While many Downtown Las Vegas Casino Hotels have been slowly updating themselves, the El Cortez–one of the oldest, in continual operation since the ’40s–has done a particularly good job of reclaiming past glories while inserting bits of hip modernism. Here’s my most recent report, as a guest blogger on About.com, as well as some extra pics….
“How it felt to kill somebody? I think that’s sort of a weird question.”
A few weeks ago, I published a short Q&A with surviving Vegas mob member-turned-informant Frank Cullotta, on the occasion of his appearance for a discussion in Vegas. But since my colleague John Katsilometes reported today about Mayor Oscar Goodman‘s tour of the forthcoming Mob Museum site, I thought it would be a worthwhile to publish the entire unedited interview with Mr. Cullotta, including his interesting remarks about the Mob museum, and Mr. Goodman. Enjoy…
UPDATE 2011: HERE’S ANOTHER EXCERPT THAT RAN IN NEVADA MAGAZINE
Frank, this isn’t the first time you’ve made an appearance like this since coming out of the Witness Protection Program. What do you you get out of doing this?
“Do I get anything personally out of doing…? Satisfaction of putting people on the right track, let people know what it’s really about. They’re hearing it first hand from a guy that’s been there, instead of seeing it in movies and all that baloney, ‘Cause half of that stuff is so much exaggerated too. So they’re gonna hear it first hand from me, and it makes me feel good that I’m passing the message on, just like I do when I do it in front of these different organizations, law enforcement and stuff like that.
I imagine that for a lot of the people you speak to, they see the glamour in the world you lived in, and I wonder if that makes it harder to set the record straight.
“Well, even setting the record straight, I’ve had these speeches before, and people still like what they hear, and it’s not glamorized, I just tell it like it is, you know, I mean, I don’t exaggerate anything, but it’s still got enough kick that they enjoy hearing it. So I guess my message gets across pretty good without any exaggeration, So they come away with a lot of questions for me. They like to talk to me one-on-one afterward.
What do people ask you about the most?
“Well, the strangest thing people ask me is how it felt to kill somebody. I think that’s sort of a weird question. And how did you have to do these things, are you ordered to do these things, and what happens if you don’t do these things, the consequences that would take place, and uh, ah, basic stuff, that’s about it really.
“I dunno, they seem like they’re all a little weird to me, the questions, but two things I get asked, what would you do if you had it to do over again? What I tell people, I am what I am today because of yesterday, so I have nothing to change about it. And that’s just the way I feel about it. [gets quieter] I am how I am today because of the way I was.
And from what I know about your past, you were really born into the life.
“Well I was, I was. I grew up in that neighborhood where everybody was either a cop, a fireman, or a gangster. I come from that background, I had no other way to go. I don’t think I had any other choice, cause I thought tough choices were the ones I had to make, and there weren’t any other choices left. There was no such thing as college, nobody even talked about college, you had to be a millionaire to go to college, that’s the way we looked at it. And what good would an education do you back then, if you had street sense? With street sense, you could make money, and you’d see these guys that you looked up to and they always had big wads of money on them, nice cars, stuff like that.
You wrote your book 3 years ago–how did you feel about the reception, and reactions?
“I felt good I got good reactions, good review on the book, I felt great about it. I would’ve loved to put more in there, but there’s only so much you can put in, more about my life. But I guess we got the point across. Seemed like I got a lot of people enjoyed it. And I got people I knew who said ‘you shoulda said this, you shoulda said that,’ well, that’s life, you just can’t please anybody.
Beyond pleasing anyone else, do you feel there’s more you want to talk about, more you want to say?
“See, writing a book and doing a speech are two different things. I couldn’t basically go up there and talk to these people about my whole life, because I don’t have enough time. As far as anything else I want to say, I wouldn’t say it unless I went and did a book again, And I would have to go back through my whole life and pull things out. And it’s a pretty hard process, let me tell ya.
I bet—I was reading something about the number of incidents you’ve been involved in, and the thing that struck me is how do you even remember doing that many?
“I understand what you’re saying and I get that question to me a lot of times. And I just sit back alone and I talk into the recorder and things start coming back to me. You know, every robbery you go on, 90% of them are exciting, they’re a challenge, so they stay with you. Some are more exciting than others. So you go from one to the other, and try to remember what other one you forgot, and that comes up, it might be a dud. I still couldn’t put half of them things in the book it would be totally impossible I’d be talking for a year! Cause I did a lot of robberies. Some of them were exciting and there were some duds. But the majority were exciting.
Is that part of the appeal of that life?
“No, the glamor. People sort of look up to you. Money is the root of all evil, let’s say it like it is. You got money, you got friends, you got no money, you got no friends. You got money, you got people following you all around the place. If you’re a bum, nobody wants to be around you. You can see that with street people, nobody wants to be around them. You got a guy who’s a CEO, everybody wants to be around him. So it’s a lot of glamor. It’s power. You get off on it. Everybody does.
Speaking of glamor, let’s talk about Vegas in the old days—any favorite memories?
“Every day over there was a nice day. Even the days I got followed by the cops. Small town. I was never bored there. That’s a town you could get bored in, if you live there. You could get bored very easily over there, and wind up gambling. Even if you’re not a gambler. I enjoyed every day over there, it was nice.
You didn’t gamble?
“I did gamble but I had other things to do. I didn’t have that much idle time where I could gamble every day. But I did gamble. I’m like everybody else, I went out there and I gambled. And I won a lot. Yeah,oh yeah. And I had a lot of fun. Cause I played craps.
Did you know what casinos were better to play in than others?
“No, I would try to stay away from the casinos that we were connected to, the outfit, you know, that we had our hands in, for the simple reason that we didn’t want to take money away from our own people, so I tried to go to other ones, and didn’t put no heat on them. Cause the first thing they see, they see a guy like me in the Stardust winning money? Oh, he’s go that set up with the casino, you automatically put heat on your people’s casinos. So I went to other ones.
Speaking of the Stardust, did you have any reaction when Frank Rosenthal passed?
“Ah, he lived a good life, I had no bad feelings against the guy. He had a great life. Frank lived his life the way he wanted to, he was a very clever man. He was used very well, he made a lot of money for the organization that I was involved in. He had a lot on the ball when it came to gambling. It was a job to him, he made it his business to make sure he knew everything about who was sick, who had a broken toe, who had a cold, these althletes. He was a smart operator in that and we used him–the Organization. Frank wasn’t really somebody that you would sit down and talk about every robbery you did with, he was on a different level, you would say.
“Yeah, it was called the Upper Crust. It was on Flamingo and Maryland Parkway. Me and Leo Gardino, my partner, we made about 4-5 scores and we put the restaurant up with the money from the robberies. We were going to manage it, cook, be hands on. We started out doing good, and then as soon as the cops found out we were in this business they started harassing people going in there, like casino bosses who were scared they’d lose their gaming permits if they came in my place. We had some movie stars that used to come in there—Wayne Newton was in there 3-4 times. From my understanding, they pulled him over in the parking lot one time and said ‘Do you know the kind of restaurant you’re going in to?’ And he said ‘Yeah, a good Italian restaurant.’ I know he was in there, we set up the whole restaurant for him, closed the place for him a couple times. Robert Conrad, Skip Minetti [sic], the guy who was Stallone’s brother in Rocky, a lot of beautiful showgirls from the Stardust and places. But they started putting a lot of heat on [customers].
Pizza is a hotly debated issue in Vegas these days—how was your pie?
“We had great pizza. It’s all about the dough, the water, how you get that stuff to rise. We had a good recipe, where the crust didn’t droop over when you pulled out a slice. I didn’t invent it, but, I knew they had a stuffed pizza in Chicago, and I introduced stuffed pizza to Vegas, and it went over good! But when the cops started putting the heat on everybody, I had to start going back on the road [doing robberies]. I had to pay everybody!
Do you miss having a restaurant?
“I couldn’t get in that business now, it’s a lot of headaches. You end up being a prostitute to your place, you’ve got to be there. You end up working every shift for everybody, you have to be a waiter, a delivery man, a pizza maker. But I do miss it, You never get that out of your system.
How did your involvement affect the movie about those times, Casino?
“The [Spilotro] murder. For one thing, I told Martin Scorsese ‘this is not the way it was done. I know they wouldn’t do it in the cornfield, they’re not going to walk somebody in to a cornfield because they’re going to have a meeting there. They’re not stupid. They’re going to do it in somebody’s basement, probably use ball bats on them. If they found no skin or leather from gloves, they probably used some kind of weapon. And it would have to be several guys. His brother was a karate guy. They did use the ball bat in one scene. But that was Marty, it had to be theatrical. But I said when they put him in the grave, they dug the grave square like it was a in a cemetery. I said, they don’t have the equipment to do that! They just dig a hole and throw him in there. So they had to do it all over again.
So what’s the story with Harry Reid? I’ve heard that Reid was in bed with you guys, and also that you had a contract out on him. What’s the truth?
“Nah, he wasn’t involved with us [laughs]. As far as us trying to plant a bomb on his car, because he said he fought the syndicate, that’s bullshit. It wouldn’t have been on the car his family drove, it would have been his personal car. We’re not out to kill wives and kids, we do our homework. I know he wasn’t involved with us.
And what about Oscar Goodman, have you guys settled your differences?
“Ah, we don’t get along. Goodman was my attorney, an adviser on my case. He liked Tony [Spilotoro] a real lot, and I hurt a lot of people when I rolled [turned ‘State’s Evidence'], a lot of people that liked me and thought a lot about me. Goodman, I guess he’s a great mayor, he does a lot for the city. As a lawyer, I don’t have too much confidence in him.
So where does that put you in regard to his pet project, the Mob museum?
“I have no problem with that, he’s got his hands out of that. I’m going to have a big part in that museum.
What kind of experience do you want people to get out of the museum?
“It’s just like any other mob museum, you see Bonnie and Clyde, all of that stuff. I’m not the curator of the museum, but they were quite interested in my story and Tony’s story, Because I’m a part of the history of Las Vegas. I’m actually the only guy left. So they needed that, and I gave them all I could. There’s no money in it—99% of the stuff I do here, there’s no money in it. But what’s the difference? I’m making money, I got a good life.
What else do you do with your time?
“I’m a busy guy. I’m a businessman. I can’t really get into what I do with you. That’s my personal life.
So you still lead a somewhat protected life?
“I’m always going to lead a protective life. I was doing that when I was crooked. So this is the life I know how to live, I know how to watch my back.
How do you balance that with doing these public appearances?
“I just keep my eyes open, I look around. I look at it like this, if somebody comes after me, and they get me, that was my time to go. Surely if I see somebody make a move towards me, I’m gonna be on them, or I have people around me. I have people watching my back on these deals.
Do you have any reflection on why you’re the last one standing? Is it just luck, or the choices you’ve made?
“We all have a purpose in life. A lot of us don’t know what it is. We sit there and try to figure out what the purpose is… I actually believe this is my purpose. I get so many calls…I get in front of businessmen and talk. So this must be my purpose.
Do you think of this as redeeming your past in some way?
“I don’t know, I guess you could say it’s redeeming. I would just look at it as, this is my purpose.
Are you a religious man? A spiritual man?
“Ah, I believe in God. I don’t go to church, I don’t believe in going into a building and praying with a bunch of people. I don’t believe in confession to a priest, I believe you should have confession with yourself.
A lot of people say Vegas was better back in the old days when the Organization was running things. You’ve spent some time in Vegas recently, how do you feel?
“I think it was a warmer place back then, more social. It wasn’t a meatpacking place that only wanted your money. Or kids all over the place. Now it’s starting to come back, they’re getting rid of that Disneyland effect. It’s a nice place now, I wouldn’t talk anyone out of going there, I go there, I like it there. But I don’t think it’s ever going back to the way it used to be, and I think the way it used to be was nicer.
Back to food, you have any favorite restaurants in Vegas now?
“Believe it or not, I still go to the Peppermill. I love that place, I used to hang in the back all the time. Because I liked that place, I told Scorsese and he shot there with Sharon Stone. They got good food there! They got good food in a lot of restaurants in Vegas.
Write me up good, don’t talk bad about me. I’ll see it personally! I’m just messing with you…
Here’s the version on the Las Vegas Sun website…