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The Man Who Launched Las Vegas Hopes and Hollywood Dreams
In 1991, the Oscar-nominated film “Bugsy” became a runaway hit. Hollywood leading man Warren Beatty and actress Annette Bening led the script that focused on the life and times of the notorious Bugsy Siegel.
The American mobster was described as one of the most feared gangsters of his day. The infamous gangster is often considered the driving force behind the development of the Las Vegas Strip. But, the release of the film created a stir in the offspring of another legendary figure in US history.
After seeing the film the son of the notorious W.R. “Billy” Wilkerson decided there were important facts that the movie left out and he wanted to rectify the plot line to include his dad.
Billy’s well-known reputation still lives on strongly from coast to coast. He was one of the original shakers in Hollywood who moved out from the east coast to chase a big dream in the west.
In the 1930s to 1950s, he was considered one of the most powerful men in Hollywood being the owner and publisher of “The Hollywood Reporter.” The publication was considered the bible of the film industry.
“My father wrote a daily column for 33 years,” the son W. R. Wilkerson III said in an interview. “He influenced the entire motion picture industry.”
The son has written a successful book called “Hollywood Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson” and it touches on the man with the Tinsel Town golden touch and more.
In a description of the hit novel, they describe in the biography that; “He built the Café Trocadero and other legendary nightspots of the Sunset Strip. In thirty years as Tinsel Town’s premier behind-the-scenes power broker, Wilkerson introduced Clark Gable and Lana Turner to the world, brought the Mafia to Hollywood, engineered the shakedown of the Hollywood studios by Willie Bioff. He touched off the Hollywood blacklist, and conspired to cripple the studio system.”
But the biggest part of the story was his tie-ins with mob-run unions, which helped invent Las Vegas. He dangerously tangoed with Bugsy Siegel and has been linked to possibly his murder.
William R. Wilkerson III has done tremendous research on his father, interviewing over the decades everyone who knew him best and portrays him with some of the best descriptions of the legendary figure of all time.
The question is why? Why would a man of Hollywood want to risk it all to be one of the inventors of Las Vegas? In the words of his own flesh and blood – he was an addict. He like many was a gambling addict.
The Philadelphia native had moved to Southern California in 1930 and started “The Hollywood Reporter.” Not much longer after his other great creation of the infamous Las Vegas Flamingo hotel-casino came to be. The hotel is often cited as to the place in the city that changed Vegas from a minor-league gaming town with dusty streets to the fantastic city it is today.
Wilkerson, not Bugsy Siegel, was the man with the vision and the starting engineer for the now the Flamingo-Hilton, which opened in December 1946.
Wilkerson, Jr. according to the biography says he was addicted to gambling. According to the biography, Wilkerson decided to build his own casino to feed his gambling habit and need to wager.
Besides starting the famous newspaper, Billy also had his hand in Hollywood real estate. On the Sunset Strip, he had opened a series of social nightspots on Los Angeles including Ciro’s, Sunset House, Café Trocadero, and LaRue. He was no stranger to land and business development. He also gambled away almost everything he earned, coming close on numerous occasions to losing “The Hollywood Reporter” and the nightclubs. A friend, 20th Century Fox Chairman Joe Schenck, convinced him that if he was going to gamble, he needed to own a casino.
As a developer, he wanted to make a destination that gamblers like himself could enjoy – far away from the city and far away from distractions.
He envisioned creating the largest, most sophisticated resort in Las Vegas. He wanted to name it not after the dessert, which he actually reportedly hated, but rather after a colorful bird he admired while on a vacation in Florida. He wanted a property that was five stories tall and had 250 rooms. Geared toward the elite it would smell of sweet sophistication and would be full of visitors who loved luxury. Gamblers would have no sightseeing distractions while in his casino.
Even as the ground began to break his powerful gambling addiction created problems. Wilkerson began running into financial problems. He needed $1.2 million for the project but bank loans came up with still in need of $400,000. He decided to see if he could make up the difference in poker, but nearly lost it all at the tables.
“I have become convinced,” Billy Wilkerson wrote a friend in 1945, “that Las Vegas is too dangerous for me.”
On Feb. 26, 1946, Wilkerson sold two-thirds of the Flamingo project for $1 million to G. Harry Rothberg, who was notoriously linked to the Las Vegas mob scene. Rothberg than brought in Bugsy Siegel who was a known killer who helped start Murder Inc. while in Las Vegas. He was the mob’s front man on the project and almost immediately began muscling into the day-to-day management of the construction and trying to force Wilkerson out.
The newsman took off as construction went on and left to Paris for several weeks. Inside friends said he feared he would be killed by the mob hit man and needed to go into hiding. While he was away Siegel ran the construction into millions over budget. Billy decided it was time to sell out for $600,000. Three months after Wilkerson bowed out of the project Siegel was gunned down in his girlfriend’s Beverly Hills residence.
In the midst of it Moe Sedway and Gus Greenbaum, who was running El Cortez at the time, had been advising Wilkerson about the developing casino project and possibly leaking information about all that was going wrong. Greenbaum immediately took possession of the resort. During the first year under their management, the scaled-down casino turned a profit of $4 million.
The biography’s author said it is not certain who had Siegel killed. Perhaps it was the mob, or it could have been his father.
“One of the things I’ve been asked over and over is why my dad didn’t talk about it,” Wilkerson III said. “Well, number one, when someone has threatened your life in a major fashion, especially someone like Bugsy Siegel, it’s not something you really want to talk about.”
It was not soon after that Billy Wilkerson quit gambling in 1951 when his son was born and turned his attention to a personal fight against Communism. In the strange turn of events, he became in addition to all of his other landmark accomplishments a founding father of the blacklist, which destroyed the careers of hundreds of writers, producers, and actors in Hollywood.
Hollywood was never the same and nor was Las Vegas. The strip was there, but he started a new system – one of luxury and sophistication with a vision as big as a blockbuster film. He knew when a star came into his sight line and he knew what was a perfect setting for gamblers. The story will always be dicey, but full of magical tales that will always be the stuff of legends.