Weekend Escape: Las Vegas : Looking for Luxe : In the right places along the Strip, the glitz and glamour of Bugsy’s era can still be found

TIMES STAFF WRITER; <i> Eastman is assistant Life & Style editor in the Times Orange County edition</i>

Bugsy Siegel knew glamour, and his city in the desert reflected it in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Back then, men in tuxedos and women in gowns spread out across the Strip. Sadly, the dress du jour in modern Las Vegas is bed-head and flip-flops.

But not for us.

Mark and I are a couple of baby baby boomers who wanted to travel back in time to the old-fashioned, pre-amusement-park casino city. So, in late July we piled into our car, popped vintage Sinatra into the cassette player and headed off to find the holdouts that have retained the Bugsy manner.

Our bet paid off.


Vegas was kick-started by Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel, and that’s where our story begins. Early Sunday, we checked into the Flamingo Hilton--Bugsy’s place--which is offering a sweet weekday deal through Dec. 28: $59 a night per room with tickets for two to the Radio City Rockettes. (It’ll cost you an extra C-note if you want to stay on a Friday or Saturday night.)

The hotel, while not as gimmicky as some of the new high-rises or as tacky as some of the originals on the Strip, is swanky in that Las Vegas tradition of more is more: White marble floors, pink furnishings and bright lights blanket the lobby and casino. In contrast, the decor of the spacious rooms is understated, making it possible to relax and return refreshed to the pleasures downstairs--the obvious wish of casino management.

The Flamingo is now owned by a mass marketing mega-chain, and Bugsy’s garden apartments are gone, razed two years ago to make room for a seemingly endless swimming pool that sits in the middle of a compound surrounded by the high-rise hotel. A plaque marking the original site tells the story: how the Flamingo opened on a rainy night the day after Christmas in 1946 with Jimmy Durante and Xavier Cugat’s orchestra entertaining the star-studded crowd, and how Bugsy was gunned down months later in Beverly Hills.


Had he been in his hotel, he might have had a fighting chance: The penthouse suite--where Bugs and his doll, Virgina Hill, lived--had bulletproof windows, one entrance and five exits, including one hidden in a closet that led to an underground garage. Local journalists had long reported that there was a chauffeured car always on call for Bugsy’s quick departure.

For dinner on our first night, we made reservations at the Sheraton Desert Inn’s Monte Carlo Room. While the rest of the DI needs a make-over, this small room remains stylish in that swell-egant LV-way, with angels painted on the ceiling and between-course sorbets served in ceramic love-bird bowls. Howard Hughes loved it.

On the night we were there, the room was filled with couples, dressed a little too Mitzi Gaynor- and Dean Martin-esque, but that’s because we were in Glitter City and there is a dress code at the Monte Carlo Room: Men must wear jackets. If you didn’t pack one, they will provide it.

The loquacious headwaiter, who’s lived in Las Vegas since he was stationed here as a GI in World War II, talked freely about those days, when Don Rickles insulted the gentry in the main rooms, women clasped Ramos fizzes with gloved hands, men strutted like Sinatra and “showgirls were falling out of my car.”

We ordered very tender veal medallions with morel sauce ($27) and fist-sized filet mignonettes sauteed with truffle and goose liver ($26). The salade composee with a sweet and tangy raspberry vinaigrette was creative and reasonably priced ($5), as was the fraises Romanoff--fresh strawberries with vanilla ice cream and creme Chantilly ($5). The mushroom pa^te with cranberry sauce appetizer and the passion fruit sorbet were complimentary. The wine steward steered us toward a 1992 Ferrari-Carano, a hearty Merlot from Sonoma (at $35, about double retail).

After dinner, we took the glass elevator down to the Desert Inn’s Starlight Theatre to see a Las Vegas legend, crooner Keely Smith, with sax man Sam Butera. Smith’s bluesy pipes lingered over her signature tunes, but there were fewer than 50 people in the aging lounge.

We spent much of the next day at the Flamingo, eating lunch and having a drink around a pool that is outlined by huge, water-spouting plaster flamingos. (The hotel was named by Bugsy, legend goes, either after the pink birds at Florida’s Hialeah Park or his long-limbed girlfriend.)

We won a few hands in the casino before walking across the street to Caesars Palace for a 6 p.m. dinner at the Palace Court with its domed skylight ceiling and a trompe l’oeil garden setting. Most of the casinos have gourmet rooms--many with dress codes--but this one has a private casino adjoining the restaurant for discreet high-rollers who drop a million in a few hours after dining on French and nouvelle cuisine.

Mark--in a linen jacket and banded-collar dress shirt--and I--in a Holly Golightly black sleeveless dress--sipped quail consomme ($7.50) from golden spoons and ate salmon in potato crust flambe with lemon vodka ($33) and roast rack of lamb with sweet garlic ($38).

The reason for the early dinner? The evening performance of “The Great Radio City Spectacular” with Susan Anton and the Rockettes at the Flamingo. We were ushered to a cushy red velour booth for a clear view of the high-stepping show that suffered some in its transplantation from New York to Las Vegas. The Christmasy musical numbers and the costumes for the 24 dancers would be perfect for a wintry eve in the Big Apple, but in blow-torch Vegas?

The next day, we phoned the front desk for a later checkout--2 p.m.--and were easily accommodated. We spent time at the pool, checked out, ate lunch at a small Thai restaurant off the Strip, then drove down Tropicana Avenue to the Liberace Museum. Liberace started his career at the Last Frontier and El Rancho hotels in Las Vegas in 1944; a decade later when he opened at the Riviera, “Mr. Showmanship” was the highest-paid entertainer in the city. A Riviera marquee once read: “LIBERACE,” and underneath in small letters, “Special Added Attraction: Barbra Streisand.”

Liberace’s museum, housed in three buildings in a strip mall, is stuffed with stuff from his homes: a $750,000, floor-length Blackglama cape, a rhinestone-encrusted Baldwin grand piano with matching roadster--you get the idea.


Budget for Two

Flamingo Hilton, two nights: $127.44

Dinner, Monte Carlo Room: $150.19

Starlight Theatre: $22.50

Lunch, drinks, Flamingo: $24.64

Dinner, Palace Court: $147.48

Lunch at Lotus of Siam: $18.47

Liberace Museum: $13.00

Gas from Tustin: $27.05

FINAL TAB: $530.77

Flamingo Hilton Las Vegas, 3555 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, Nev., (800) 732-2111. The Liberace Museum, (702) 798-5595.