The $6-million cost was chump change compared to modern times, with half-billion-dollar, eye-popping mega-resorts sprouting on the Las Vegas Strip.
But the opening of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel's Flamingo Hotel just over 50 years ago forever changed the face and fortunes of this desert gaming mecca. And it marked the beginning of the end for the famous mobster who spent a crime-filled life evading the law, but could not escape his own kind.
There was no birthday bash when the Flamingo turned 50 on Dec. 26. And any mob ties were clipped by the time billionaire Kirk Kerkorian bought the famous resort in 1967, later selling it to hotel giant Hilton Corp.
"The Bugsy image was not something that was particularly endearing to the Flamingo or Hilton," Flamingo Hilton spokesman Terry Lindberg said recently. "This was not George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. We're talking about a robber, rapist and murderer. Those are not endearing qualities.
"We want to remember the history of the Flamingo without glamorizing it. We've made a conscious decision to distance ourselves from the Bugsy heritage."
A couple of years ago the Flamingo tore down the last vestige of the Siegel saga. Known as the Bugsy bungalow, it was a fortified cottage with concrete walls 3 to 4 feet thick, built to soothe the nerves of an increasingly paranoid Siegel, who would spend the final months of his life looking over his shoulder.
Siegel was one of the mob's most feared tacticians, with a rap sheet ranging from drug dealing to white slavery, bookmaking to murder. None of the charges ever stuck. In 1936, he was sent from New York to oversee the mob's West Coast operations in Los Angeles. He made numerous visits to Las Vegas, a remote, desert-locked gambling outpost.
The suave Siegel, known for his Hollywood good looks and hair-trigger temper, dreamed of a flashy gambling oasis. Legend has it that in early 1945, he picked a lonely spot seven miles out in the desert from downtown Las Vegas and kicked at some dirt in a symbolic groundbreaking for his fabulous Flamingo. Others say, less charitably, that he muscled out the man with the original idea for the place, Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson, with a threat to kill him.
Either way, Siegel bankrolled the Flamingo, coaxing $1 million from his mob partners, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, to build it. But he found himself stretched thin overseeing West Coast rackets and Las Vegas bookmaking operations, keeping a step ahead of the law and balancing a private life that included a wife and two children in Los Angeles and lover Virginia Hill.
Bugsy paid a premium for building materials that were scarce as World War II wound down, and some contractors for the Flamingo robbed him blind. Old-timers tell of expensive palm trees that were shipped each day from Baker and Barstow, Calif., only to be shipped back at night, then back to Las Vegas the next day. He wound up buying the same trees several times.
Construction snafus were the norm. A heavy beam in his private fortified enclave was 5 feet, 8 inches above the floor, a physical and emotional irritant for the 5-foot-10 Siegel.
The $1-million projected cost ballooned to $6 million.
Siegel had promised Lansky and Luciano that their Flamingo would open the day after Christmas, 1946. It did--sort of. The showroom, restaurant and casino were ready; the hotel was not.
Entertainer Rose Marie shared the billing opening night on Dec. 26, 1946, with longtime pal Jimmy Durante and bandleader Xavier Cugat.
Two planeloads of Hollywood stars were recruited to make the short hop to Las Vegas for the gala opening.
"There were 30 or 40 big stars, people like Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, Anne Jeffreys, Caesar Romero," Rose Marie recalled in a recent telephone interview from her home in Van Nuys. "The show was spectacular, everything was great, but no locals came. Las Vegas was cowboy hotels; this was Monaco.
"All the stars went back the second day and the only people left were the locals. We worked to 9 or 10 people a night for the rest of the two-week engagement. The locals just didn't come out to the Flamingo. They were used to cowboy boots, not rhinestones."
Rose Marie laughed as she recalled being shorted $11 in her $2,750 weekly paycheck and raising a fuss with someone, only to learn that she was hassling Siegel.
"I thought, 'Geez, they're going to pick me up in an envelope,' " she said.
"But Bugsy was very good to me; he treated me like a lady. He was a real gentleman."
Her first brush with Hill was a little touchier. The mob moll praised Rose Marie's performance, but suggested that she lose some weight.
So the entertainer told Hill that she was four months pregnant, and expected to lose the weight in another five months. Hill apologized, said she was making a trip to Paris, "and asked me if there was anything she could bring back. I told her a christening dress for my baby."
The dress has been used for several family members and she still has it today, Rose Marie said.
The Flamingo closed Feb. 1, 1947, while construction was completed on the 200 hotel rooms. It reopened March 1, 1947, and was beginning to emerge from the red. But the recovery wasn't fast enough for Lansky and Luciano, who wanted an accounting of the money they'd sunk into the Nevada desert.
For the first time since he was a teenager, Bugsy was receiving--not delivering--heat from the mob.
On June 19, 1947, Siegel and Hill had one of their celebrated fights, and she boarded a plane for Paris. Some suggest she'd been warned to stay clear of her lover.
On June 20, 1947, Bugsy visited
movie pal George Raft in Hollywood, tended to some Flamingo business, dined with friends, then returned to Hill's Beverly Hills mansion.
About 10:30 p.m., someone crept through the shrubbery at the exquisite estate and unleashed a flurry of shots. Two bullets pierced Siegel's skull, killing him instantly. The crime has never been solved.
Within minutes, word of the execution spread to Las Vegas. Siegel's partners immediately announced that they were taking control of the Flamingo.
What happened to Virginia Hill?
She was called before a congressional committee to testify about the mob in 1951. She was found dead on a mountaintop in Austria on March 14, 1966. The death was ruled a suicide, but some believe that the mob, worried about what she knew, took care of her.
Under the direction of Hilton, and Horst Dziura, hotel president the last 21 years, the hotel has grown to six high-rise towers comprising 3,642 rooms, making it the fourth-largest hotel in the world. It helped create the glitzy Las Vegas image and was a forerunner of the huge resorts like Luxor and Treasure Island that attract families--about the last visitors the Flamingo expected to have 50 years ago.
The last vestiges of organized crime faded from the Las Vegas scene in the late 1970s as giant public corporations took control of the famous resorts.
Rose Marie recalls Siegel telling her: "In a few years, this whole place is going to be filled with beautiful hotels."
"I thought, 'Are you crazy? In this desert?!' "
Comedian Alan King, a longtime Las Vegas performer, remembers a similar Siegel prediction.
"I thought, 'No wonder they call him Bugsy.' "