In neon-drenched Las Vegas, Ben Stubbs goes in search of the city's deliciously seedy past — and emerges a wiser guy for the experience.
We meet in the lobby of the Royal Resort outside the strip. Our rendezvous is away from the usual glitter of Las Vegas - the Royal has a grand piano in the foyer and not a poker machine in sight. It smells like old cigars and spilt bourbon. There are no musicals or magicians out here.
My guide arrives through the back door wearing a pin striped black suit and he insists I call him Bobby, though he doesn't offer me his last name. I'm following him on a tour to discover the underground world of Las Vegas.
We head out into the dark evening in a minivan with a small group of tourists who are interested in more than just margaritas and blackjack. Our driver takes us away from the neon lights, Bobby turns from the front passenger seat and tells me that he has two consultants who assist him with the tour: Frank Cullotta, a former hitman and career criminal who is now in witness protection somewhere in the US, and former FBI man Dennis Arnoldy who was a head investigator in Las Vegas in the early 1980s and brought down many of the most influential gangsters here.
By way of introduction Bobby says that when he was a kid he used to park all the "made" guys' cars in his neighbourhood, and that started his relationship with the mob. Bobby has the wrinkled voice of a lifetime smoker and says he used to be in the "liquor business" without wanting to elaborate.
The Flamingo was the first mob casino.
Las Vegas was initially established as part of the Mormon corridor in 1855 as the Mormon communities of Utah looked to widen their reach. The arid conditions and scorching summer heat proved too difficult, though, and it was eventually abandoned.
We look out to the dry, red desert and the red veined Sierra Nevadas behind.
"This is where Las Vegas began," Bobby says, "eventually the railroad came here in 1905 and they brought saloons, women, rough men and gambling was legalised in '31."
Las Vegas is one of the most visible places on Earth - though it is what is under the surface that interests us today. Bobby says that Las Vegas as we know it came into existence in the late 1940s and early '50s as a way for the mobsters of the US to launder money.
We cruise through the suburbs for 20 minutes, past strip malls and pawn shops. The real mob business in Las Vegas began well away from the bright lights and gambling tables, and Bobby wants us to see this side before we can appreciate the casinos that sparkle on the horizon. "The Flamingo was the first mob casino - it was Bugsy Siegel's ... from New Yawk," he says, looking at it across the sandscape.
Siegel was a notorious gangster, bootlegger and hitman from Brooklyn and he ran the first mob-backed casino in Las Vegas and brought in the glamour that it is now famous for.
Bugsy wasn't around to see the Flamingo's eventual success though. In 1947 in Beverly Hills Siegel was shot nine times by an unknown gunman; the crime is still unsolved. Bobby looks at the bright skyline of modern Vegas: "The mob was everywhere. The Stardust was Chicago's and the Cleveland mob ran the Desert Inn," he continues. I search for the sign of the Desert Inn and he helps me - "It's where Wynn is now", referring to the giant sparkling golden casino.
The mafia saw this as their lawless paradise, where they could operate freely and, by the 1960s, "The mob controlled most of Las Vegas ... it was wild!" Bobby says with a hint of sadness in his voice. I sense he misses the old days of excess and danger.
On the edge of Convention Centre Drive we cruise past a white-washed two-storey restaurant with archways out the front and flickering candlelight coming from the upstairs windows. It's Piero's, one of the most significant restaurants in Las Vegas's mob history. Bobby sparks to life again, "You seen Casino?" he asks and I nod.
"Tony Spilotro used to eat here every day and have his meetings," I nod again and he continues, "that's who Joe Pesci played in Casino."
Bobby tells me that the shocking "pen" scene from Martin Scorsese's film, where Spilotro attacked a disrespectful patron with a biro, happened here. "This sort of thing happened all the time back then," he adds.
The leading men in '60s and '70s Vegas were Frank Rosenthal, a talented sports betting man who became the director of operations for the Stardust in '68 for the mob, and Spilotro, who came out to protect the mob's investments. Bobby says that Rosenthal oversaw the skimming of profits at the Stardust to make sure the bosses got their cut. The mob had so much influence that Spilotro was employed to make sure that no one was skimming the skim.
Not that the mobsters and crooks of Las Vegas were all bad, Bobby is keen to point out. We drive past a medical centre and Bobby says that Jimmy Hoffa, the one-time president of the Teamsters labour union, and Moe Dalitz built the first full service hospital here. To illustrate his point we pause to admire a giant mural on the front of the Guardian Angel Church on East Desert Inn Road, built by Dalitz (a bootlegger who ran the Desert Inn) with his own money.
We drive around the quiet suburbs, circling the family homes and cul-de-sacs that aren't on most itineraries. Through the steamy window I see loan sharks, gun shops, In-n-Out Burger and we stop at the Tower of Jewels jewellery store, a place where they'd "sell your jewellery back to you", Bobby says with a smile.
In 1981 the Tower was the scene of a major robbery, "Organised by Spilotro, of course!" Bobby says. Spilotro was part of the famous "Hole-in-the-wall" gang that would drill through the backs of stores to steal goods. The FBI got wind of what was happening and Dennis Arnoldy busted Spilotro's crew as they drilled into the walls where we now sit on a cold Nevada night.
This is where things started to go wrong for the mobsters who had previously had free rein in the desert. Spilotro got "whacked" by the mob and dumped in a shallow grave for his trouble.
Our next stop is at Tony Roma's restaurant - after all our talking of whacking I'm not really hungry, though we're not here to eat. He tells me that this is where Rosenthal, played by Robert De Niro in Casino, had his car blown up. I remember the scene - the inferno and the charred face of the sports book expert who once ruled the Stardust. Bobby thinks Rosenthal's estranged wife organised it though, like many crimes out here, no one was ever caught.
We continue driving through east Las Vegas and Bobby points out the house of Max Baer Jr (from The Beverly Hillbillies), the house where Casino was filmed and the former pad of Liberace, who used to earn $390,000 a week from The International casino. Whether it is the suburbs or the centre of the strip, it seems Bobby has a mob story to tell us on nearly every corner. We drive to the lobby of the enormous Hilton Hotel, which used to be The International.
"This was the only place Elvis ever performed in Vegas. It was a mob place, too," Bobby says. He tells me that The International had a funny way of introducing women's rights to the strip: "They were the first casino to hire female dealers," he smiles and adds, "they figured that people would be more likely to hand over all their money to a pretty lady."
We finish our tour at the iconic Flamingo. It is impossible to ignore the bright colours that cover everything here. The carpets, the hallways, the neon exterior and the flashing flamingo out front are all lurid pink and purple tones. It looks like a giant wedding cake. The glory days of the mob casinos are gone, though Bobby wants to show me that they're not forgotten. Out the back in the gardens, among the ceramic birds and behind the pool, he takes me to a hidden plaque with a tribute to Bugsy Siegel, the original gangster of Las Vegas who used to have a bulletproof suite and secret tunnels into his casino. Flowers and lucky coins sit on the plaque, demonstrating the respect he still has here after 65 years.
Bobby drives off into the cold night, leaving me to walk through the Flamingo and past the hordes of gamblers. They say things have changed a lot since the good old days of Tony, Frank and Bugsy, though after all of Bobby's stories I'm curious how much it has.
As I walk across the floor to the soundtrack of poker machines I notice the ceiling camera watching everything that is going on below ... and I wonder who it is that's watching me now from above.
The writer travelled as a guest of The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and Air New Zealand.
What's new in Las Vegas
Compliment your Sin City mob tour with a visit to the recently opened Mob Museum on 300 Stewart Avenue (inside what used to be a federal courthouse) in downtown Las Vegas. The museum insists that there are "two sides to every story" and the exhibits present information from the mobsters and the law enforcers who caught them. Entry is $US18. themobmuseum.org.
An open fire, Frank Sinatra on the stereo and a glass of 20-year-old single malt whiskey in your hand. Andre's Cigar and Cognac Lounge, hidden in a quiet room of the Monte Carlo, takes you back to the era of mobsters and their vices. If you're sick of the sound of casinos, this classy establishment is a great option for a night out. montecarlo.com/restaurants/andres-lounge.aspx.
Ever wondered what it feels like to race around a speedway at more than 200km/h strapped inside a cherry red Ferrari? With the Dream Racing experience at the Las Vegas speedway you can be a passenger or get behind the wheel and drive a F430 GT machine around the track to see if you've got what it takes to be a pro. dreamracing.com.
If you're travelling with kids and you want a fun morning following the "whodunit" trail of cadavers and clues, the CSI experience in the MGM Grand is a new activity that allows you to solve the crime and test your investigation skills. There are numerous crimes to solve using all the techniques (except the famous fluoro spray) they use in the TV show. mgmgrand.com/entertainment/csi-the-experience.aspx.
Four other tours
1 Haunted Vegas Explore the supernatural side of Vegas with this ghost tour of the city. Head out into the night with a group of experts (one of whom is a mortician) and a set of dowsing rods to search for signs of paranormal activity. The tour will explore infamous haunted motels, sites of celebrity suicide and uncover stories about Elvis, Bugsy Siegel and Liberace in Sin City. hauntedvegastours.com.
2 Horse riding along the Old Spanish trail A world away from the glitz of the strip (yet less than an hour by car), this horse riding tour of the Moapa Valley is a great way to appreciate the natural beauty of the Nevada countryside. This easy trail ride follows the mountain path that used to connect California to the rest of the US. You'll also explore the history of the native Americans and Spanish explorers who came looking for gold. vegashorsebacktours.com.
3 Hiking Red Rock Canyon Just 20 minutes from Las Vegas is a barren and beautiful landscape of mountains, cacti and ancient rock carvings. The canyon is part of The Keystone Thrust, formed more than 65 million years ago. Along the 20 kilometres of trails local guides will show you fossils, Joshua trees, desert wildflowers and petroglyphs hidden along the red canyon walls of the hike. For something different they also have scrambling tours to the top of the cliffs and peaks within the conservation area. hikethislasvegas.com.
4 Las Vegas by balloon Enjoy the peace and quiet from one of the only silent spots in Las Vegas. See the sun rise over the strip (without a hangover) and drift across the terracotta gorges of the Red Rock Canyon while indulging in a champagne breakfast from 300 metres above the famous landmarks. vegasballoonrides.com.
Air New Zealand flies from Sydney to Las Vegas via Auckland and San Francisco from $1316 return. airnewzealand.com.au.
The mob experience, The Las Vegas Mob Tour, leaves from the Royal Resort at 6pm nightly and costs from $66.25 a person. vegasmobtour.com.