The Stardust

Sam Rothstein by mundo thorpe

The Stardust was a casino resort located on the Las Vegas Strip, which opened in 1958, although most of the modern casino complex (including the main 32-story tower) was built in 1991. The Stardust officially closed in 2006, after operating continuously for 48 years. It was imploded a year later, and was the youngest undamaged high-rise building to ever be demolished at the time. Construction started immediately for Echelon Place, which was planned to replace The Stardust, but development was suspended in 2008, and remains suspended as 2011.

The famed Stardust sign became a symbol of Las Vegas. Young Electric Sign Company was hired to fabricate the sign. Kermit Wayne’s design was selected for both the façade and the roadside signs. Although Moe Dalitz (bootlegger, racketeer, and philanthropist who was one of the major figures who helped shape Las Vegas), who took over from original developer Tony Cornero upon his death, said it was from his original plans, the sign was really part of Cornero’s original concept.

The Stardust sign gave visitors a panoramic view of the solar system. At the sign’s center sat a 16-foot diameter plastic model of the Earth. Cosmic rays of neon and electric light bulbs beamed from behind the model earth in all direction. Three-dimensional acrylic glass planets spun alongside 20 scintillating neon starbursts. Across the universe was a jagged galaxy of electric lettering spelling out ‘Stardust.’ The sign utilized 7,100 ft  of neon tubing with over 11,000 bulbs along its 216 ft front. The ‘S’ alone contained 975 lamps. At night the neon constellation was reportedly visible 60 miles away.

The roadside sign was freestanding with a circle constraining an amorphous cloud of cosmic dust circled by an orbit ring and covered in dancing stars. The hotel’s name was nestled in a galactic cloud.

In 1967, the old circular sign was replaced by a new $500,000 roadside sign. The new sign’s form was blurred by a scatter of star shapes, a shower of stardust. At night, incorporating neon and incandescent bulbs in the animation sequence, light fell from the stars, sprinkling from the top of the 188-foot tall sign down over the Stardust name.

The resort was conceived and built by Tony Cornero, who died in 1955 before construction was completed. The resort was bought out and completed by John Factor (aka Jake the Barber), half-brother of cosmetics seller Max Factor, Sr.. John Factor leased the casino out to a company controlled by Moe Dalitz. When the hotel opened, it had the largest casino in Nevada, the largest swimming pool in Nevada and the largest hotel in the Las Vegas area.

The Stardust opened in 1958. The attendees of the opening included governors, senators, city and county officials and Hollywood celebrities. The entertainment registry started with the spectacular French production show Lido de Paris. Lido was conceived by Pierre-Louis Guerin and Rene Fraday, and staged by Donn Arden. The opening night lounge lineup offered, from dusk to dawn, Billy Daniels, The Happy Jesters, The Vera Cruz Boys and the Jack Martin Quartet. Daniels became the first entertainer to sign a long-term residency contract in Metropolitan Las Vegas when he agreed to appear for 40 weeks per year for three years.

Tony Cornero’s dream became a $10 million 1,065 room reality, charging just $6.00 a day. The resort featured the 105-foot long Big Dipper swimming pool, a 13,500-square-foot lobby, a 16,500-square-foot casino, and a decor featuring rich red and deep brown colors and indirect lighting. The Stardust also conveniently held Las Vegas Strip’s only first run drive-in theatre in the rear of the resort.

The Stardust took over the closed Royal Nevada hotel-casino, remodeled the showroom, and converted it into a convention center and high-roller suite. From 1959 to 1964, this wing was occupied by the Stardust’s ‘high roller’ guests and The Stardust showgirls.

By 1961, Stardust’s management included Credit Manager Hyman Goldbaum, a career criminal with seven known aliases, fourteen criminal convictions including an assault conviction, and a three year prison sentence for income tax evasion. Casino Manager and 5% owner Johnny Drew, was a veteran associate of Al Capone and was once fined for running a crooked dice game at an Elks convention, and general manager Morris Kleinman had served three years for tax evasion.

In 1966, Howard Hughes attempted to buy the Stardust for $30.5 million but was thwarted by government officials on the grounds that his acquisition of any more gambling resorts might violate the Sherman Antitrust Act. In 1969, Parvin-Dohrmann Corporation purchased the Stardust for an undisclosed amount. The resort was bought by Argent Corporation in 1974 using loans from the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund. Argent was owned by Allen Glick, but the casino was believed to be controlled by various organized crime families from the Midwest.

In the 1970s Argent Corporation had siphoned off between $7 and $15 million dollars using rigged scales. When exposed by the FBI, this skimming operation was the largest ever exposed. A number of organized crime figures were convicted as a result of the skimming.

In 1977, the Stardust went through another remodeling. The bombastic galactic theme was abandoned, though the roadside sign remained, and the façade was covered with animated neon tubing and trimmed with mirrored finish facets. The new porte cochere sparkled with 1,000 small incandescent bulbs. The encrustation of bulbs turned solid mass into ethereal form.

After Argent Corporation was forced out of the gaming business in the late 1970s, the casino was sold to Al Sachs and Herb Tobman. However, the gaming authorities found that skimming was still going on. In 1984, the Nevada Gaming Commission levied a $3 million fine against the resort for skimming, the highest fine ever issued by the commission. Suspicions, accusations and controversy about the Stardust’s hidden ownership over the years was finally squelched when Sam Boyd’s locally-based, squeaky-clean gaming company purchased the Stardust in 1985.

The Stardust was a gold mine to the Chicago Outfit, the skim being absolutely fabulous. When it was taken over by the reputable Boyd family, they were surprised by its huge profits, with every penny of income recorded. Ex-FBI agent William F. Roemer Jr., longtime senior agent of the FBI’s organized-crime squad in Chicago and an expert in Las Vegas doings, said, ‘The amount of skim had been so heavy that the profit and loss statement did not present a true picture of the gold mine that the Stardust was.’

Siegfried & Roy got their Strip start at the Stardust with the help of mob associate Frank Rosenthal after he gave them Allen Glick’s Rolls Royce. Wayne Newton signed a ten-year deal, negotiated by Jack Wishna, with the Stardust in 1999, for a reported $25 million per year, the largest entertainment contract in the Las Vegas region at the time. After five and half years, Newton ended his run in late 2005, and George Carlin moved into his theater.

The Stardust permanently closed its doors to the public in 2006. The last dice thrown at a Stardust craps table was by tourist Jimmy Kumihiro of Hawaii. Just before the casino was officially closed at noon, the Bobbie Howard Band led the customers out the doors for the last time (in a conga line) to the tune of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ and the hotel/casino complex closed after a 48 year run of continuous 24 hour operation. Outside, the loudspeakers were playing the John Lennon song ‘Nobody Told Me,’ which contains the line ‘Nobody told me there’d be days like these / Strange days indeed.’

The book ‘Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas,’ written by Nicholas Pileggi and Larry Shandling, chronicles the days when The Stardust Hotel and Casino – and two other casinos from the area – were run by professional gambler and bookie, Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal and a soldier in the Chicago Outfit named Anthony ‘The Ant’ Spilotro, on behalf of the Chicago and Kansas City Mafia during the 1970s and early 1980s. Rosenthal was denied a gaming license in 1981 and placed in the Nevada Gaming Control Board’s black book by the early 1990s. Spilotro and his brother, while under federal indictment, were found beaten to death in an isolated corn field in rural Indiana.

In ‘Casino’ (1995), Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Pileggi’s book, Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (portrayed by Robert De Niro) was largely based on Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal and Nicholas ‘Nicky’ Santoro (portrayed by Joe Pesci) was based on Anthony ‘Tony the Ant’ Spilotro. The casino’s name was changed for legal purposes, from the Stardust to the ‘Tangiers Hotel and Casino,’ and the site was portrayed as being across the street from the Dunes, several blocks away from the actual site of the Stardust. However, snippets of the Hoagy Carmichael song, ‘Stardust,’ can be heard on the soundtrack, giving a subtle hint as to the casino’s true identity.

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