The Flamingo hotel and casino 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, although it has been reconstructed and updated several times. 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 at 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. Casino chips from the first opening have sold for over $10,000 each.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 still 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, the first two properties built on the road to Los Angeles which became known at the Las Vegas Strip, Wilkerson envisioned a plush gaming facility with upscale restaurants, accommodation, a glitzy showroom with his Hollywood star friends, and big-money players streaming to the new entertainment of Las Vegas. Unfortunately, Wilkerson was short on cash by the time he had broken ground and begun construction. 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. To try and make up the remaining $400,000 that he needed, Wilkerson again visited the El Cortez casino. The results were disastrous.
Instead of winning, Wilkerson lost his front-money from his investors and also lost $400,000 in credit he had been extended playing craps. To carve his way out of his predicament, he sub-let the 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.
Slowly but surely, 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, Siegel had given Wilkerson a controlling interest in stock for the corporation, but by then Wilkerson knew he had no real control of the property. Siegel’s girlfriend, Virginia Hill was in charge of the interior decorating. “Bugsy” controlled the design of the property. Wilkerson was advised by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI to consider getting out of the deal. 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. J. Edgar miscalculated the Mob’s deep pockets and their plans for the casino, and “Bugsy.”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, including 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, such as the El Rancho. Locals had been looking forward to seeing the final product offered by this huge casino project, but it seems everybody who showed up had brought their good luck with them. George Raft helped-out by managing to lose $65,000 across the green felt tables, but he was in the minority. Over the next two weeks, the casino lost over $300,000. Ben 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 knowing they wouldn’t clear 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. Business continued as though nothing had happened, except 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. In accordance with agreed upon terms, 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. It was resold 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 Entertainment.