Thursday, November 22, 2012

(No.220) Las Vegas nocturne: Bugsy & the Flamingo Hotel

"Las Vegas nocturne: Bugsy and the Flamingo Hotel

(Part 1 of some tips for visitors) "

by Alastair Rickard

On Dec.26, 1946 Benjamin Siegel (aka Bugsy), a member of New York's Genovese Mafia crime family and longtime associate of Meyer Lansky, opened the Flamingo Hotel and Casino on a stretch of desert 7 miles from downtown Las Vegas. The opening was a flop but it marked the beginning of what is today universally known as the Las Vegas Strip, or more commonly as "The Strip".

Contrary to the story in Warren Beatty's movie "Bugsy" the building of the Flamingo out in the desert was not Siegel's idea but rather that of a Las Angeles businessman named William Wickerson who owned The Hollywood Reporter trade paper and several LA nightclubs. Siegel, who disliked both the desert and Nevada, became involved at the insistence of his friend Meyer Lansky with Wickerson's project after construction had begun and later, using the threat of death, forced Wickerson out.

The Flamingo's original cost was large for its day, all the more so once Siegel's inexperience in directing such a project began costing big bucks: $6 million or $62 million+ in today's dollars. Siegel was more psychopath than entrepreneur.

The money invested by Siegel's mob associates appeared to have no prospect of profit for some time and this was too long for them. Bugsy was shot on June 20,1947 as he sat reading the paper in the Beverly Hills mansion he shared with actress Virginia Hill (who had been skimming money from the Vegas project -- and the mob knew it).

The Flamingo came under various ownership over the decades, some connected to organized crime, some not. Today it is owned by Caesars Entertainment (formerly called Harrah's) and, like the other casino hotels on The Strip today, has no connection to the mob and the old days.

When it was built the Flamingo, located on 33 acres, had about 100 rooms. The last part of of the resort that dated back to Bugsy's days was demolished in 1993.

Today the Flamingo has 3,626 rooms looking out over a very pleasant garden area featuring not only pink flamingos and other wildlife but a modest bust of Bugsy Siegel.  It is not nearly as plush and upscale as Strip hotels like the Bellagio or Wynn's or Caesar's. But in our view the Flamingo offers the best combination of price, value, central Strip location and monorail access.

Since both the mob and Howard Hughes left Las Vegas gambling has become a steadily decreasing share of total activity and revenue on The Strip (38% vs 46% from rooms, food and booze) although annual betting revenue exceeds $6 billion with 77% of Vegas visitors doing at least a little gambling.

Over time Las Vegas became a vacation destination for couples, singles and families. This was a wise reorientation by the major corporate players which now run most of the Strip hotels ( the MGM and Caesars Entertainment chains) because legalized gambling has spread to so many locations throughout the U.S. that being able to gamble legally becomes a lesser reason for visits to Vegas.

Entertainment and night life has become a major draw of Las Vegas. The Strip's hotels feature sophisticated, purpose-built theatres as well as an explosion in the number and the variety of both shows and restaurants and clubs. On several levels Las Vegas has become a monument to excess and flash, one  which draws almost 40 million visitors a year, 16% of whom come from outside the U.S.

Once upon a time it seemed to me that when it came to going to Las Vegas visitors were often thought of as falling mainly into three categories: those who scorned Vegas as a trashy destination for mostly degenerate gamblers, those who went there to gamble and those attracted by the sinful reputation of Vegas ( you know the marketing slogan: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas"). For a long time Pat and I were in the first group -- until I had to go to a business convention there.

What we discovered and have been returning regularly to enjoy is the entertainment. There are multiple offerings for almost every taste: from more than a half dozen different Cirque du Soleil shows to broadway shows; from 'tribute' shows where groups and individuals imitate famous singers and groups (mostly deceased) plus regular appearances by celebrity singers and comedians -- and on and on. By 2008 72% of Las Vegas visitors attended at least one show while in town.

Frequently one sees promotional articles about Vegas, little more than thinly disguised ads that masquerade as real journalism in newspapers and magazines  Many are of marginal value to a prospective visitor looking for useful, hard information about the city. In fact what Las Vegas has become in recent yeas seems lost on some travel writers.

I recall the travel editor of one Canadian newspaper writing about Vegas based on little more than  what he admitted was his first visit. He was apparently taken round to a couple of the major hotels in one chain plus a show and not alot more and proceeded to provide some not particularly useful 'advice' to his readers.

Pat and I have offered some views (based on multiple visits to Las Vegas) tied to our particular interests. These do not include gambling [see the listing of several Vegas-related columns on at the end of this one].

As with many travel guides to various destinations too much of the content in the Vegas guides we have reviewed is not particularly candid and is unhelpful to the planning of a trip. They often do little more than shill for certain hotels and attractions which may well have 'subsidized' the guides' writers' Vegas activity.

This sort of thing is also a fairly common practice involving the writers of newspaper travel section articles; sometimes this financial 'relationship' is acknowledged with the use of various euphemisms at the end of the articles, sometimes not. It is the rare newspaper these days which, like the New York Times, prohibits in its code for its jounalists the acceptance of such 'subsidies'.

The  website is a useful source of critical reviews by travellers themselves about almost any destination, hotel, attraction, et al. But remember: the best way to approach reviews on Trip Advisor of a particular hotel, for example, is to pay attention to the predominant view. Do not be guided solely or even mainly by the very best or worst opinions of visitors in their posted reviews.

Some travellers will always complain about something that many or most travellers will consider trivial while others will provide a rave review if the taps work and a hotel staffer smiles at them on their arrival. Also remember that hotel insiders or competitors may plant favourable or negative reviews on the site.

The best published guide to Las Vegas in terms of candid comment and useful information about hotels, entertainment and restaurants (among other things) is the annual edition of The Unoffical Guide to Las Vegas published by Wiley. It is put together by a team led by Bob Sehlinger. It is the most usefully critical of the several Las Vegas guides I have looked at and it provides current, reliable and comprehensive information. Be sure to obtain the latest edition; currently this is the 2013 edition published in August 2012.

Pat and I recently revisited Las Vegas and in the next RickardsRead column (Part 2 of this column) we will offer comments some readers may find interesting and helpful.



1. website:

2. The Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas, 2013 edition (published by John Wiley, Aug.2012)

3. Las Vegas-related columns on

     Nos. 12, 72, 144, 145, & 146




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