The Flamingo hotel was the third property to open on what became known as the Las Vegas Strip. Both the El Rancho and Last Frontier had been open for half a decade before “Bugsy” Siegel’s fabulous Flamingo ever broke ground.
Originally the dream of Los Angeles restaurateur and Hollywood Reporter publisher Billy Wilkerson, the Flamingo started to take shape in 1946. Wilkerson envisioned a swank hotel with fine restaurants, a dinner theater, carpeting, pictures on the walls, and a small casino. While trying to finish his $1.5 million property, Wilkerson succumbed to his old gaming addiction, losing nearly $450,000 in a three month period.
The hulking structure sat and baked in the sun, untouched for many months before a mystery man approached Wilkerson, saying his business associates on the East Coast might be willing to help finish the project. The terms seemed good, a million dollars cash and continued creative control in exchange for two-thirds equity. They shook hands. They signed papers. They smiled and met after the cash made its way to Wilkerson’s bank.
A week later, while walking the job site, Wilkerson met his new partner’s front man: Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. Within a month Siegel had pushed Wilkerson to give-up control in exchange for stock in his new Nevada Project Corporation. Siegel seeded interior design to girlfriend Virginia Hill, and changed architectural plans at a moment’s notice. He flew east, he flew west, and he spent more money without rest. He sold 250 percent ownership in the project well before it ever opened, and then demanded that the casino open for New Year’s Even 1947 when no hotel rooms were finished.
The opening was a disaster, as a winter storm kept visitors in Los Angeles from flying to Las Vegas, and the casino itself managed to lose money for weeks before Siegel shut down to finish construction. In March, the property reopened, much more ready to handle throngs of guests, and continued to lose money. While offering much of what Wilkerson had envisioned, the Flamingo was a superior step up from the cowboy theme of the El Rancho and Last Frontier.
As the months passed, visitors began to appreciate the distinction of staying at the Flamingo. The casino finally started making a profit, a reported $150,000 a month (whatever was left after the Mob bosses took their daily skim). By the time “Bugsy” Siegel was killed in a barrage of bullets from a .30-caliber rifle at Virginia Hill’s home in Beverly Hills (she was safe in Paris, France at the time), the casino was well on its way to profitability.
After Gus Greenbaum and Dave Berman took control, the Flamingo reported a profit of nearly $4 million dollars for the year of 1948, enough for all the investors to share in. Today, the Flamingo hotel casino is dead-center in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip. It has grown from 200 rooms to over 3,500 and the casino itself is now 77,000 square feet, about the original size of the main building in 1946. Both Billy Wilkerson and “Bugsy” Siegel would be proud of how successful the property became after they built it.