Mob-era gambling boss was ‘Old Vegas’
ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE
On Sept. 8, 1961, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal testifies before the Senate Investigations Committee in a probe of organized gambling. He reportedly oversaw gaming secretly at several Las Vegas casinos.
Thu, Oct 16, 2008 (2 a.m.)
Near the end of the 1995 Martin Scorsese film “Casino,” the Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal character, portrayed by Robert DeNiro, laments how the new corporate Las Vegas imploded all the mob-run Las Vegas resorts.
Those implosions marked the end of an era that some say was a black eye for Las Vegas. Others praise the Mafia-influenced 1950s through the 1970s as the city’s golden age.
And although in 1988 Rosenthal was placed in gaming’s Black Book, banning him from Nevada’s casinos, he was no stranger to modern Vegas and its gambling halls.
Over the next 20 years, Rosenthal came to Southern Nevada several times a year in disguises, including a fake beard, to gamble in the corporate-run gaming properties that had replaced the swinging gambling joints of his heyday.
With the heart attack-related death Monday of Rosenthal, 79, at his Boca Raton, Fla., home, the book may finally be closed on one of the most colorful periods — and people — in Las Vegas history.
“Everybody works on the success of those who came before them, but Frank Rosenthal created that success for Las Vegas when he ran the old Stardust hotel-casino,” Las Vegas gaming analyst Larry Grossman said.
“He was double sharp — a visionary.”
Rosenthal, who was a southpaw as his nickname indicates, was a key executive of the Argent Corp., which ran the Stardust from the mid- to late 1970s.
Rosenthal, who had a criminal history stemming from illegal gambling activities in his native Chicago, secretly oversaw gambling at several casinos. Those operations reportedly funneled millions of dollars in casino profits and potential state tax revenue into the pockets of U.S. mob syndicates. But Rosenthal was never charged with a crime in connection with the skimming in Las Vegas.
But alleged criminal activities aside, Grossman said Rosenthal also should be remembered for how he changed Las Vegas, including the things he did that made the city and the gaming industry better. “Along with Lem Banker, Rosenthal was one of the first handicappers to be purely analytical in viewing sports betting,” said Grossman, the former host of a local sports betting radio show and author of two “You Can Bet on It” books. “He paved the way for many to follow.”
Banker, a legendary Las Vegas gambler who persuaded Clark County authorities to issue Rosenthal a sheriff’s card so he could work in local casinos despite his criminal record, said Rosenthal was a “bright guy with a big ego and a lot of clout.”
“Frank did not like how at dinner shows the plates clattered while the entertainer was performing so he did away with dinners and instead comped guests to dinner in the coffee shop after the shows,” said Banker, whose relationship with Rosenthal dated to the 1950s.
“He could get things done quickly and efficiently,” Banker recalled. “Once a bookmaker in Minneapolis owed me $30,000 and refused to pay. I told Frank about it and he said, ‘Don’t worry, tomorrow the money will be in your account at the Rose Bowl (sports book).’ Sure enough, it was there the next day.”
Rosenthal also is credited with being the first major casino operator to hire women as card dealers on a regular basis and for establishing the first significant sports book in a major Las Vegas casino.
Rosenthal was “the innovator of the prototypical race and sports book,” said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who, as a lawyer, represented Rosenthal from 1972 to 1999. “He put the glitz and the glamour into the sports book industry.”
Today every major casino in Las Vegas has sports book salons modeled after the one Rosenthal put in at the old Stardust.
Rosenthal’s titles at the Stardust included food and beverage director and entertainment director. He also hosted a weekly TV talk and variety show from the Stardust.
Rosenthal did not take a casino title to avoid being forced to apply for a key gaming employee’s license, which he knew he would be denied because of his criminal past.
Things went along swimmingly for Rosenthal and the mob until 1978 when federal authorities launched a major investigation into organized crime’s influence in Las Vegas. Agents tapped telephone lines to bring down the mob’s last footholds at the Stardust and Tropicana.
Also that year, the Nevada Gaming Commission held a hearing into why Rosenthal was running the Stardust without a license. During the hearing, Rosenthal bickered with Chairman Harry Reid, now the U.S. Senate majority leader, and was refused a gaming license.
In December 1979, Argent properties were sold to the Trans Sterling Corp., another company with alleged mob ties. Boyd Gaming bought the Stardust in 1985. It closed in 2006 and was imploded to make way for construction of Echelon.
On Oct. 4, 1982, a bomb placed in Rosenthal’s 1981 Cadillac Eldorado exploded after Rosenthal attempted to start the engine in the shared parking lot of Tony Roma’s and Marie Callender’s restaurants on East Sahara Avenue.
“As I drove by Tony Roma’s and Marie Callender’s, I heard this huge boom,” said retired journalist Myram Borders, who at the time was Las Vegas bureau chief for United Press International. “A guy was getting out of a car sort of smoky and his hair was standing on end.”
She said as she approached Rosenthal he was shouting, “They’re trying to kill me, they’re trying to kill me!” But when Borders asked Rosenthal who specifically was trying to kill him, she said he immediately shut up.
As Rosenthal stood shocked in the parking lot, smoke still pouring from his body, former Nevada Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, who had just eaten dinner at Tony Roma’s, walked up to Rosenthal and said something to the effect that Frank obviously was having a rough night.
Years earlier O’Callaghan had vowed that Rosenthal would never get a gaming license and that Nevada one day would be rid of him.
A short time later, Rosenthal left Las Vegas and resided for a while in California before settling in Boca Raton, where he continued sports handicapping and betting until his death.
“Frank Rosenthal has secured a firm place in Las Vegas history,” gaming analyst Grossman said. “He lived his life under his own terms. How many people really get a chance to do that?”
Ed Koch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mary Manning can be reached at 259-4065 or at email@example.com.