The Big Secret
Why the Mob left Las Vegas when corporate America moved in by Karen Mack / photographs by Sebastian Kim
"I don't say this lightly: Jerry Mack and Parry Thomas built Las Vegas."
—Senator Harry Reid
When people ask me about early Las Vegas—stories passed down from my grandfather, my father and my "Uncle" Parry—I like to tell them the Big Secret. It was the mid '60s—a colorful time. We lived in a pink stucco house near 6th and Oakey, had desert tortoises as pets and plucked scorpions out of our sandboxes. Our neighbors were named "Ice Pick" and "Boscoe" and "the Man." Teens would race pickups to Sunrise Mountain, and my Girl Scout troop rode horses. The Rat Pack hung out in the Sands steam room. Howard Hughes hadn't begun his buying spree. Mobsters were skimming casinos, and our French class had its annual brunch in a coffee shop with one of the showgirls from Le Lido de Paris as our "special" guest.
My father, Jerry Mack, and his partner, Parry Thomas, were in the banking business (Bank of Las Vegas), and in the 1950s, they decided to do something no one else had done—loan money to the gaming industry. Due to questions of collateral, security or their own moral judgment, competitors had previously refused to do so. Back then, casinos were ma-and-pa "shops" of 150 to 200 rooms, a restaurant, a showroom and a cocktail lounge. Owners were basically individual entrepreneurs—some shady, some not—who were using their own cash for any projects they had. They—and the city—needed an infusion of cash.
The first loan was to Club Bingo's Milton Prell. According to Parry, Prell wanted $600,000 to grow his hotel, the Sahara. At the time, the loan limit was $75,000, so the bank put together a group of correspondent banks and charged a then stunning 6 percent. By the '60s, the Bank of Las Vegas was financing some 80 percent of the casinos.
But Parry and Jerry saw a problem brewing. Until then, Nevada law required casino owners to be licensed individually, which prevented publicly held corporations from operating casinos, as it was impossible to license every stockholder. Hotel owners, especially those associated with the mob, were generally happy with the arrangement. It meant they had a stranglehold on the casino business. Bugsy Siegel reputedly once said, "Guys like us would walk through a river of cow s--t up to our ears to have gambling legal everywhere."
The arrangement worked as such: Every casino had "points"—a hundred in each place. In the mob-controlled casinos, they would have what were called "shields"—front guys who would get licensed. A shield would appear to own 10 or 20 points when in reality he might only own half a point. The rest belonged to the mob. The counting room was where the take would be cut up.
Parry and Jerry knew the law that mandated individual ownership was preventing the growth Vegas needed. Plus, it was a mess for legitimate hotel owners. When owners divorced or died, there was no mechanism to buy them out. As a result, estates were encumbered, divorces wreaked havoc on operations, and casinos were often in limbo.
At that time, Parry, a Republican, was on the Nevada State Board of Finance, and Jerry, a Democrat, was, among other things, the financial chairman for his party. Together, they were able to convince enough people to get a bill proposed in the legislature to change the law.
In those days, Bill Harrah absolutely controlled the Nevada legislature. And he was opposed to anything having to do with corporate gaming—afraid the big Wall Street guys would come in and threaten his empire in Reno and Tahoe. He killed the bill—they couldn't even get it out of committee.
For the next three years, Parry worked Harrah from every angle, and he and Jerry leaned on both sides of the aisle, including getting former governor Grant Sawyer, a Democrat, and then governor Paul Laxalt, a Republican, to back the bill. Finally, Parry convinced Harrah that he would be the biggest beneficiary if he were to go public.
With Harrah behind them, Governor Laxalt called a special session of the state legislature in July. It was over a hundred degrees in Carson City, and there was no air-conditioning. Parry spent three grueling days testifying on the advantages of corporate licensing, all the while facing mammoth opposition. But the bill passed.
That change in the law—a monumental feat at the time but a bill most Nevadans didn't even notice—was exactly what made Vegas what it is today. That is the Big Secret. Without it, Vegas would still be in the dark ages. Parry and Jerry knew if they brought in corporate gaming, it would bring in the SEC—the laws of full disclosure and federal prosecution—and that, in itself, would eventually chase the mob out of town.
It was a modern version of the guys in white hats cleaning up Dodge. And it laid the structure for the mega-Vegas you see today.
Parry and Jerry—a Mormon from Utah and a Jew from Las Vegas—remained best friends and partners for more than 40 years. An edifice was built to commemorate their contributions to the town. And when it came time to name the building, luck—always at play in Las Vegas—played a role. Should it be Mack and Thomas or Thomas and Mack? Representing the Macks, I flipped a coin and called heads. It was tails. I asked for two out of three and still lost. Thus, it became the Thomas & Mack Center, inaugurated in 1983. And as was fitting, the Rat Pack performed at the opening.
KAREN MACK, a Golden Globe-winning producer-cum-novelist, has had a perch on the L.A. Times Bestseller List since her first book, Literacy and Longing in L.A. She has wrangled the likes of Morgan Freeman and Justin Timberlake for CBS, where she is exec producer for the annual special A Home for the Holidays.