Chapter 3: Building The Flamingo
By the mid-1940's, Billy Wilkerson's gambling was getting out of hand. Billy could often be found playing high-stakes poker games where the minimum bets were $25,000. In 1944, he'd reportedly lost $750,000 playing at several Las Vegas casinos.
Movie producer & friend, Joe Schneck had some advice for Wilkerson:
"Be on the other side of the table if you're going to suffer those kinds of losses. Build a casino...own the house!"
Seemed totally reasonable to Billy.
El Rancho Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, circa 1941
Photo Credit: Online Nevada Encyclopedia
In December 1944, Wilkerson tried to stem his gambling losses by leasing the El Rancho Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. He paid then-owner Joe Drown $50,000 for a six-month lease on the property.
But always one who was "thinking big", Billy had even greater ambitions in mind.
Billy wanted to build in Vegas...but he knew he had to create something much grander and larger In scale than he'd ever built before. He needed something more than "just a casino" - especially if he wanted to tempt the Beverly Hills crowd to travel across the state line to Nevada.
Check for partial payment to Margaret M. Folsom for the purchase of the Flamingo's land
Photo Credit: By HumanisticRationale at English Wikipedia, CC
In late January 1945, Wilkerson spotted a "For Sale" sign on a vacant 33-acre parcel of land which belonged to Margaret M. Folsom. Wilkerson ended up purchasing the land - located south of the El Rancho & Last Frontier hotels - for $84,000.
Now that he had the land, it was time to get down to designing the resort. Billy wanted his new property to be extraordinary and unique. He wanted a "gambling mecca" that was more like the luxurious casinos & hotels you'd find somewhere like Monaco or Paris, as opposed to the rustic hotels & gambling halls that existed in Las Vegas at the time.
In late-February 1945, Wilkerson held an hours-long meeting in his Los Angeles office with architect George Vernon Russell and decorator Tom Douglas, both of whom he'd worked with on his Hollywood night clubs.
During this initial meeting, Billy outlined his vision for the resort; He wanted the entire 33 acres filled with a casino, showroom, nightclub, luxury hotel, shopping and a health club. Wilkerson also had ideas for private bungalows, a massive swimming pool, tennis courts, badminton courts, a shooting range and a nine-hole golf course.
Wilkerson also had a radical idea in mind for the design of the casino that was different from every other Vegas property. He envisioned the casino as the "hub" of the resort - meaning it would be impossible to go anywhere in the complex without passing through. There would be no windows or clocks in the casino & the lights would be permanently dimmed so guests would have no idea of how much time had passed.
Next, there was the question of the name of the resort; time for some "myth busting"...
Long-time girlfriend of Bugsy Siegel, Virginia Hill in 1939
Photo Credit: Los Angeles Evening Herald
The long-standing legend is that "The Flamingo" took its name from Bugsy Siegel's girlfriend, Virginia Hill. According to pop culture, Hill's nickname was "The Flamingo" because of her long legs & red hair and when Bugsy took over the project, he named the resort in her honour.
Fact is, the resort was named "The Flamingo" way before Bugsy or Virginia Hill entered the picture.
Billy Wilkerson usually named his projects before they were completed & the inspiration for those names usually came from his travels. In this case, Wilkerson considered several different exotic bird names and, in the end, settled on a magnificent pink bird he'd seen during a trip to Florida.
He commissioned Hollywood graphic artist, Bert Worth to design the logo for "The Flamingo Club".
As Billy's plans for the Flamingo grew, so did his costs. Estimates to build & complete the resort as he envisioned were pegged at $1.2 Million - a staggering amount of money for the time. Wilkerson accepted the figure but didn't have the cash to cover the costs. He secured loans from the Bank of America and billionaire friend, Howard Hughes but he was still about $400,000 short.
Billy took up old habits to try to get the cash, risking $150,000 of his own money to try to win the $400,000. Of course, he lost it all.
He tried scaling back the project to save money and even hit up his Hollywood friends by offering cut-rate advertising in The Hollywood Reporter in exchange for surplus lumber & metal, threatening bad reviews if they didn't provide him with materials.
In January 1946, just one year after purchasing the land the Flamingo sat on, construction had ground to a halt.
Mob members Moe Sedway & Gus Greenbaum
Photo Credit: UNLV Special Collections
As Wilkerson was nearing the end of his financial rope, gangster Moe Sedway brought the Flamingo project to the attention of his boss, Meyer Lansky. Sedway thought this might be a good opportunity for the syndicate to expand their operations in Las Vegas; Sedway and his partner, Gus Greenbaum, were already involved in running the El Cortez Hotel.
Lansky was hesitant at first, but once he saw the scale of what Wilkerson had planned for the Flamingo & the potential for huge profits, he changed his mind.
Postcard, the El Cortez Hotel, Las Vegas, NV
Photo Credit: Over 50 Vegas
In late February 1946, Wilkerson was walking the Flamingo construction site with one of his builders when he approached by G. Harry Rothberg. Rothberg claimed to represent "a firm" in New York City that was interested in investing in the resort project.
In exchange for $1 Million, Wilkerson would retain a one-third share in the project and have full creative control. Upon completion of the Flamingo, Wilkerson would be the sole operator and manager with all other involved partners being silent. Wilkerson agreed to the deal and signed a contract on February 26, 1946.
The ink on the contract was barely dry before Moe Sedway and Gus Greenbaum showed up at the construction site...and they weren't alone. The man accompanying them identified himself as Wilkerson's new partner:
Benjamin "Bugsy Siegel.