Holes in the Desert

How Las Vegas became a Kansas cornfield in Casino

Gary Dretzka

Las Vegas is home to more illusionists per square mile than any other city on the planet. Some make objects the size of a helicopter vanish with the wave of a hand, others turn doves into crumpled handkerchiefs and croupiers routinely make piles of money disappear. Then there's location scout Maggie Mancuso.

Ten years ago, the former lounge singer was called upon to perform an illusion worthy of Lance Burton. In collaboration with director Martin Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti, Mancuso found played with time and space for the director's epic, Casino, convincing audiences this oasis could do a great impersonation of Kansas City and Chicago.

The movie, which has just been released in a special 10th- anniversary DVD edition, differs from the book primarily in its need to shroud the identities of real people and places with thinly disguised names and fudged geography. The challenge came in discovering locations whose verisimilitude not only would satisfy Scorsese and Ferretti but fool viewers. In addition to tricking out vintage buildings along Main Street and Las Vegas Boulevard in Midwestern drag, other locations required fake snow, big-city litter and imported corn stalks.

More than 130 locations within a 30-mile radius of the Riviera—standing in for the Stardust, run by Frank Rosenthal in the '70s—were used, including the open spaces of the Jean Dry Lake Bed.

Mancuso remembers picking up Scorsese at the Downtown train station ("I was a couple of minutes late, and he was just standing there looking nervous ...") and introducing a dumbstruck Ferretti to the wonders of Las Vegas.

"Dante was fresh from Rome, and in total culture shock at all the schlock," recalls Mancuso, who later would work on Go, Perdita Durango, Money Plays and Mars Attacks! "It was hilarious. All he would say was, 'I can't do theeese, I can't do theeese ... all this greeed, greeed.'

Mancuso and LA-based locations manager Michael Burmeister not only were required to disguise 20 years' worth of development, but to unveil a side of the city few tourists ever see. It was in this Las Vegas that wiseguys like Nicky Santoro and Sam Rothstein could blend into the middle-class woodwork by day and embrace all seven deadly sins at night.

Set designers didn't have to do much to maintain the period integrity of the Riviera's casino, but some sleight of hand was required for other locales. For example, the Tangiers' brightly lit porte-cochere was a composite of those at Bally's, the Plaza and soon-to-be-imploded Landmark. The Jockey Club provided a makeshift soundstage on which Ace's futuristic Race & Sports Books and office suite were constructed.

For Mancuso and Burmeister, the real coup came in finding a suitable place for the bludgeoning deaths of the Santoro brothers. Initially, the idea was to find a cornfield in Clark County, but of course, there weren't any. The next plan required importing an acre's worth of corn stalks from Central California in a refrigerated van, and reposting them on a rebar on a parcel of desert at the Rocking K Ranch.

"Those 20,000 stalks of corn had to be tied to the rebar for what we thought would be a one-day shoot. When it extended into another day, we had to replace the stalks in the front rows—which already were turning yellow—with fresh ones from the truck," says Burmeister.

Any resemblance between the Rocky K Ranch and the actual Indiana cornfield, in which real-life gangsters Anthony and Michael Spilotro were killed, was anything but coincidental. Making it look that way, though, became a job in itself.

With 10 years' distance between the theatrical release and the anniversary DVD of Casino, it's much easier for fans and detractors alike merely to sit back and appreciate the magician's art ... even if one or two secrets have been revealed along the way.


Click here to view/download a larger image of the map in PDF format.

1. The Riviera Resort & Casino: Though Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal presided over gaming and entertainment at the Stardust, it was the Riv that opened its doors to Scorsese. The hotel's penthouse, restaurants, kitchen, counting room, casino, ballroom and La Cage showroom were prominent throughout the film.

2. Bally's Las Vegas: The hotel's Jubilee! Theatre was used for the showgirl weigh-in scene and backstage at Aces High. A penthouse was used in a scene of a prostitute pleasuring a valued Tangiers client. Its front entrance was used as part of a composite in various scenes involving arrivals and valet parking area.

3. Main Street Station: Just north of the Plaza Hotel, it was in the parking lot outside Tony Roma's restaurant that Sam "Ace" Rothstein's Cadillac was blown up.

4. The Jockey Club: Undergoing extensive renovation, its facilities were transformed into the Tangiers' race and sports book, Rothstein's office suite, Aces High set, catwalks and security-video room. A bloody shootout in a Chicago tavern was shot in a bar in the residence-hotel.

5. The Moulin Rouge: Famous for being the first interracial nightclub and hotel in Las Vegas, the now-shuttered resort's spacious lounge doubled for a Chicago nightclub frequented by Nicky Santoro and his crew. 800 W. Bonanza Road.

6. Piero's Restaurant: This landmark Italian restaurant was transformed into the bar-restaurant owned by Nicky Santoro. The parking lot also served as the scene for a quick tryst between Santoro and a statuesque prostitute. 355 Convention Center Drive.

7. Glass Pool Inn: Now demolished, the 48-room motel long stood on the south end of the Strip, across from the Hacienda and Mandalay Bay. Its kitschy "swimming pool with windows" was seen briefly toward the end of the film.

8. Henderson Executive Airport: Then, Henderson Sky Harbor Airport, became the Kansas City Municipal Airport.

9. Idle Spurs of Sandy Valley: About 15 miles west of Jean, off of Highway 53, the historic diner served as a safe meeting place for Rothstein and Santoro.

10. Jean Dry Lake Bed: At Mile Marker 14 on Highway 604, the dusty, desolate location provided a desolate meeting place for Santoro and Rothstein near the film's climax.

11. Our Lady of Las Vegas: Part of the school's campus served as Santoro family's Chicago kitchen, and as a baseball field where the son played on a Little League team. A classroom also was used. 3036 Alta Drive.

12. Gold Rush Ltd.: Then a Kawasaki dealership, now a Thai restaurant, it subbed for gangster Tony Spilotro's real-life jewelry store and crew headquarters. That store was just up the street on West Sahara but has since been demolished to make room for the Allure Towers project. 1201 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

13. El Cortez Warehouses: Used for slot-machine storage but most famous as the spot where Santoro and his crew tortured a Chicago wiseguy. In real life and in the movie, the victim didn't reveal secrets until his head was squeezed in a vise. 721, Suite 3, N. Main St.

14. Oscar Goodman's office: Before being elected mayor, Hizzoner represented Rosenthal and Spilotro, just as he did onscreen for Rothstein and Santoro. 520 S. Fourth St.

15. Cornfield: Corn stalks were flown in from Fresno to Rocking K Ranch and stabilized with rebar to substitute for the cornfield torture and burial scene of Santoro and his brother in the Midwest. It duplicates the deaths of the Spilotro brothers in an Indiana cornfield. The stables are now part of larger housing development. 6500 N. Rio Vista.

16. San Diego home: Actually, one of the houses on the old Desert Inn (now Wynn Las Vegas') property. 357 Desert Inn Road.

17. Kansas City produce market: Former Goldi of Nevada meat market, this doubled as a gathering place for Midwestern mobsters awaiting the return of a courier with a suitcase of skim money. 3010 S. Valley View.

18. Santoro's home in Las Vegas. 1923 Sixth St.

19. Ginger's apartment, Howard Hughes Townhomes, 3250 Channel 8 Drive.

20. Lester's LA apartment: a double for the apartment where Ginger's ne'er-do-well boyfriend/pimp/enabler lived while in Los Angeles. 3228 Channel 8 Drive.

21. Rothstein home: Built as a temporary residence for headliners, its back yard abuts the Las Vegas National Golf Course, where the FBI is forced to make an emergency landing. 3515 Cochise Lane.

22. El Salvador Café: The restaurant where Rothstein confronts Ginger and Lester, after which Lester gets beat up by Ace's thugs. 720 N. Main St.

23. Desert hole: The unmarked grave of a clerk and guard, now Industrial Road and the Southern Highlands development.

24. Costa Rica and Malibu homes: Scenes from the series of assassinations at the end of the film. Easley Ranch, 5795 S. Lamb.

25. Beverly Sunset Motel: Ginger stumbles to her death in the hallway of a rundown LA motel. 651 E. Ogden Ave.

26. Chicago alley: Scene of a beating. Outside of the Flick O-Rama, 719 E. Fremont St.

27. Downtown bookie joint. Johnny Rocco Ringside Gym, 9 W. Charleston Blvd.

28. Chicago mob's social club. Then, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1753, 705 N. Las Vegas Blvd.

29. Snowy Chicago parking lot: A mob hit takes place with faux snow. Citibank Plaza, 3900 Paradise Road.

30. Nicky's construction trailer: Now a development at Rancho and Lake Mead, the trailer was where Santoro provided comfort to Ace's wife, Ginger, when she was distraught over his restrictions on her lifestyle. FBI agents took post-tryst photos of Ginger and Nicky in the parking area.

31. La Concha Motel: Now demolished, it served as the site for the low-rent rendezvous between Ginger and Nicky (caught in a three-way mirror shot) late in the movie. It was designed by noted architect Paul Revere Williams. It's near the Riviera and Fireside Inn, where a nightclub scene was shot.

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