Geri Rosenthal’s ‘life on the edge’

Geri Rosenthal’s ‘life on the edge’

Sharon Stone’s portrayal in Casino is how many remember this former Las Vegas showgirl. But who was she in real life?

Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal and his wife, Geri, had a tempestuous relationship that inspired a primary storyline in the 1995 movie Casino.

In September 1980, during an argument with her husband, Geri Rosenthal waved a gun around outside their house in the gated Las Vegas County Club Estates.

The weapon was a chrome-plated, .38-caliber snub-nose handgun. Geri Rosenthal’s name was engraved on the pearl handle.

In addition to her husband, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, police officers were at the house at 972 Vegas Valley Drive that day. Nancy Spilotro, the wife of mobster Tony Spilotro, had arrived in a blue Oldsmobile with Utah license plates. Nancy Spilotro ended up wrestling her friend Geri Rosenthal to the ground and, with police officers helping, retrieved the handgun. 

This scene on the driveway, and Geri Rosenthal’s complicated relationship with her husband and romantic involvement with Tony Spilotro, are depicted in Nicholas Pileggi’s 1995 nonfiction book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas. A version of the driveway incident is dramatized in the movie Casino, which Pileggi co-wrote with director Martin Scorsese.

Geri Rosenthal had an affair with Tony Spilotro, the Chicago Outfit’s overseer in Las Vegas and a childhood friend of Lefty Rosenthal.

In November 2020, Pileggi and former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman participated in an event at The Mob Museum celebrating the movie’s 25th anniversary. As a defense attorney, Goodman represented several figures from the Casino era, including Rosenthal and Spilotro.

The people involved in that gun-waving incident would become known to a wide audience when the book and movie came out. Pileggi used the real names in the book, but the names were changed in the movie for legal reasons. In the movie, Robert De Niro portrays a character based on Frank Rosenthal, with Sharon Stone as his wife. Joe Pesci plays a Tony Spilotro-inspired mobster.

During this period, Frank Rosenthal oversaw four Las Vegas casinos, most notably the Stardust, for Midwestern Mob families. The Stardust has since been demolished. Resorts World Las Vegas has gone up at that site on the Strip.

While Frank Rosenthal and Tony Spilotro have received their share of attention since then, Geri Rosenthal has had a lower profile.

The impression many people have of her is probably the version Sharon Stone portrayed in the movie. In a recent telephone interview, Goodman said Stone’s portrayal is accurate. Stone “immersed” herself in the role, Goodman said.

“She was almost as real as Geri Rosenthal would have been if she had played herself,” Goodman said.

A ballroom dancer in her younger years, Geri McGee had grown up in Sherman Oaks near Los Angles. Her father was an auto mechanic. Her mother had been in the hospital for a mental illness. The family was “probably the poorest” in the neighborhood, Geri’s sister, Barbara, says in the book Casino.

At Van Nuys High School, Geri was in the class of 1954. Her schoolmates included Robert Redford, later a famous actor and director, and Don Drysdale, a future Hall of Fame baseball pitcher.

Another classmate was Lenny Marmor, described in the book as “slick” and the “sharpest guy” at school. Marmor, who inspired the character played by James Woods in Casino, even wore sunglasses indoors.

He and Geri started going out when she was 15. In time they had a daughter. Taking the child with her, Geri moved to Las Vegas around 1960. She became a dancer at the Tropicana, earning $20,000 a year, but made much more, in the hundreds of thousands, by “hustling chips,” as Pileggi wrote, “and partying with high-rollers.”

Frank Rosenthal, a sports handicapper, lived for a while at the Tropicana. By 1968, he and Geri were seeing each other. They were married in May 1969. Caesars Palace erected a chapel for the event. The 500 guests enjoyed caviar, lobster and champagne. Frank didn’t know how much the wedding cost. It was comped.

Geri and Frank Rosenthal’s marriage crumbled after Geri threatened to shoot him in a public scene in front of their house in the Las Vegas Country Club. Courtesy of Las Vegas Review-Journal

Pileggi said in a recent phone interview that the Rosenthals’ affiliation with the Las Vegas Country Club meant they were established. However, their backgrounds “kept them back,” he said.

“It was a classic failed romantic drama,” Pileggi said. 

Their marriage was less than perfect, damaged by infidelities and drunken fights. She once wrote in a letter to her daughter that one fight left her with a cracked rib, two black eyes and multiple bruises.

Frank Rosenthal even had a fight with one of Geri’s old boyfriends, Johnny Hicks, on a dance floor at the Flamingo. Frank’s face was bloodied. He returned to his room at the Tropicana and got a gun. He went looking for Hicks, but some acquaintances calmed him down, ending the manhunt. Hicks, the son of former local casino owners, later was shot to death outside his residence near the Rosenthal house in the same gated community. Geri accused Frank of having Hicks killed, according to Pileggi’s book.

In a recent phone call, Goodman said Geri and Frank Rosenthal both had a temper, “and the two of them would shout at each other on occasion.”

“That’s when I would head for the front door of their house and leave,” he said.

The former Las Vegas mayor said he never saw Geri take drugs, though she “liked her drinks.” According to the book Casino, her drink of choice was vodka on the rocks.

However, Geri was a “wonderful mother” to her and Frank’s son and daughter, Goodman said.

“I have nothing bad to say about Geri Rosenthal at all,” Goodman said. “She always conducted herself in a manner which I thought was consistent with being a decent person.”

She waited on her husband “hand and foot” at home, Goodman said. Frank would stay in bed during the day and then go to work at the Stardust at night. “She would take care of him,” Goodman said.

A few photographs of the two of them together are available online. Both also appear in a 1979 episode of the The Frank Rosenthal Show filmed at Paul Anka’s disco, Jubilation. A video of this show is on YouTube.

The 10,000-square-foot Jubilation nightclub no longer exists. Later known as the Shark Club, it was on East Harmon Avenue across from the Aladdin, now the Planet Hollywood hotel-casino.

Jubilation was one of the most popular nightclubs in Las Vegas. It attracted celebrities, politicians and gangsters. Steve Schirripa, who later starred as Bobby Baccalieri on The Sopranos, was a bouncer at Jubilation.

In the televised episode with his wife, Frank Rosenthal, microphone in hand, approaches the table where she is seated with entertainers Siegfried and Roy. Frank asks Geri if she is a former dancer. “Yes, I think you could say that,” she says.

When Frank asks about her height, she answers that she is five feet nine and a half inches tall.

Jeff Kutash, a Las Vegas choreographer who also had walked over to the table, invites Geri to dance. In the disco lingo of the era, he asks, “When’s the last time you had a good freak or a good rock or a good hustle?”

“The best things I ever had were always with my husband,” Geri says.

“I won’t argue with that,” Kutash says.

Standing over the shorter Kutash, she and the choreographer head out to the floor and dance to the disco song “Boogie Oogie Oogie.”

Soon the “good hustle” of that era would fade for the Rosenthals and those in their circle.

A little more than a year after the television show at Jubilation, the gun-waving incident occurred. Frank Rosenthal would be injured in a car bombing in 1982 outside a Tony Roma’s restaurant on East Sahara Avenue. No one has been held criminally responsible for the bombing.

Frank Rosenthal moved to California and then to Florida, where he died of a heart attack in 2008 at age 79. Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jane Ann Morrison later confirmed that he had been a top echelon informant for the FBI. Geri Rosenthal was an FBI source as well.

Spilotro, who had been the Chicago Outfit’s overseer in Southern Nevada, died violently. In 1986, he and his brother Michael were beaten to death in a Mob hit at a home near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. They were buried in an Indiana cornfield in their underwear. According to news accounts, Chicago crime bosses were upset at the Spilotros for attracting too much media attention. This posed a threat to the Mob’s lucrative skimming operations in Las Vegas.

Sharon Stone played a character inspired by Geri Rosenthal in Casino. Former Mob defense attorney and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who represented Lefty in many big cases, said Stone’s portrayal of Geri was spot-on.

By the late 1980s, with population growth and a boom in corporate megaresorts, Las Vegas was not the same as when Rosenthal and Spilotro were the subject of news stories in town. Geri Rosenthal did not live long enough to witness these changes.

In 1980, police in Los Angeles arrested her for trying to undress on Sunset Boulevard. She had been drinking and taking drugs. She was admitted to the psychiatric ward of Harbor General Hospital in Torrance, California, a beachside town south of Los Angeles.

Frank Rosenthal flew to Torrance.

“When I got to the hospital, I went into her room and she was in a straitjacket,” he says in Pileggi’s book. “She wanted me to loosen it, but I said I couldn’t do that. She started screaming at me. She was hysterical.”

Frank Rosenthal filed for divorced. He got custody of the two children they had together. She received $5,000 a month in alimony and the jewels she had taken out of their safe deposit box at a Las Vegas bank, another scene depicted in the movie. She also kept her Mercedes coupe.

One November morning in 1982, she was heard screaming on the sidewalk in front of the Beverly Sunset Motel at 8775 Sunset Boulevard. This was only about a month after Frank Rosenthal’s car bombing. She stumbled into the hotel lobby and collapsed. Her legs were bruised. She had liquor, drugs and tranquilizers in her system. She died three days later at Cedars-Sinai hospital of an apparent drug overdose.

In a telephone interview, Pileggi said Geri Rosenthal had become involved with a biker crowd in Southern California. People were taking advantage of her. At her death, she was 46.

“That’s the tragic thing of life on the edge,” Pileggi said. “It was that period in Las Vegas.”

Larry Henry is a veteran print and broadcast journalist. He served as press secretary for Nevada Governor Bob Miller, and was political editor at the Las Vegas Sun and managing editor at KFSM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Northwest Arkansas. The Mob in Pop Culture blog appears monthly.