Mormons Run Everything: 5 Things You Learn Working In Vegas
Ah, Las Vegas in its heyday: Dean Martin crooned as misdirection and Sammy Davis Jr. drove getaway in a garbage truck filled with the mayor's fortune, all while ol' Frankie Blue Eyes banged his wife on a pool table. Vegas hasn't been able to shake that nostalgic image, but you can't trust collective memory, so we sent one of our writers to do a little fact-checking. He talked with Cliff, a born-and-bred Vegas veteran who witnessed the highs and lows of the Strip over the decades. Cliff worked at the Sands Casino from 1972 to 1975 and briefly before that at the Hacienda in the 1960s as a floorman and a valet, respectively. He told us ...
The Mob Has Been Gone For A Long Time
What would Vegas have been without the mob? They were everywhere, skimming millions from casinos while keeping the price of prime rib in check, until the FBI and corporate investors forced them out in the 1990s. But to the locals they were largely unseen -- and they weren't there for very long.
"You couldn't tell if anyone was in the Mafia. Sure, there were some people shooting others, and you would see it in the papers every once in a while. All of that was when I was growing up, though. When I worked the Sands, I wasn't getting paid by a mobster. It was [Howard] Hughes. My grandchildren always ask if I broke the fingers of a card counter or if I was connected with the Mafia, and the answer is no. It never happened. If the Sands ever tried that when I was there we would have heard about it."
And they wouldn't have gotten their Christmas bonus of an extra box of tissues.
The unassailable business logic "beating up customers = bad" has stood the test of time: It's still Vegas policy today. So what did casinos do if hammers and power saws were off the table? "Many casinos just dragged you to the cashier, cashed you out, and threw you out. Cheaters? Just thrown out. A few guys I had to get cars for were caught cheating, and they came out with no broken bones. They just looked downtrodden and told people around them, 'Yeah, they caught me.' It was that casual."
"Hey, let's spend money at the place where they break bones!" -No gamblers
Now The Mormons Run Everything
Regulatory laws passed in the '60s ultimately pushed the Mafia out. Thanks to the Corporate Gaming Act, most casinos were sold to corporations like Harrah's or people like Howard Hughes. Only a handful of mob-run casinos hung on -- the Stardust, Frontier, and a few smaller ones -- and even they were out by the 1970s:
"The mobsters were gone pretty quickly. Everyone knew they started the casinos, but everyone knew they also left not too long afterwards. That's why the Stardust [and other properties] were such a big surprise. Everyone thought the Mafia had been gone for years."
That's one way to ensure they never come back.
In fact, most mob families didn't have the money to do casino-scale business. It was the Mormons who financed everything and helped developers (and big shots like Howard Hughes) get land. Even modern-day Vegas behemoths like Steve Wynn owe their success to Mormon backers.
Hard for any mob families to claim a city when this family outnumbers you 23-to-1.
"There were a lot more Mormons out here when I grew up. About half of my class was Mormon, and every single one would remind you that they founded the city. They were nice enough, but there were a few children in my class who never talked about family life. It was strange. Everyone else was open with their family, but these two never were. And that's because they were connected with the casinos."
You still see the church's imprint around the city: University of Nevada, Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack Center arena is named in part for Mormon-born E. Parry Thomas -- a banker who often bought properties on Hughes' behalf -- and his business partner Jerry Mack. Thomas and Mack financed much of the Vegas we know today, running the only bank that would make loans to casinos. Thomas had lucked into the banking industry after his father, a successful plumbing contractor, made his name as the biggest depositor at a bank struck down by the Depression. That entitled the elder Thomas to take over the bank -- and for his son to later take over Vegas, leveraging his connections to the temple into business relationships.
Usually, plumbers have to invade far-off lands dominated by giant fire-breathing turtles
to strike that much gold.
"I parked cars as a part-time job at one of the casinos when I transferred to Nevada Southern (now University of Nevada, Las Vegas), and we were always told to get certain cars ahead of others or if there was a line. Sure, we did this for some of the famous Vegas entertainers. But there were also a few gentlemen we did this for. They weren't Mafia. They had names like Amos and Parry and Zachariah. They never saw the shows, never gambled, never drank, and didn't do anything to draw in guests. Everyone wondered who they were, cutting in front. But everyone else knew -- they helped build and grow Vegas to what it is today. They were in to protect their investment, so we were told to pretend like they were the president or Queen Elizabeth visiting."
Nuclear Detonations Were Once The Big Draw
Vegas as we know it today was hardly an instant hit. "Gambling looked like it was just going to go away despite being legal. It was that niche. Vegas in the '50s and '60s was just for weekenders coming up from L.A. and for those people who wanted in on the only legal casino gambling in the U.S. It wasn't really a lot. When I was born here, Las Vegas had just over 10,000 people, and it took a long time to even break 100,000. It didn't put a dent on the map."
"This is why Las Vegas put in shows and advertised the bombs (more on that in a second). When we had only gambling, it was just rich Californians coming up for a few days. Everyone only has so much money. Up until the 1970s, filling hotel rooms was a pain, with low occupancy -- some years it wasn't uncommon to go below 80 or 70 percent occupancy."
Promises of slow death from horrible mutations only bring so many folks to the yard.
Mid-century Vegas had three things going for it: a little bit of gambling, the Hoover Dam, and Air Force bases. Because most celebrities didn't see booking a garish hotel in the middle of a godforsaken desert as a solid career move, Vegas shows were just starting to get off the ground. Vegas was still looking for that je ne sais quoi. The American government supplied the holy shit out of it:
"It wasn't even Frank [Sinatra] or Dean [Martin]. The bombs brought a lot of people in. They would have atomic blasts outside the city, and people would come to see that and stay to gamble. For over a decade, Las Vegas authorities would print out calendars with the once-every-three-weeks bomb testing dates highlighted for visitors, while casinos advertised rooms to get the best view of atomic explosions. So even with the advent of larger resorts and more entertainers coming to Vegas, bombs were still one of the huge draws, with entire parties devoted to them."
Here are two winners of the "Miss Atomic Bomb" beauty pageant. We did not make that up.
"I remember getting off school and watching this cloud form off in the distance after a boom a few times. When my uncle and my cousins came to visit, gambling wasn't as big a thing for them as seeing an atomic bomb go off. We didn't understand it. It was pretty unspectacular. Every month they would explode one out at the test site. It was normal and we didn't get why there was such a hubbub about it. It was just another nuke exploding. My mother was more upset at the boom making our dog start barking uncontrollably than the explosion itself."
"Ho-hum, one step closer to global annihilation. SEEN IT."
The good people of Vegas could afford to think of these pesky mushroom clouds in the distance as a mere inconvenience, since they managed to body-dodge all that fallout and radiation. That kind of collateral damage hit the Rockies and Midwest instead. Though the site today, less than an hour outside of Vegas, is a Fallout-style radiation hellscape with incredibly contaminated water, proving what happens in Vegas does not always stay in Vegas.
Vegas Parents Tried To Shield Their Kids
In Cliff's day, kids didn't grow up dreading a dead-end career down at the gambling factory. Most parents didn't want their babies to grow up to be craps dealers and tried to shield the youngsters from the downtown glare -- even as they were ignoring Fallout just a few miles away. "When I was in school, some of our parents worked at the casinos, but they kept that part separate. Anytime we asked about the casinos or wanted to go inside, we were denied. No one knew if the gambling thing was going to stay, but everyone saw what it was doing to Las Vegas."
"Craps? Sorry, honey, why don't you and your friends just go play in the nice bomb crater instead?"
"Before the casinos, it was mostly military or people who had worked on the dam. Even when I graduated in '61, they kept gambling away from us in school. It just didn't exist, as far as the teachers were concerned. In math class we had a section on probabilities, and we were told not to use our textbooks. There were questions on rolling of the dice and odds of drawing certain cards as problems, and a lot of parents had spoken up about that. Similar to how school districts hold meetings to ban books today, my school did this with textbooks mentioning poker."
"There were also a lot of Mormon families out here, and even when they had family ties to the casinos, they spoke up about it too. They didn't want it in the books either. Gambling was still new when I was in grade school, and many, many people were still against it. It was a growing industry, but there were a few resorts and bunches of small, gas-station-sized casinos with a few tables and slots inside, employing just a fistful of people. But once gambling became big, suddenly most people (including me) started working for the casinos in some way. Even after everyone did everything they could to keep it away from the kids."
"Sorry Mom, too bad you didn't ban talk of being a doctor."
Old-Timey Vegas Suffered Drunks Gladly
Vegas was still a culturally lawless frontier when Cliff was coming up. We may picture the bygone days of casino society as The Rat Pack, and they were, but there was definitely a bit of Fear And Loathing mixed up in that Las Vegas:
"When I parked cars at the Hacienda, we worked in a chain -- give car, give car, give car. We couldn't afford to wait very long, or guests would get upset. If anyone was drinking, chances are we gave them the keys. The really drunk guests would not get them. If they fell over, couldn't get in the car, or otherwise couldn't drive, we would give them a ticket for their car and put them in a cab. If we were unsure, we would look at the chief valet for a nod. But if they assured us they could drive, then we let them. I don't remember all of them, but there were some who immediately swerved onto the curb, then swerved back into the road."
It was the good old days, when people drove drunk with class.
"A few would clip a cab outside on Las Vegas Boulevard, but the police didn't come to us to ask why we let them drive. If the damage wasn't bad, they would just get escorted back to their hotel. Drunk guests would also pull up and stumble out. As long as they had money, they were welcome. It was a different time, and also sorta explains how Raoul Duke never managed to get pulled over."
"Inside it was about the same too. My job at the Sands was to get people to the tables -- a greeter in all but name. In Vegas today, it's illegal to have players keep playing if they are too drunk. ... But at the Sands -- and pretty much everywhere else -- if players were drunk, we'd seat them. The gamblers back then, they took personal responsibility."
Pool tables were perfect for drunken gamblers who had to piss their pants but didn't want
to embarrass themselves.
"We had a rule, though -- don't put drunk people next to sober or otherwise stable people. We didn't want to get anyone so annoyed that they would leave. Beyond that, we sat them down. Maybe a dealer or pit boss would ask if they wanted to keep going, but otherwise we gave them drinks and they kept playing, way past the limit of knowing what was going on. I can't really name a standout moment. It was a bunch of really drunk people playing thousands of dollars a hand. I don't know what their collateral was for credit, but people walking in with $500 suddenly had $10,000 in front of them, and they were so loaded up that they would lose that quickly."
"I do remember stopping a few upset tourists coming in and yelling at hotel staff that they lost everything. After I left, the Gaming Commission passed laws saying you couldn't let overly drunk people play. One of my dealer buddies was actually fired for letting a drunk person play at his table, only to find out it was an undercover testing the new law. Up until the late '70s, though, there were some tables just filled with people near-blackout drunk, just playing hand after hand and losing big. And it was all acceptable."
Alcohol: For when shitty odds don't win enough on their own.
Evan V. Symon is the interview finder guy and PE team member at Cracked. Have an awesome experience or job you want to tell Cracked about? Hit us up at email@example.com!
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