Listen: Hollywood, Bugsy Siegel, Las Vegas discussed on Coast to Coast AM with George Noory
"Welcome back. Let me tell you about our guest Willie Wilkerson was raised in educated in England at a graduate from the university of southern California back in nineteen seventy seven he has authored several books and has contributed several publications including the Los Angeles Times the Hollywood reporter USA today the herald examiner in L A weekly as well as being an on camera. Historian for such shows as an EAS biography e Entertainment's mysteries and scandals. The learning channel's the secret history of Las Vegas, then PBS's history. Detectives he was with me six years ago, as we talked about his father, the man who invented the Las Vegas tonight Hollywood godfather, the life and crimes of Billy Wilkerson Willie. Welcome back to the show Georgia great to hear from you. And of course with fair disclosure want. Everybody to know you've got a great son by the name of will Wilkerson who was one of our interns working with producer, Tom for you. Years and Tom still says one of the best I ever worked with. Oh. That is so great. We talk about you guys. All the time. He got married didn't. He he got married in June 'til wonderful woman and they relocated to North Carolina. Great where he set up his business, and I miss him dearly. But what can you do the next time? You talked to him you, tell them high for for me, and Tom if you got it when we talked back six years ago about your father, and we'll do a little recap here because it's an amazing story. But you you were ten years old when he died, so you probably don't remember too much about him. Do you know? No, no, no. That's absolutely, correct. Did did did you remember of him at that age? Well, I just remember a man who is slowly getting a very very sick. This is a man who had made terrible lifestyle choices he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day drank twenty coca Cola's. And so basically, I just remembered a man of in ailing health the times that I did spend with him. I mean as a kid we used to play cards together. And so those were those are really special times for me, he loved cards boy did he ever as a matter of fact, he literally invented Las Vegas wasn't Howard Hughes, a friend of his a very, very close friend. He Howard Hughes. Hurt us his come into the house while because your dad started the Hollywood reporter, right? That's correct in that time that was and it still is. But I mean in those days what we didn't have a lot of radio and television. That was one of the most influential Hollywood publications out there, not the one where all the producers all the movie moguls. Everybody would pick that up. The first thing they could it was called. It was called the Hollywood bible. Let's absolutely correct. And so your father had that entrepreneurial spirit in him. Didn't he? He did. That's absolutely, correct. And but I think that this is where the story gets into twists and turns and gets very dark. He was in the movie industry up until nineteen twenty six from nineteen twelve until nineteen twenty six. And when he realized that at that time Hollywood was owned by five or six still use. It was it was a cartel monopoly bright, and as an independent he realized that if he started his own studio the chances of 'em getting screen time and their movie theaters because each one on their own exclusive theater chain was was a fantasy. And so he became very angry. I it was it he became very he had this revenge motives, and he decided that he was going to crush this illegal monopoly that held a stranglehold on fair competition because independence weren't. Unless you were an independent that owned your own theater chains. How else are you going to get your films? Sean. Well, and he was right. And in all that time period as well. And again for folks who don't remember our discussion six years ago. Your father literally was building the Flamingo hotel in Las Vegas, which really was the first big hotel, wasn't it. That's correct. That was great that that's the first resort that we know that some guy named Bugsy Siegel came up to him and said I want to buy this kid. And he sold the tool. Well, actually, the story goes is that is that Seagal really sort of muscled him out. It was almost like sell it to me or you won't be around to see it finish. The story goes my father was a terrible gambler. I mean, I think the the the audience that my my he my father just gamble millions away. He had he had seed money to to build a Flamingo. And the problem was is that he couldn't keep away from the tables, and he was gambling is construction money way to the point where he couldn't Bill the filming go and so the project came to a standstill, and that's when he got a visit on the construction site from a guy named g Harry Rothberg who said ou it straight out of the movie. The godfather said, listen, I'm gonna I'm gonna make you the deal you can't refuse. I got partners who will give you the million bucks to finish the hotel. You can retain the third interest and will help you get it all finished off. And so this guy appear to be legitimate businessman. He signed the contract. He got billion dollars and then a month later, but because he was on the construction site. Introducing himself to my dad is his new partner. Well, my dad nearly fainted. Did Bugsy have a reputation at that time of being a mobster. I think he always did he he was always the tough guy. But interesting when he was in Hollywood, he was he was really the playboy. I mean, there was a part of there was a part of his history where he wanted to get into movies. He had glossies made. Apparently he had. He had some screen tests done. We don't know where this the screen tests are, but he really wanted to be a movie actor like his friend George raft. And but when the studio moguls got with who this guy was there was no way on earth that they were going to give them a shot in films because they were too scared of him. And he he knew you knew Mayerling Meyer Lansky loved him today. Oh, absolutely. These guys were bosom. They were they were like brothers without being. We're talking about Bugsy Siegel. Not your dad yet. Amar Lansky and Bugsy Siegel grew up together is as close to brotherhood is you could possibly get without being blood related Bugsy ended up being in Beverly Hills, California and was shocked to death through the window of his house. And I've gotta ask you this Willie. Do you think your father had anything to do with that? I think he did. And the reason why is that my father was very close friends with a mobster in Hollywood by the move Johnny Rozelle who was also named in the Kennedy assassination. Yeah. I I'm not an expert on that part. I'm just an expert long. His name came up quite a bit. Yeah. On on on his relationship with with my dad, but when Bugsy Siegel threaten my father's life and send him into exile. Sent my dad into exile. In late nineteen forty six. Rozelle was very protective of my dad, and the theory is is that when my father was in exile. It was resolutely who ordered the hit on Bugsy Siegel to protect my debt. Now interesting that resulted was behind bars at that time, but that didn't matter. I mean, this guy had so much influence that it didn't matter where he was. So that made sense to me, and that made sense to the principles that I talked to obviously, the the story that we're familiar with is that Seagal overspent with the Flamingo and his partners killed him. But I can't see that because Meyer Lansky who was her brother to to Bugsy Siegel would intervene in in some fashion, and they love. Or or are protected him in some fashion. So I think that my my father had or resilient acting on his own to protect my father loved to do with it. But somehow your dad was involved whether it was on the peripheral and event or really on the inside. Well, I just I think it was probably a casual conversation where my dad was in Paris probably made a phone call to resilient said I'd really love to get this guy off my back. And that only meant one thing to somebody like Rozelle or somebody who is close to result who could get to him in prison. And that's all probably he had to say. What do you think Willie division was of your father looking at Las Vegas developing the Flamingo which would have been the first big place and ended up being the first big casino hotel. What did he see in Las Vegas that? Nobody else really. Saw. Well, I gotta be honest. I don't think that he he saw that vision. This is this guy had a mammoth gambling addiction. And so we had to do something to try and rain this, and we have to remember at that time there were no organizations like gambling down or whatever. And he was friends with the movie mogul guy name of Joe's gang who is the chairman of Twentieth Century, Fox who was also an enormous gambler. But Joe skink was so rich that it didn't matter how much you lost. I mean this. This guy was virtually printing money, what was your dad's favorite game, by the way? He loved to wish there was three that he loved. He he loved the ponies. He loves poker any loved craps. And he was terrible at all three. I talked to people who was who play poker with him and said he was the worst poker player in the world. Worst loser. Horses all the time. Well, yeah. I mean, it was really interesting because I got in touch with his business partner of close to two decades mandating Tom sword and Tommy told me that he would go to the track every day with my dad just to sort of keep them company and babysit him. That would be sent Anita me. Right. This is the depression, and my father was routinely losing five hundred dollars a race five days on on all the races of the track five days when it's like ten grand a night race nowadays normal. I mean, I don't know what that translates into days money, but we are talking an absolute fortune. So it was Joe skank over a card game. Who said listen if you're gonna if you're gonna keep? Taking that kind of financial pounding. He said started casino own the house. So if you lose money, yours is yours. And so that it was really if any credit is to be sort of given to the Flamingo. It's it's that comment that that Joe skink gave my father because really the Flamingo was just based on my father's financial survival. I don't think he had any idea or allusions about grandeur. We we still have to remember. It's the middle of the desert. How am I going to get my? Beverly Hills clientele comes in the middle of the desert to gamble at my place. And there's nothing there. There are no other amenities. There's no other big hotels. I mean, it was just that place. Yeah. There were there were was the last frontier in the El Rancho, but the more sort of glorified motel. It was like a cowboy place was exactly. And so they were very unglamorous and my father got this idea of oh my God. If I'm gonna ask my my exclusive Beverly Hills clientele to come back to the middle of the desert. I mean, I've gotta have shops that gonna have floor shows. He was very good at successful at starting restaurants. He started Benny in Hollywood you like cafe Trocadero zeros and stuff like that. And he says I've got a I got a transfer Beverly Hills to the middle of the desert if I'm going to get these people to come out because he wasn't planning on the locals to to drop that kind of money. You know slot machine. Was right. It was right. Was right. In that sense is his vision. Even though it it it probably didn't occur at that time. Is is is is creation of the Flamingo? Really was was the harbinger of of what it is today. Absolutely. Now, how long did he own the Hollywood reporter the newspaper? He started in nineteen thirty and passed away in nineteen sixty two. So that's roughly what about thirty two years, and it's still going on. Oh, it's bigger than ever. It's huge who owns analogy. Needle. You know, one of the things is that we sold it in nineteen eighty eight. And because my mother was worried about the internet revolution. And she didn't want to compete with what's going on online. And as we both know that magazines and newspapers have disappeared into the mom was pretty perceptive and. But what the current management is done is that. I mean, it it they've they have really created a Phoenix. I mean, they have resurrected this newspaper and made it an absolute titan. And I take my hat off to them. I mean it just phenomenal. What they've done did you. And again, he dies when you're ten. But can you recall did you live? Well, I mean were you taking care of? Oh god. Yes. I mean, we lived. I mean that house is still there in in in Bella right on the corner of Beverly Glen and Sunset Boulevard. I mean, we had close to like four acres was huge. Gosh. That's gotta be a we had the the the butlers and the cooks and everything that goes along with with a big estate, so. Yeah, my sister, and I my sister, and I were world taking care of. But as we'd like to joke is that we were brought up in an island. People were brought to us. We didn't have. At other people's houses. How did your father die Willie? Well, he he. Yeah. The Dutch ticket says heart attack, but but three packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day for for decades, pointing coca Cola's I mean, that's what killed him as far as I'm concerned the picture on the cover of Hollywood godfather, he looks like he's relatively thin was he a thin guy or heavy guy. He was he was a pretty thin guy. Just abused himself. Yeah. I I, you know, like a lot of them. Did I have to tell you George? I mean, he was in good company. A lot of those Hollywood film titans. Add had had terrible lifestyle habits. And and some got them into trouble. I mean, all we have to do is look at people like Harvey Weinstein today. Yup. And back in my Father's Day. They probably wouldn't have got caught. But thank God. Now, the hammer is dropping. Those days they've probably got away with all that stuff and probably worse will probably worse. Well, I if I may cite a couple of examples is that again Joe skunk, this this this huge tycoon. He had a house in Santa Monica specifically for dilatory purposes was the playboy mentioned before the playboy man reactive. And so my father would go down there between marriages and enjoying himself with all the starlets that that Joe had set up with all of his all of his friends, and you had people like Daryl zanuck who is the head of production for Twentieth Century, Fox. This guy built a bedroom in his office. He couldn't get away with it. No, no.."