowed $200,000 from Howard Hughes, who liked to visit Las Vegas, although he never bet more than $1 at a time on games of chance, and $600,000 from Bank of America. Then Wilkerson played craps at the El Cortez casino. The results were disastrous.

Wilkerson lost most of his investors front-money and also lost $400,000 in credit he had been extended while playing craps. To carve his way out of his predicament, he sub-let his planned casino operation to Moe Sedway and returned to his construction site. A month later he was broke, and the property sat undeveloped for several months. During a trip to Vegas from LA, Wilkerson was introduced to a New York investor who thought the new resort was a wonderful idea. He agreed to advance $1 million to Wilkerson in exchange for 2/3rd’s ownership of the property. Wilkerson was excited, especially after the money arrived at his bank. He was less than excited after construction was restarted and he was introduced to his new managing partner, Bugsy Siegel.

Siegel took over control of the project, and while he too ran into financial troubles, the construction continued under the direction of Del Webb and by late 1946 it appeared the property would be ready for a grand opening at Christmas time.

By then, Wilkerson knew he had no real control of the property.

Siegel’s girlfriend, Virginia Hill was in charge of the interior decorating while Bugsy controlled the design of the property. Wilkerson was advised by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI to consider getting out of the deal with his skin, and according to the book, Vegas and the Mob, the FBI was well aware that the Mob and Bugsy Siegel were controlling things at the work site. They were also aware that the project, once expected to cost no more than $1.9 million, was now a money-pit in the desert that had swallowed up over $5 million. Their hope was that the Mob would go broke, but J. Edgar miscalculated the Mob’s deep pockets and their plans.

Flamingo Grand Opening

With additional funding from back east, Siegel managed to get the property open on December 26, 1946, but the hotel rooms were not finished.

In addition, a winter storm kept the Constellations Bugsy had chartered to fly his Hollywood guests to Vegas. on the runways in Los Angeles. Although a few brave souls made the trip by car, like his friends George Raft and Jimmy Durante, it wasn’t enough. The casino opened at 5:00 p.m., but with no rooms, those from out of town had to go elsewhere to sleep.

George Raft helped-out by losing $65,000 across the green felt tables, but he was in the minority. Over the next two weeks, the casino lost over $300,000. Bugsy was a playboy, not a businessman, and his expertise did not extend to running a casino, so the property was shut down until the hotel rooms were finished.

A new opening took place on March 1, with Jimmy Durante, the Xavier Cugat Band, and Baby Rosemarie playing in the showroom. Guests wandered the property, ate $7 steak dinners (a bit pricey for Vegas at the time), and then hit the gaming tables, which continued to lose money, especially at blackjack. The remainder of the construction had to be halted, although the property stayed open this time, still bleeding cash. In June, Bugsy sent checks to Del Webb Construction totaling $150,000, but there was no cash in the bank. Then he went to Los Angeles to relax.

On June 20, 1947 Ben was gunned down in Virginia Hill’s home in Beverly Hills while he calmly read the newspaper. An hour later, Gus Greenbaum and Morris Rosen walked into the Flamingo and took over operations. Over the next three months the Flamingo turned a profit of nearly $1 million.

Funding for the final construction of the Flamingo was provided by several Mob groups, including Tony Accardo in Chicago. Each family got a cut of the profits, and much of the cash generated was “skimmed” off the top without being reported (and taxed). The skim was transported by couriers to Meyer Lansky, who handled Mob cash for several decades, first hiding it, then redistributing it in cash and payments from legitimate businesses to Mob families all over the country.

The skim of the Flamingo continued until Kirk Kerkorian acquired the property in 1967. The casino and hotel were sold to Hilton Corporation in 1972. The Flamingo Las Vegas is still a popular hotel and casino situated at the center of the Strip. Today, the property is part of Caesars/Harrah's.