The man to my left was an old-timer. You could tell from his smoky voice, from the wrinkles and the gray, from the way he talked fondly of hotels like the Trop and the Riviera that today are rarely spoken of fondly.
I don’t usually make conversation on planes anymore, especially not en route home to Las Vegas. I used to, until I found that most tourists hear I live in the city they fantasize about and usually have a barrage of the same old questions. You live there and don’t gamble it all away? Isn’t the summer heat murder? Why are so many people moving into Vegas all the time anyway?
But this weekend we were on the four-hour flight from Atlanta that followed our grueling 10-hour flight from our Switzerland vacation, and I was getting a second wind just as my partner was crashing with exhaustion. So I noticed the guy to my left was browsing a dog-eared copy of Doyle Brunson’s poker bible Super System and decided to make chit-chat.
Frank Durango was actually from Orlando, en route to Vegas for a poker trip masquerading as travel for a work convention. He was 67. He’d been coming to Las Vegas since the 1960s, had seen the Rat Pack at the Sahara and met his first wife at the Stardust and treasured the time he rode an elevator with Don Rickles at Caesars.
And so, naturally, he loved the so-called Old Vegas. He went on a standard-issue rant about how great it all was back then, how it was smaller and more intimate and everybody knew your name and everything was cheap or free. It’s as if somebody sent out a talking-points memo to Vegas nostalgists everywhere, the way they repeat the lines so flawlessly no matter where they’re from.
“It was so much better when the mob ran Vegas,” Frank confided predictably. “Nowadays, it’s all corporate. It’s just not the same.”
It was a more simplistic reiteration of the remarks Old Vegas legend Jerry Lewis made to me last year. Lewis, too, bemoaned the modernization of the city. “When the mob ran this town, we had Las Vegas. When the corporates came in, we have Huckleberry Finn Farms.”
Even in such a colorful rendition, this line has always bored me. I’ve never been one of those people—and evidently there are many—who have been fascinated by mafia lore in general or believed that life back in the day was so great. I’ve always thought we were being led to root for the wrong folks in most of those redundant Scorsese flicks, and certainly The Sopranos.
Turns out, I’m not the only one. While interviewing Vegas attorney Don Campbell for a profile for a lawyer’s magazine a few weeks ago, I tripped a switch when I mentioned the oft-told tales of the glorious Vegas mob era. Campbell spent years in the Clark County prosecutor’s office trying mob cases against the likes of Oscar Goodman. Our conversation was humming along calmly until this:
“That is an absolute fallacy! To suggest that a criminal syndicate could somehow fashion and run a city in a more even-handed and efficient manner than the elected public officials is just maddening. Saying that the mob ran the town better than now when we have much better government structures and community structures, especially the corporations that own the hotels, is just absolute nonsense. These guys were brutal murderers. They were killers. To suggest that they should somehow be romanticized as something that they were not is very offensive to me.”
Campbell also teed off on Goodman’s plan to transform the old federal post office into a mob museum complete with an interactive wiretapping exhibit, wondering if 50 years from now there’ll be a museum to pay tribute to the Crips and the Bloods and other street gangs of our day. “Is that the logical extension of it? I don’t think we should ever romanticize a criminal activity. You see on MTV the glorification of criminal activity, particularly among the underprivileged that can least afford additional criminal activity in their lives.”
But of course there’ll be no pop-culture veneration of that sort for modern-day gangbangers. Why not? Well, duh. They’re usually not white. Spilotro, Rosenthal, Dalitz and Siegel were. White culture finds white criminals exotic. Criminals of all other races? They’re just terrifying.
I tested that theory on old Frank on the plane. I asked why he thought the street gangs of today aren’t as admired. His response: “Well, those guys are just nuts. High on drugs. No morality at all. Scary.”
My impression is, the victims of the mob era in Vegas would say exactly the same thing about their oppressors. Today, at least, everybody in a casino has roughly the same shot at winning and at earning a comp. Nobody knows your name, ’tis true, but they also don’t come by your house and beat you to a pulp or threaten to rape your wife if you don’t pay your debts.
What’s interesting, too, is where my plane neighbor Frank was staying. I mean, if he really loved the Old Vegas, you’d expect to find him at Binion’s or the Sahara or, perhaps, the Flamingo, right? But no. Frank was resting his poker-addled head at—are you ready for this?—the Excalibur. The Excalibur!
He was sheepish about it, to be sure.
“They happen to have a lot of low-cost poker tournaments,” he said. “And the buffet isn’t half bad.”
Read Steve Friess’ daily blog at TheStripPodcast.blogspot.com and catch his weekly celeb-interview podcast at TheStripPodcast.com. He can be reached at [email protected].