The Flamingo Hotel was the third gambling establishment to open on the now iconic Las Vegas Strip and is the Strip’s oldest resort. It was the brainchild of entrepreneur and Hollywood Reporter founder William “Billy” Wilkerson. The businessman envisioned a grand hotel and resort complete with gaming tables, pool, spas, and golf course that would draw gamblers and celebrities from all over the world. His vision differed drastically from casinos that were already in Las Vegas that were more rustic and followed a Western theme.
Wilkerson hired noted architect George Vernon Russell to bring his vision of a European styled hotel and casino to life. Plagued by budget problems, including Wilkerson’s own gambling habit, the Flamingo fell into the hands of gangsters who would control its operations for the next twenty years. The Flamingo was ahead of its time, and became the blueprint for later casinos. Luxury, glitz, glamour, and gangsters…the story of the Flamingo Hotel gambling is the story of Las Vegas itself.
January 1945 – William R. Wilkerson purchases 33 acres of land along Route 91. He hires architect George Vernon Russell to design a European-styled resort and hotel gambling hall.
February 1946 – After falling short of the money needed to complete his vision and being forced to halt construction, Wilkerson accepts an offer from gangster Meyer Lansky. For $1 million dollars, he cedes 2/3 of controlling interest in the casino. Lansky turns control of the development over to Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, gangster and one of the founding members of “Murder, Inc”. Richard Steadleman replaces George Vernon Russell as hotel architect.
February – December, 1946 – Construction on the Flamingo continues. Wilkerson loses his 1/3 share in the Flamingo and returns to California. Siegel fires George Russell in June and makes changes to the hotel and casino, including separate sewage systems for each bathroom. He envisions an oasis in the desert, and makes plans to import tropical plants from all over the world. As a result of his modifications the cost of construction skyrockets from the original $1.2 million to $6 million.
December 26, 1946 – Hoping to raise money, the Flamingo Hotel has its grand opening months ahead of schedule and flops. Torrential rain prevents many of the Hollywood stars invited to the opening from attending. Construction is not complete on any of the hotel’s rooms, causing guests to take their winnings elsewhere.
February 6, 1947 – Siegel closes the Flamingo to finish construction.
March 1, 1947 – The Flamingo Hotel, renamed The Fabulous Flamingo, reopens and is a rousing success. It is the first air-conditioned hotel on the Strip.
1947 – Singer Lena Horne headlines The Flamingo Room and is the first African American allowed to stay in a hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, though she is unable to use any of the amenities. Her sheets and towels are burned after checkout.
June 20, 1947 – Bugsy Siegel is killed at the mansion of his mistress Virginia Hill. Minutes after his murder three of Siegel’s men – David Berman, Moe Sedway, and Gus Greenbaum – enter the hotel and assume control.
May 31, 1950 – “My Friend Irma Goes West” premiers. The film has several scenes filmed at The Fabulous Flamingo.
July 6, 1960 – The hotel is sold to a group of investors including Morris Lansburgh, Samuel Cohen, and Daniel Lifter, all of whom have ties to organized crime.
August 10, 1960 – “Ocean’s 11” premiers. Sequences for the film were shot in the hotel.
May 20, 1964 – “Viva Las Vegas” premiers. Sequences for the film were shot in the hotel’s casino and pool.
August 18, 1967 – The casino is brought by International Leisure Corporation. Under new owner Kirk Krekorian, the Champagne Tower is demolished, the casino is expanded, a 300 seat theater is added, and a 28-story tower is built.
July 14, 1970 – The Hilton Corporation buys the Fabulous Flamingo.
1971 – The Fabulous Flamingo is renamed the Flamingo Hilton.
September 30, 1988 – “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark” premiers. Many of the film’s scenes are done at the Flamingo.
December 13, 1991 – “Bugsy” premiers. The film dramatizes Benjamin Siegel’s role in the construction of the Flamingo. The film sets for Flamingo sequences were built using blueprints from the original hotel and casino.
December 14, 1993 – The last of the structures from the original Flamingo Hotel are torn down as part of a $130 million renovation that includes the Flamingo Wildlife Habitat.
December 1998 – Hilton Corporation gaming properties are renamed Park Place Entertainment. The Flamingo Hilton and other properties keep the rights to use the Hilton name for another two years.
December 2000 – The rights to use the Hilton name expire, and the hotel is renamed Flamingo Las Vegas.
June 10, 2005 – Harrah’s Entertainment purchases the Flamingo Las Vegas.
For more details regarding the Flamingo Las Vegas, check out the following resources:
- History of Las Vegas, Nevada
- Billy Wilkerson
- Los Angeles Times: The Man Behind the Sunset Strip
- biography.com – Bugsy Siegel
- This Day in History – Bugsy Siegel Opens Flamingo Hotel
- The Las Vegas Sun: Mob Ties
- The Complete History of the Flamingo Hotel
- In Old Las Vegas – The Flamingo Hotel
- The Vegas Hotspot that Broke All the Rules
- American Experience – Benjamin Siegel