THE MEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS
By Byron Craft
Every town has its celebrities, its movers and shakers and its influence peddlers – the people that set the trends and inspire new standards of living. Unfortunately time, in some instances, can rust our collective memories, leaving vague gaps in history. Vegas has not been immune to this common malady. Even though Las Vegas is a young community by comparison to other parts of the country, and most of the men who made this city the entertainment capitol of the world have become legendary icons, there are some that have fallen through the cracks. It is our purpose to pay homage to these few:
The Go-To Guy of Casino Design
There is a seldom acknowledged individual that helped shape Las Vegas’ history, who has been lost in the Mob-Land story of Sin City’s creation. His name was Nola Hahn. He established himself as a leading expert on designing gambling pits that could be hidden away by panels or other camouflaging contraptions, in case of a raid by the local constabulary.
This was during the days of the prohibition, speakeasies and the Club Continental in Los Angeles, one of Hahn’s successes. Hollywood was Las Vegas before Las Vegas was Las Vegas. L.A. was dotted with casinos down Sunset Boulevard. Some of the clubs, in today’s inflationary dollars, made hundreds of millions. Nola Hahn was a magician, a wizard when it came to casino gambling. Nola knew how to make a casino disappear, if there was a police raid. Gaming tables that would rotate and become banquet counters or collapse into hidden walls and floor panels. Hahn’s innovations also included consolidating gambling tables around a single overseer to avoid cheating, and positioning surveillance teams to monitor the gamblers. Today we know this overseer to be the pit boss.
Hahn eventually ended his partnership in the Club Continental, having purchased the Trocadero Nightclub from Billy Wilkerson, who was none other than the man who founded the Hollywood Reporter, the Flamingo Hotel, and discovered actress Lana Turner.
Nola Hahn’s timing for the purchase was lousy, because that year, Los Angeles Mayor Frank Shaw, whose administration was one of the most corrupt in the city’s history, was recalled, and Fletcher Bowron was voted in as his successor. Bowron ran on an urban reform platform to crackdown on vice. Hahn sold the Trocadero and left L.A. By 1938, mobsters were looking for a new place to set up shop. Some, like Hahn, saw potential in an isolated, low-rent desert town…Las Vegas.
In 1942, years before Bugsy Siegel and the Flamingo, Hahn opened the lavish Colony restaurant. His gambling innovations went with him, and this time, it was all legal. Within a few years, Hahn became the guy to go to, when it came to designing legal gambling clubs. He is credited with creating the template for Las Vegas gambling, as we know it today.
Nola Hahn is definitely one of the early crime lords of Las Vegas, although his name appears infrequently. He became an enigma. Nola Hahn is little known today because he operated behind a veil of secrecy and avoided any real trouble with the law. Unfortunately, there is little if anything about him after that, except that he committed suicide in 1957 at the age of 60.
The 500 Million Dollar Man
He was known throughout his life for winning and losing large sums of money. After winning over $500,000 on horseracing, he lost it all on card and dice games. He quickly became a master of these games, however, and became a prime attraction at casinos.
He was one of the world’s pure-blooded gamblers, known to all as Nick “The Greek” Dandalos. He was a mysterious figure. “The Greek” was dapper and cultivated, with an insatiable lust for high-stakes action. Nick Dandalos appeared to love losing almost as much as he did winning. “As I walk from crap game to crap game,” the rakish character once declared, “my brain becomes active and agile, and dwells on lofty thoughts.”
Nicholas Andrea Dandalos was the son of wealthy parents. He attended the Greek Evangelical College earning a degree in philosophy. When he was 18 years old, his grandfather sent him to America with a $150 per week allowance. Even though Dandalos settled down in Chicago, in due course, he moved to Montreal, Canada, attracted to the horseracing there, where his passion for gambling took off. In less than six months, he parlayed that passion into a cool half million.
Moving back to Chicago with his winnings, Nick soon lost the lot at cards and craps. Nevertheless, the gambling bug had taken its hold. He started studying the games, and in no time, became known as a successful freelance gambler. Dandalos refused many jobs offered to him by casino owners. His self-employed lifestyle was too alluring. Nick “The Greek” drew crowds to the casinos anyway. People just came to see him play. “The Greek” rarely stopped gambling, even after dropping as much as $100,000 in one session at the table.
Nick “The Greek” Dandalos’ reputation as a gambler grew, as did the speculation about his unusual betting habits. It is rumored that, on one occasion, he had won a Los Angeles city block and that he once played faro for 10 days and nights without sleep. Another urban legend has him winning $550,000 against a Texan. In the wee hours of the morning, Nick was tired and called an end to the game. The Texan accused him of chickening out. Nick “The Greek” then called for a new deck of cards, shuffled them and asked the Texan if he wanted to cut the cards (high card wins) double or quit. The Texan refused and they went home.
A further tale about the amazing Dandalos claims that he once had the opportunity to escort Albert Einstein around Las Vegas. Believing that his gambling friends may not be familiar with him, Nick allegedly introduced Einstein as “Little Al from Princeton,” and stated that, “he controlled a lot of the numbers action around Jersey.”
Nick wanted even more exciting action. “The Greek” wanted to take on the best poker player in the world in heads-up action. He approached Benny Binion, the patriarch of Las Vegas, who agreed to set up a high-stakes poker marathon with Johnny Moss. Moss was reputedly the best poker player of all time. Nick had only one condition: that the game was to be played in public view.
The five-month long marathon that ensued in 1949 saw every kind of poker played. Breaks were only taken for sleep. Moss eventually came out on top. At the end of the marathon, Dandalos was down an estimated 2 million dollars and he uttered what has become one of the most famous poker quotes ever: “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.” Fatigue was a major factor for Nick’s loss, as he was 24 years older than Moss. The poker marathon gave Benny Binion the idea for a World Poker Championship, and was the inspiration behind the World Series of Poker, which commenced in 1970.
Nick “The Greek” Dandalos worked on the basic gambling principle of giving himself as near an even chance as possible, avoiding roulette, but enjoying craps. Stud poker was his strong suit, earning millions at the game during his career. Nick’s love of gambling was more important to him than the money. He told friends that he had swung from the extremes of poverty to the extremes of wealth, and back again, 73 times.
Nick ended his life almost broke and was known to play five dollar fixed limit draw games in his reclining years. One of his opponents asked how he could play for just a few dollars when he was used to winning millions, to which he replied: “Hey, it’s action, isn’t it?” Despite his prolific gambling wins and losses, Dandalos was known as exceedingly honest and likeable, and always paid his debts on time. He died on Christmas Day 1966 and was enshrined as a charter member of the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979. Throughout his lifetime he donated at least 20 million dollars to charities, which would amount to nearly 500 million in today’s financial climate. Although he died almost penniless, his donations have had a positive influence and will continue to do so.
As one of America’s most famous and prolific gamblers, Nick “The Greek” Dandalos saw around $500,000,000 pass through his hands. In his later years he was known for saying, “Remember this: The house doesn’t beat the player. It just gives him the opportunity to beat himself.”
The Wizard of Odds
After years in the Outfit, he became the caporegime, an Italian word usually shortened to just capo, a term used in the Mafia for a high-ranking member of a crime family. He operated illegal gambling rackets in Elmhurst, Illinois, as well as a highly successful sports betting empire along with Dominic Cortina. He was the brother-in-law to Chicago Outfit mobster Michael Caracci.
Angelini Donald, aka The Wizard of Odds, was viewed by authorities as one of the top moneymakers in syndicate history. He and Dominic Cortina reigned as gambling czars over a $20 million per-year sports betting empire. Angelini scoffed at the government’s estimates but government agents insisted that their numbers may have been conservative. Angelini scored the big haul by setting nearly unbeatable spreads on sporting events, controlling the odds for football, baseball, and hockey games, i.e. The Wizard of Odds.
What goes around comes around and now a replacement for the role of Las Vegas overseer had to be found. With fortune and fame in Mobdom as resume enhancement, Angelini was eventually selected as the Chicago family’s replacement for Tony “The Ant” Spilotro. By then, the mobs interest and influence had floundered. Angelini found himself operating with a new crew in Las Vegas at a time when the Chicago Outfit’s flagship casinos were badly crimped due to federal investigations. However, Angelini himself avoided arrest while there.
Cops and crooks alike considered the refined and urbane Angelini to be a cut above the rest. Unlike the other representatives sent out to Las Vegas by the mob, Tony Spilotro, Marshal Caifano or Johnny Roselli, Angelina was a thinking man, a true gambler who never intimidated or killed anyone. He was the complete antithesis of the brutal Tony Spilotro who spoke in the “dese, dems and dose” of the street vernacular. They selected the refined, urbane Donald Angelini. Don was the ultimate Don of Las Vegas, a real cut above the average Chicago wise guy in the brains department. He exuded class – white haired, trim, very well spoken and a classy dresser with an ingratiating smile.
Spilotro and his brother, Michael, had disappeared when the mob laid them to rest in a cornfield in Indiana. Opportunity had left an opening for The Wizard of Odds. One thing that Angelini did have in common with Spilotro, was that he was barred from entering Las Vegas casinos by the Nevada Gaming Commission. “Don” Angelini could have undoubtedly been anything he wanted to be in this world, but he chose to be the overseer. He treated his casino ban as a challenge instead of an obstacle and supervised the skim effectively, and efficiently raised the mob’s take to new heights, while eliminating the scary elements that were part of the Spilotro legacy.
Things began to decline for Angelini in November of 1989, when he started splitting his time between Las Vegas, the West Coast, and Chicago. Getting caught red-handed, Dominic Cortina and Angelini pleaded guilty to charges that they ran a multimillion dollar betting empire that took wagers on college and professional football, basketball and baseball games. They took in bets of up to $188,000 a day at 16 different locations.
To make matters worse, Joey Auippa, a top dog with the Chicago Outfit, greedy and thoughtless, demanded that Angelini and Dom Cortina explore all avenues outside of Las Vegas in an effort to determine new “skimming possibilities.” Angelini Donald in the end found the Rincon Indian reservation in California. In all likelihood, the Outfit would have passed on the Rincon reservation deal because it was such a disorganized mess, filled with tribal backbiting and politics. But, Angelini came to the attention of the West Coast FBI after he made several messy collections out west. The Bureau tapped his phone and others and gained information, most of it from the financier who was involved with Angelini.
The grand plan was to finance the Indian tribe’s venture into gambling, take over the operations, skim the cash, as well as use it to launder money from narcotics sales. Angelini placed Chris Petti, the outfit’s man in San Diego, in charge of the takeover. Petti, in turn, was to deal directly with Angelini’s brother-in-law, Michael Caracci. The two hoods fought continuously and carped about each other to Chicago through back channels. Caracci contacted Petti at the same San Diego pay phone they had been using for years, which, unknown to them, the FBI had tapped years before in a different case. The FBI sent in an undercover agent named Peter Carmassi, disguised as a money launderer for a Columbian drug cartel. In several tape recorded and filmed meetings with agent Carmassi, Petti laid out the entire scam to take over the Rincon reservation gambling concession.
On January 9, 1992, the government indicted Angelini and the whole gang on 15 counts of criminal conspiracy. Angelini was convicted on federal racketeering charges and was given a 37-month sentence, with fines approaching one million dollars. On October 14, 1994, Angelini was released from prison. He died six years later at the age of 74 after fighting cancer for years.
The Outfit never replaced Angelini out West, and the position of overseer to Las Vegas is, by all accounts, no more.
Trucker Turned Casino Magnate
He grew up in Kentucky and later Indiana, but moved to Chicago when he was in his twenties, and started a trucking company that became one of the most prominent in the Midwest.
While most were going broke during the Depression, Major Arteburn Riddle grew fabulously wealthy. But all the money he made was not on the up-and-up. He was often linked with the mob, was reported to have ties to Al Capone, and was not above his own dirty dealings. He allegedly became rich by making his truck drivers buy his rigs, financing their purchase with an in-house payment plan. As the drivers were nearly done paying off the loan, Riddle would fire them and repossess the trucks.
Many thought that Major Riddle was an ex-military man, but “Major” was actually his first name. Major Riddle took all his trucking money and headed for the Texas oil fields. Active in the oil and gas ventures, he operated Riddle Oil Drilling Company and reportedly made vast amounts of money from his holdings.
In 1956, he left Texas and moved to the burgeoning town of Las Vegas, Nevada. The Dunes had opened on May 23, 1955, as a low-rise resort with Hollywood star Vera-Ellen providing the entertainment in the Magic Carpet Review. Although the Dunes opened to much fanfare, by the time that Major Riddle arrived in town, it was struggling financially. One reason was its location at what was then the southernmost part of the Strip. The hotel casino frequently had to borrow money, and even the Sands Hotel Casino lent its executives to help out, as well as bringing in numerous famous celebrities and entertainers such as Frank Sinatra’s surprise appearance dressed as a sultan.
When summer came, the hotel was in bigger financial trouble, for the reason that tourism had not kept pace with the number of hotel openings. For the first time in Vegas history, there were more hotel rooms than guests. The Dunes had also opened with only 200 rooms, which was not enough customers to pay the overhead for running the hotel. Adding to the problem, in the area, there was simply a finite number of high rollers and an abundance of hotels vying for their business. Finally the management realized that the Dunes was a money pit and a financial drain. They closed the casino and operated the hotel as a motel.
Jake Gottlieb, who owned Western Transportation out of Chicago, became interested in the property. Gottlieb received investment help from the Teamsters Union Pension Fund, which was handled by the notorious Jimmy Hoffa. Gottlieb purchased the property. But Gottlieb, like so many others, didn’t have any experience running a casino. He began looking for someone with imagination and daring. He got lucky when he stumbled upon Major Riddle.
While Riddle was making up his mind as to whether or not he should take an interest in the hotel, he got a phone call from Bill Miller. Miller was an old pro at booking entertainment. While at the Sahara, he put the hotel on firm financial ground with his bookings of lounge acts like Louis Prima and Keely Smith, as well as showroom headliners such as Marlene Dietrich.
“He encouraged me about the possibility of bringing top acts to the hotel,” said Riddle in a 1979 interview. “So through his insistence, we formed M & R Investment Company, with Miller as president and myself as vice-president. However, about a year late, we began to disagree about the running of the hotel. So I bought him out.”
The Dunes Hotel and Casino, owned by M & R, re-opened on June 6, 1956, and Miller and Riddle invited everyone in town. The two new owners had an idea for making the hotel more financially stable. They had entered into a contract with the renowned Minsky’s Burlesque to bring the Minsky’s Follies to the Dunes Hotel and Casino. Minsky’s was famous not only for their Burlesque Queen and comedians, but for the stripping acts that the girls performed. Major Riddle became the first man to stage a topless cabaret on the Strip. The show opened the Arabian Room to a huge fanfare and featured Lou Costello, of Abbott and Costello fame, as the star.
The outrage was immediate. The local Catholic priests and the Legion of Decency to the City and County officials were fielding phone calls to the halls of the State Legislature. Bare-breasted women on stage in Las Vegas, “We can’t have that!” Newspaper editorial columns were filled denouncing the move away from wholesome entertainment. With straight faces, they worried that it would bring the wrong element to Las Vegas while overlooking the obvious. Many weighed in with the opinion that Minsky’s was not suitable for little old Las Vegas.
Miller and Riddle didn’t care. They were taking it to the bank. The show was a smash hit. In the first week it set a record for attendance of 16,000, a number that stood until the 1990’s. The show ran for an unprecedented six weeks. High rollers were more than happy to stick around and gamble after attending the show. Minsky’s Follies, in various renditions, played the Dunes for the next four and a half years.
The idea paid off. The hotel began to get its financial bearings. By 1959, Riddle opened the famed Dunes Golf Course and Country Club. He had insisted upon having a golf course styled after the one at the Desert Inn. What’s more, he realized how that hotel’s Tournament of Champions helped bring publicity and tourists to the hotel. He purchased additional land from Dunes Road to Tropicana Avenue, called the “Miracle Mile”, and the course became an 18-hole, 72-par layout among a sea of emerald green.
In April, Riddle presided over the ground breaking for the new Convention facility that had been one of his dreams. It would be 6,600 square feet and accommodate conventions, tradeshows and public meetings.
When Riddle wasn’t busy overseeing the management of his hotel or investing in new projects, he could usually be found sitting in a card game. If Major Riddle was in the game, you could be sure that the table would be full and have a long waiting list. The lineup wasn’t due to any celebrity status, rather it was because he was a bad player with deep pockets and he was also easily cheated. The notorious mobster, Tony Spilotro, along with a couple of his cronies, habitually took thousands of dollars off of Riddle, using the “three-pluck-one” scam. Others conned Riddle into taking proposition bets he had very little chance of winning.
Despite his ridiculously bad gambling status, Major Arteburn Riddle was an excellent businessman. Over the years, he engineered an investment in a struggling Las Vegas hotel into the ownership of several hotels and casinos. His holdings included the Silverbird Hotel (the old Thunderbird), the International Casino, the downtown Holiday Inn (today’s Main Street Station), The Silver Nugget and the Silver City Casino (quite a parlay for a trucker from Illinois). Major Riddle died Tuesday July 8, 1980, after a lengthy illness. He was 73.
The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.