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Back in the '30s and '40s, slots and stickmen ruled Broward

Casino and Gambling IndustryTravelTourism and LeisureLotteriesCrime, Law and JusticeCrimePolitics

There was the corrupt sheriff who encouraged gambling houses to flourish, and even held a share in one.

Preening gangsters such as Julian "Potatoes" Kaufman, Jimmy "Blue Eyes" Alo and Longy Zwillman strutted about town, pockets filled with ill-gotten cash.

Then there was the square-jawed crime-fighting senator who labeled Hallandale "the sin city capital of the South, a wide-open den of iniquity."

Cast a glance back to the Broward County of the 1930s and '40s. Slot machines, legal and otherwise, sounded their merry clatter everywhere: drugstores, filling stations, emporiums, even fishing camps. Those were the wild times. But while slot machines, in one form or another, may eventually come back to Broward's racetracks and frontons, it's a safe wager any new wave of gambling wouldn't be as rough and tumble.

Back then it wasn't just slots. More sophisticated gambling brazenly thrived in swank casinos or "carpet joints" -- so called for their fancy appointments -- toward which locals turned a blind eye. The "evil that moved quietly into Florida," as an old newspaper story dubbed it, generated a cast of characters worthy of a dime-store novel -- and precious under-the-table jobs for a Depression-era populace.

"The large proportion of people who live in Broward County today had no idea of the gambling that occurred in the `30s and `40s," said county historian Helen Landers, "but those who do remember it, remember it with excitement."

Because of the large number of banks erected to house gangsters' loot, Hallandale was also called the "Wall Street of South Florida." It was an unlikely moniker for a farming community. "Dirt roads, fields and U.S. 1 was the only way to go," recalled C.K. "Mac" McElyea, former Dania Beach mayor. Most people who worked the land lived between Dixie Highway and U.S. 1, he said, and except for a couple of hotels, beachside tourism consisted of visitors in rented cabins or tents.

The gambling boom began in 1935, when the state Legislature, sniffing tax revenue, legalized slot machines, those one-armed bandits Las Vegas later made famous. Broward, in particular, seeking to draw tourists, installed slots wherever the public gathered. Soon, there were 12,500 licensed machines statewide; most were in South Florida. They brought an estimated $60 million a year into state coffers -- at 5, 10 and 25 cents a spin.

"They had them everywhere except in the temple and the church," said Cathleen Anderson, 70, a city commissioner in Hollywood, where many notable and not-so-secret casinos prospered.

Within two years of legalized slots came the real pros -- gangsters from New York and Chicago -- and their illegal machines. A bookmaking operation started by two Chicago mobsters in a Hallandale tomato packing shed grew into the Plantation, one of the more famous carpet joints, where pampered patrons could drink and dine in style, watch a show and, of course, gamble.

Though in 1937 the Legislature outlawed slots, their illegal cousins stayed on. South Broward was home to dozens of carpet joints, attracting free-spending tourists and entertainers such as Sophie Tucker and Joe E. Lewis. Locals worked as dealers, waiters or "stickmen" who shifted dice about the table. Gamblers flocked to Club Boheme, the Colonial Club, the Green Acres and the It Club. Police directed traffic outside and escorted casino managers to the bank.

"It was a big part of the economy in those days," said Leonard Robbins, 84, who still practices law at a Hollywood firm. "The people used to come down to gamble, they used to spend a lot of money. They kept everything afloat."

Robbins' father ran a men's clothing store in Fort Lauderdale. "Every gambler in Broward County used to be a customer of my dad's," he recalled. "They were all very nice people. They used to walk around the counter and pat me on the head."

The teenaged Robbins was on a first-name basis with Meyer Lansky, South Florida's best-known mobster.

Also in the mix was the colorful sheriff, Walter Clark, who along with his brother and chief deputy, Robert Clark, owned an interest in an illegal casino. Once, when a reporter asked why he allowed gambling, Clark replied: "Why? Because I'm a goddamn liberal, that's why. I will not go around these parts and stick my nose in the private business of the people."

In 1950, Clark was grilled in Miami at a special hearing of the U.S. Senate Crime Investigating Committee led by Sen. Estes Kefauver, D-Tenn. Spectators roared in laughter when the sheriff insisted he was unaware of any gambling in his bailiwick.

But Clark, a big man with a ready laugh, was well-loved at home. First elected in 1933, he was suspended by the governor for allowing gambling in 1941, re-elected in 1945 and suspended again in 1949 for the same reasons. He died in 1951.

The sheriff wasn't the only one corrupted by gambling. Savvy mobsters knew enough to share profits with host cities, as a means of ensuring protection and making their operation necessary to the municipal budget.

"The city of Hollywood was practically bankrupt," Anderson said, "and the gambling places used to pay money to the government to keep it going."

Even the righteous were on the mobsters' payoff roll. "They donated to every church group there was in the county," McElyea said. "Everybody had a little piece of the action."

When everyone profited, few spoke out against the gambling. "I don't remember any opposition," the ex-mayor said.

"I don't think anyone really went out and crusaded against it," Robbins recalled. "They were sort of quiet."

But the games couldn't go on forever, and eventually it was curtains for the illegal outfits. A growing postwar prosperity eliminated the need for quick cash from tourist gamblers. Air conditioning was being developed, which allowed business and tourism to continue through the hot summer.

By the early `50s, public enmity and government investigations caused gangsters to sell off their casinos. Gambling was reserved for the area's racetracks.

Old-timers see few parallels between gambling then and now -- for one thing, it's semi-legal today. And today's sun-seeking tourists don't need gambling to tempt them to South Florida. "I don't think there's that many people who would patronize it," Robbins said.

Government too is more involved -- and less corrupt -- now. "It's more regulated," McElyea said.

While Broward may never return to the wild days of stickmen, dice and wiseguy gangsters, more controlled gambling -- in the form of slots, races, jai alai and gaming cruises -- is likely here to stay.

Said county historian Landers, "We know that anytime you let something out of the bottle, you can't put it back in."

Staff researcher William Lucey contributed to this report. Robert Nolin can be reached at rnolin@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4525.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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