Johnny Hicks & the movie Casino
I recently saw the movie Casino, which is one of my favorites for many reasons. Every time I watch the movie, I recall my friend Johnny Hicks. We broke in the gambling business at the same time in downtown Las Vegas. Here is a piece about Johnny Hicks I wrote awhile back that you may find interesting reading.
Martin Scorcese presents a better than average portrait of Las Vegas as it existed in the late 60’s and 70’s. Many parts of this movie are based on actual events and real people. One of the characters in the movie played by James Woods is Lester Diamond, Sharon Stone’s boyfriend. Lester Diamond in real life was my longtime friend, John Hicks, son of gaming pioneer Marion Hicks.
There are many other characters in the movie that I had met or worked with in Las Vegas, either at the Dunes or at the Stardust, the real name of the feigned Tangiers run by Robert De Niro. The Algiers Hotel; notice the term Hotel and not Hotel Casino. Lacking a “casino” suffix name because it was sans gambling.
The Algiers was built next to the infamous Thunderbird Hotel, by a partnership of Marion Hicks and others. The others? I will get to that in a minute, but first a little background and facts on Johnny Hicks.
I first met John when I was “breaking in” in the gambling business while working at the California Club. The California Club was built on First Street and Fremont and was just a small casino with four blackjack tables, two craps, one wheel and about 140 slot machines, keno, a snack bar and a very comfortable bar with 50 stools that sat adjacent to the pit. Every rounder, thief and booster called it home. The bartender Big Bob was a weightlifter-bodybuilder around 65 years of age (in 1966) who would shake your hand and about break it until you smiled!
What a place to work. The eye in the sky and on the floor, which we called the eye in the rug, was an old time cheat from Montana, Mike Sarkis. Mike was an expert cold deck operator that worked with many teams. He was hired at the California Club because the owners reasoned “it takes a thief” to catch a thief. They were right as long as you can control the thief. Mike would sit at the bar and watch a blackjack game and count the deck down using a special count of the most important cards for the dealer. If a player was beating us we shuffled or continued dealing down to the bottom of the deck and then reshuffling when cards were still in play on the table. On the contrary we would deal maybe just one hand or two and then shuffle. The theory keeping the most important cards for the dealer in play and the most important cards for the player out of play.
The most important cards for the dealer are first the five, then the six and the four, in that order. If a player sat down and in the first round the fives, and sixes came out, and no aces, Mike would give me the signal to shuffle. If the cards weren’t shuffled the chances of the dealer busting and a player getting a blackjack increase.
Johnny Hicks was also breaking in across the street at Binion’s Horseshoe Club. The Horseshoe was a popular place to gamble, had great food and offered guests a photo opportunity of standing in front of $1 million dollars. They would pose for the free picture, and then have to wait around for the print. A great way of inducing the tourist to gamble.
It was well known on the streets that you better not get caught cheating the house at the Horseshoe, otherwise you might get roughed up. It is alleged (told to me by the Horseshoe Casino Manager) that a dealer was handcuffed on a water pipe for stealing, however he did not steal from the house as suspected, he actually cheated a player. He remained there for several days. When the owner found out he did not steal from the house, she let him go. In other words this type of casino management discouraged stealing.
Hicks was a friend of the Binions and they allowed him to learn the games at the Horseshoe. Bucky Howard was the shift boss at the California Club and his dad Buck Sr. was a floor man at the Horseshoe. Buck senior’s relative was Ma Beachie from Phenix City, Alabama. Hard core gamblers. Hicks would drop in occasionally and I was introduced.
Las Vegas was still a small town and we all socialized after work. Hicks and I became great friends. He had a Cadillac Eldorado convertible and was the man about town. Many of us would frequent the Copa Lounge, Bourbon Street (downtown) and Dirty Sallys. Dirty Sally’s sat at the corner of the Las Vegas strip and Spring Mountain Road. Now the site of the Venetian Hotel. Dirty Sally’s had live music and one single blackjack game with a $10 limit. A great game for suckers. A few of the dealers were bust-out artists. This was not a game to bet serious money.
Hicks had to leave town for a few days and he asked me to take his car to the Cadillac dealer for servicing. Wow, what a chance. I was 21 and I could drive his convertible around town and meet some cHicks. So I thought. That morning I took his car in for service, I was in the service line. There was a car in front of me and it moved up and I moved up. I was not real familiar with the pedals and I pushed on the gas instead of the brake to slow down. I rear-ended the car in front of me. This dwarf (little person) with a mid-eastern accent and speech impediment jumped out of the car yelling and screaming. I was horrified. I put about $1,000 damage into John’s car and about $500 to the other car. John would never stop ribbing me about the incident. He thought it was hilarious. I paid off every penny. Not so hilarious.
Hicksie, as his friends would call him, was a real rounder. He loved the women, golf, gambling, drinking and telling old stories about his dad and Meyer Lansky. One morning about 3:00 am I got a knock on my door and it was John. He had been out and was in the neighborhood. He stopped by to show me his dad’s personal pistol. It was a small .25 cal. Handgun. He said his dad carried it all the time. John wanted me to see it shoot. (We were pretty stupid 21 and 24 year olds) I told John we can’t go outside because it would wake up all the neighbors. So we decided to shoot at a target in my fireplace. Pretty lame.
The following is an excerpt from the Nevada Tax Commission:
“From information available to the members of the commission (including the reports of the United States Senate committee upon organized crime, commonly known as the Kefauver committee) it is apparent that among the figures recognized as prominently active in unlawful gambling beyond the borders of this state and in nationally organized crime are the Lansky brothers, Meyer and Jake (also known as Jack). The former, in particular, is recognized to occupy a position of leadership in organized crime.
George Sadlo, whose residence for some time prior to the hearing had been at the Thunderbird hotel, is a close personal friend and gambling associate of Jake Lansky. They have operated together in management of gambling enterprises in Florida. Sadlo and Hicks are close personal friends. In 1947 Hicks borrowed $160,000 from George Sadlo. The money was borrowed for use by the hotel corporation in the construction of the Thunderbird hotel and was used for that purpose. At the time of the hearing before the commission it appeared that Jake Lansky had shared with Sadlo in the making of this loan.
Hicks denied any knowledge of Lansky’s participation. In 1954 the loan was repaid to Sadlo by Hicks. In 1948 Hicks borrowed $37,500 from Sadlo for use by the gambling partnership. The money was used in the “bankroll” of the gambling operation, the fund which assures ability to meet gambling losses. There is no evidence that Lansky participated in this loan. The loan was repaid by Hicks in 1952. Hicks never reported to the tax commission that either Sadlo or Lansky held any interest in the hotel corporation or in the gambling partnership. The ultimate conclusion reached by the tax commission was that respondents Hicks and Jones were unsuitable persons to hold gambling licenses.”
Pretty interesting associates I would venture to say. Hicks also built the Algiers Hotel next to the Thunderbird Hotel, however there was no gambling because of his unsuitability to hold a gaming license. The General Manager of the Algiers for many years was Jack Walsh, who worked directly for Hicks. The following is an obituary than ran in the Las Vegas Sun:
“Jack Walsh, who as a former Nevada Gaming Commission member helped guide the state into the modern era of gaming, and as general manager of the historic Algiers hotel helped preserve the flavor of old Las Vegas, has died. He was 81.
“He was on the commission at an important time in the late 1970s when we were running the mob out of town,” said local certified public accountant George Swarts, who served on the commission with Walsh.
“He was a man of few words, but Jack was tough on them (alleged mob figures trying to get into local gaming) and voted against them. He had a consistent interest to clean up gaming. The reason you don’t have that element today is because of men like Jack.”
Fellow board member and retired Reno attorney Peter Echeverria agreed.
“My fondest memory of Jack is the way he would recite the instance of the applicant who came up for a gaming license,” Echeverria said. “Jack would inquire around town — he knew everyone in town — and would get the skinny on the applicant that he would present (at the board meetings).
“Jack was really good at that (doing his homework). An applicant couldn’t just come before the board, say something and walk away. He had to prove it because Jack generally would have the stuff to refute it.”
Born Dec. 6, 1914, in Tonopah, Walsh moved to Las Vegas in 1941, the year the United States entered World War II.
Soon after, Walsh joined the Navy and served in the South Pacific. After the war, he returned to Las Vegas and joined the Nevada Highway Patrol at a salary of $150 a month.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Walsh served as a department head for the Highway Patrol and for the Department of Motor Vehicles.
In 1961, Walsh took a job he would relish for the rest of his life: general manager of the Algiers. The small hotel was built on the north end of the Strip to handle overflow guests of the Thunderbird, which later became the Silverbird, the new El Rancho, and now is closed.
Walsh served as the Thunderbird’s general manager in the late 1950s.
For the past 35 years, Walsh, wearing his ever-present white tamoshanter and smoking his ever-lit pipe belching honey cavendish, was as much a fixture at the Algiers as the chandeliers and tiffany lamps that adorn the ceilings and walls of the old hotel.
“He and his wife both lived on the property since the very beginning so he was just the lifeblood of the Algiers,” said Marianne Kifer, the owner of the Algiers and the daughter of Marion and Lillian Hicks, who built the Thunderbird and the Algiers.
“He knew everything and knew an awful lot of people in town.”
It was Gov. Mike O’Callaghan who in 1973 named Walsh to the Nevada Gaming Commission, the legislative body charged with the final authority in matters relating to gaming in the state.
Walsh would continue to serve during the administrations of Gov. Robert List and Gov. Richard Bryan, finally retiring in 1985.
“Jack was as steady as a rock,” O’Callaghan said. “His knowledge of Nevada’s history and people made him invaluable when making gaming policy. No matter how heated a debate became, Jack never lost his composure and he always sought common-sense solutions to problems.”
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who served with Walsh for four years on the Gaming Commission, also praised Walsh “as an institution in Nevada.”
Reid said Walsh expressed “genuine concern for the men and women who keep our hotels and casinos running.”
“The dealers, valets and waiters meant just as much to him as the top executives,” Reid said. “He loved Nevada and he loved the people who make Nevada such a vibrant place to live and work. I will miss Jack and so will the whole state.”
Walsh’s reputation for finding simple, workable solutions to complex problems was reflected in the way he managed the Algiers.
When a reporter asked Walsh in 1995 why he kept a turn-of-the century look at the Algiers through the years, he replied: “I like it. A lot of people like it … There haven’t been any big changes. Just pictures and paint.”
This is an interesting irony. Walsh’s boss was unsuitable for gaming, yet Walsh was a member of the Nevada Gaming Commission. That is how Las Vegas ran.
Johnny gave me a very special photo that was given to him by his father and Meyer Lansky’s partner, George Sadlo. Sadlo et al had owned a casino in Mexico. It was fully functional with table games and a sports and race book. Sadlo had a panoramic picture taken of the operation that is priceless. If you look real close on the boards in the sports book, you can see the price for the Willard-Johnson heavyweight boxing match in 1916. This picture has never been published however I will provide a link to it down the road.
I still have this picture in my office.
Here is a link to the location of the actual fight:
The fight was in Havana were Lansky and Sadlo eventually operated casinos.
I left the California Club and went to work at the Dunes Hotel in December of 1969. I thought I hit a jackpot. Then six or seven months later I was transferred to baccarat. This was like winning an academy award. This just was not an everyday occurrence. Most of the baccarat dealers were over 35 years of age. I was a mere 22. Dealers had worked at the Dunes for years hoping to get a chance at baccarat. It was virtually impossible. That year the United States put a man on the moon. Life magazine decided to do a pictorial of the gentry watching this historical onetime event. One of the picture locations decided upon was the Dunes baccarat pit. Here is a link to the picture of the Dunes baccarat pit with myself standing/sitting on the table watching the moonwalk.
There is a whole story that will be posted down the road about the characters in this picture. See the floor man on the right, sitting on a ladder chair? He could not be fired from the Dunes Hotel. His wife owned a bar in New York that Fidel Castro and his brother would frequent while they were college students in New York.
Look at the actual currency on table. We dealt the game with it. The $500 checks (chips) were only used on occasion. I will tell another story about paper scams (cash), dealing seconds and Dai Vernon, down the road.
After six years as a baccarat dealer I was promoted to floor man. This was as good as it got. You received an excellent salary and a full share of the tokes.
Hicks would visit me at the Dunes and tell me what was going on in his world and occasionally I would stop by his house in the Las Vegas Country Club. He lived near Lefty Rosenthal and his wife Geri. Rosenthal was the executive at the Stardust that gave Siegfried and Roy their big break. Here is a link to some photos of Lefty, Geri, Spilotro (played by Joe Peci), Siegfried and Roy and others:
Hicks had told me that he was seeing Geri and that they (Hicks and Geri) took the contents of Lefty’s box and went on a spree.
One evening I was invited to John’s place and hung out awhile. John, Pete Griffith, a craps dealer I had known from the Sahara, two or three cute girls and myself. After a few stories etc, I left. A few days later John was murdered either leaving or coming to his home. He was shot behind the ear with a 22 pistol. I tried to contact Pete, but was told by a mutual friend that he left without a trace, indicating he may have seen who had shot John. This mutual friend indicated that Pete was scarred “shitless”. I haven’t seen or heard from Pete since then.
I didn’t go to the funeral, because I was concerned that Pete may have been killed also. I thought that they might have been following Johnny around and that they might be still looking for Pete, and maybe anyone that hung out at his house, including me. I regret that I didn’t t have the guts to pay my last respects to my friend.
Remember the movie casino? John was portrayed in the movie as Sharon Stone’s boyfriend. He was beat up and then tossed into the El Dorado. The famous El Dorado. The movie didn’t tell the truth or get into the area of concern as to who killed Johnny.
After some research a certain reporter said the following:
Nice to hear from you. Most of my information on Johnny Hicks’s final days comes through his running mate at the time.
I think everything you stated about Hicks is right on the money. I think Tony killed him, or perhaps he had Joey Hansen or one of his other friends do it. Cullotta was never suspected of it to my knowledge.
It’s interesting. My knowledge of Cullotta is pretty fair, and I don’t think he was often used as a hitter. He is called a hit man, of course, and I don’t doubt he participated in several murders. He also admitted shooting Jerry Lisner in Las Vegas. But other people in Spilotro’s crew have told me Cullotta wasn’t trusted like some of the other guys. He worked hard to get involved with Tony and worked his way next to him. That irked a lot of Tony’s loyal friends (Blitzstein, etc.)
But as to the Hicks murder, it certainly would have been Tony depending on how much heat was on him at the moment. He was quite clever, switching cars, wearing disguises, etc.
As to specifically who pulled the trigger, I will ask Cullotta when he’s available again.
It’s funny. Spilotro, the Italian-American, was the mob guy. But what does that make all the casino executives who catered to him or turned a blind eye to his activity?
In this town, the ability to dummy up has been raised to an art form.
Your friend, “
Years later a dealer friend of mine from the Dunes, Gene Strolien, called me and said that he was taking a guy around that was making this motion picture about Las Vegas. Gene was familiar with my work and wanted to have the “guy” watch me go through the moves.
I was in my first store at the MGM Grand in about 1994 when Gene and “guy” stopped in unannounced. He introduced me but it went right over my head. I did the moves and we briefly talked but I was busy with customers that day. Gene and I talked and he said I was too clean cut looking for the part in what was going to be the movie “Casino”. But if the topic of Johnny Hicks came up, Scorsese would have dug deeper and probably talked for hours. Gene did not know that I knew John Hicks, nor did I know that John would be a character in the movie.
Little did I realize that it was Martin Scorsese that auditioned me.
In the movie they have a scene wherein Hicks (Lester Diamond) is roughed up and thrown in his car. This did not happen in real life. Instead of the beating, they murdered Hicks.