Written: November 3, 2017 — Scroll to the bottom for a story update
Rose Marie’s trademark raspy voice has more energy than a casino full of lucky gamblers, and she’s not shy about sharing personal stories of Bugsy Siegel, Virginia Hill, the “guys” and the opening of the Flamingo Hotel on December 26, 1946.
In a recent interview, the 94-year-old shot out Las Vegas memories in a rapid-fire style, speaking as fast as she could lest one of them be forgotten. “I’ll do the best I can,” she promised — and her best was amazing.
Toggling between what she’s doing currently and her eventful past, Rose Marie started by discussing her documentary. “You know they’re doing a documentary on me. You know that? I haven’t seen it yet, but what’s going on with the filming, it’s unbelievable,” she said, her voice full of pride and excitement. “They ransacked my house for everything I own. My whole life. My life has been pretty full. It should be out in a month or so because they’re still filming. Jason Wise is the director and the writer. He’s a genius. He’s going to be another Steven Spielberg. He’s wonderful.”
Wise, an actor, writer and director, has appeared in the daytime soaps All My Children and One Life to Live and the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, to name only a few shows. He also has a number of directing credits under his belt. The documentary, titled Wait for Your Laugh, opens in November in New York City.
‘The Flamingo Girl’
Asked how she got to perform at the opening of the Flamingo, that little nudge was all it took for Rose Marie to tell everything about her experiences. “From the top. I was working at Slapsy Maxie’s in Los Angeles when I got a call.”
Slapsy Maxie’s was a comedy club at 5665 Wilshire Boulevard owned by Maxie Rosenbloom. Rosenbloom was a former light heavyweight fighter; he won the world light heavyweight championship in 1932. He also was a friend of fight promoter, former bootlegger and New York speakeasy owner Owney Madden. Rosenbloom retired from fighting in 1939 after moving to Los Angeles.
The call Rose Marie received was from Billy Wilkerson. “He was the owner of the Hollywood Reporter,” she explained. “He talked to me and said, ‘I want you to open for me in Vegas.’ I said, ‘What’s in Vegas?’ He said, ‘You’re going to open, and you’re going to be with Jimmy Durante and Xavier Cugat.’ I said, ‘Great. I love Jimmy Durante. I’ve known him for years. His wife and he are good friends with me and my husband. Working with Jimmy Durante would be terrific.’ He said, ‘We open on December 26th.”
Traveling to Las Vegas from Los Angeles could be challenging in 1946. “There was only one plane (from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.) In the morning of the 25th, everyone was on the plane: Jimmy, Xavier Cugat, everybody that was in the show. We went to this place. It was all sand. There was nothing but two hotels, the El Rancho and the Last Frontier.“We walked into the Flamingo, and this man greeted us. And I looked at him and said, ‘What the hell is this?’ Because it was neon and lights. It was Monte Carlo. It was absolutely gorgeous. That was the whole idea. The Mob — Bugsy Siegel — was the man who did this. The Mob sent him $2 million for this crazy idea of a casino in the desert. He overspent because everyone in Vegas knew he didn’t know what he was doing. They took advantage of him. They overcharged him three to four million. It was absolutely gorgeous. It was Monte Carlo in the desert. It was so out of place, you wouldn’t believe it.”
When asked if she had stayed at the Flamingo for the opening, she explained: “No. There were no rooms finished at the Flamingo, it was just the casino. And we all stayed at the El Rancho. The El Rancho and the Last Frontier were the only two hotels in Vegas.”
(The El Rancho Vegas and the Last Frontier were the only major hotel-casinos on the Los Angeles Highway, which later came to be known as the Las Vegas Strip. There were several smaller hotel-casinos on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas.)
Rose Marie continued her story. “The next day, the 26th, we all went to rehearsal, everybody that was on that plane. When we opened that night, the audience — good God! There was Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwick, Lana Turner, Caesar Romero, Judy Garland, George Raft, Van Johnson, Joan Crawford and Van Heflin. Everyone from Hollywood was there for the opening. It was unbelievable. We did the show, and it was terrific. And the next day, we did the show, and all the stars were there again. The third night, the stars had all gone back to Hollywood.
“We worked the show the third night for nine people because everyone else was afraid of this monster that was in the desert. They didn’t understand it because everyone was cowboy boots and tans. Lights. Neon. It was absolutely gorgeous.”
Bugging Bugsy for $11
Rose Marie recounted a meeting with Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the mobster who had finished building the Flamingo. “When the week was over, I was sitting in the coffee shop at the Flamingo. The coffee shop, the dining room and the casino — those were the only things opened at the Flamingo. This man came up and handed everybody their checks. My check was $11 short. And I said to Tommy [Wonder], who was sitting with me, I said, ‘What the hell is this? Why was $11 taken out of my check?’ I went up to the guy who handed out the checks and I said, ‘This check is $11 short.’ He said, ‘Did you draw any money?’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t draw any money. My salary was $3,500. I needed to know what the $11 was for. I didn’t spend anything. I didn’t buy anything. I didn’t sign any check for coffee or anything. What is this $11? If you need the $11, I’ll give it to you, but don’t take it out of my check.’ And he said, ‘I’ll find out about it.’”
“I went back to the table, and Tommy was shaking like a leaf. He said, ‘Do you know who you were talking to?’ ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘the guy who is running this place, Mr. Siegel.’ He said, ‘Mr. Siegel? That’s Bugsy Siegel.’ I said, ‘Oh my God. They’re going to pick me up in an envelope!’ Tommy said, ‘Don’t worry about the $11. Forget about it.’ I said, ‘I already did. What am I going to do?’
But Siegel hadn’t forgotten the $11. “The man came back — now I know who he is — it’s Bugsy Siegel. And I said, ‘Listen, I’m sorry about this.’ And he said, ‘No. No. No. You were right. It was taken out because you came the night before, and the $11 was the cost of the room at the El Rancho.’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine. Thank you very much. I’m sorry I bothered you.’ And he said, ‘No, that was fine. I appreciate someone who does that. You’re fine.’ And that was that.”
Rose Marie laughed. “Can you believe it? $11 for a room in Las Vegas? Unbelievable!”
After the stars returned to Hollywood, business at the Flamingo was extremely slow. Siegel needed to drum up some excitement with star power, and his star-at-hand was Rose Marie.
“During the engagement, I was sitting at the coffee shop. That night Bugsy came over to me and said, ‘Do you know how to play baccarat?’”
At that time, she still didn’t know who he was; he was just the “Mr. Siegel” who ran the place.
“I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ He said, ‘I want you to go over to that table. Here’s $25,000.’ I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ He said, ‘I want you to go play.’ I said, ‘I’m not a shill. I’m a performer. I don’t shill for anybody.’ And I thought, ‘Good God, is that the way to talk to him, the guy who ran the place?’ He said, ‘I want you to play. Maybe people will pay attention and they’ll come over to the table to be near you.’ And I said, ‘Okay, but I don’t do this for everybody.’ And I walked over to the table, naturally. I put down the money, and I won a bundle.”
“I spent it like crazy, and I think I won something like $40,000. Then I had to go do my second show. I can’t find Mr. Siegel. I didn’t know where he was. I said, ‘Does anybody know where Mr. Siegel is?’ No one did. I was told he was around someplace. I said I got a show to do. I took the money, $40,000, I put it in my bra, and I went and did my second show. I came out after the show and I saw him in the lounge, and I said, ‘Excuse me, here’s your money. I won. Don’t ever do this to me again. I said I will never shill; I am a performer. He said, ‘Oh, we won’t have to worry about you. I know about you.’ I said, ‘I had to shove it in my bra!’ He said, ‘It made you look better.’ I said, ‘Well, thanks a lot!’”
When asked about Siegel’s girlfriend, Virginia Hill, Rose Marie had fond memories. “During the whole engagement, his girlfriend came over lots of times. … She said to me, ‘Your gown is beautiful. Your show was wonderful. You know, you should lose a little weight.’ I said, ‘I’m three months pregnant.’ She said, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to Paris. Is there anything that I can get for you?’ I said, ‘Get me a christening dress, a beautiful christening dress.’ So she said, ‘Okay.’
“When she came back from Paris, she called me into Bugsy’s office, and she said, ‘I bought this for her. She deserves it.’ And Virginia gave me this beautiful christening dress for my daughter.’”
Rose Marie proudly advised that she still has that christening dress. “Virginia was a very nice lady. I didn’t know that much about her. She was very kind. Very sweet.” It was rumored that for the opening week, Virginia Hill dyed her hair blond, brunette, then red in a matter of days. Rose Marie did not remember that, and emphasized that Hill was in Paris for part of that opening week.
Rose Marie was so well liked with the audience and management that she was asked to perform at the Flamingo again. Her second engagement at the Flamingo ended on June 16, 1947.
“Now, at the end of the show, the end of this engagement, I went to go in to get my check. Bugsy was there and he said, ‘I want to tell you, we like you very much. We want you to play here a lot.’ He said, ‘You were wonderful. We love you, and you are a ‘Flamingo Girl.’ Remember that. You will always play the Flamingo.’ I said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Siegel.’ He said, ‘I would really appreciate that.’”
Rose Marie paused for a moment before she continued, her voice without its usual humor. “Four days later he was dead.”
‘He dressed very well’
She reminisced about the man she called “Mr. Siegel.” And he was always “Mr. Siegel” to her, never “Bugsy.” Yet during the interview, she always called him “Bugsy.”
What was her impression of him? “I thought he was a gentleman. I thought he was handsome. And he was very, very kind to me. He was wonderful. While at the casino, he was an honorable, gentle, kind man. I never saw him angry. I never saw him mad.
“He dressed very well. He loved pictures, the movies. He loved publicity. And I think the Mob didn’t want any of that. It was a time when people didn’t know nothing about the Mob, or what they had control of. I think Bugsy made a lot of mistakes, and the Flamingo was like the cherry on the sundae. They couldn’t take any more. And he was killed.”
Her voice trailed a second before she sadly repeated a phrase.
For years afterward, Rose Marie performed at the Flamingo four to five times a year.
Desert Inn debate
Because she was a “Flamingo Girl,” did that mean she could not perform at other Las Vegas casinos? She laughed and told about when she received a call from Jack Goldman at the Desert Inn. The Desert Inn had opened on April 24, 1950.
“When Jack called, I said, ‘Oh, what are you doing in Vegas?’ He said he was working at the Desert Inn. I said, ‘Oh, all right.’ I didn’t know he was one of the Mob, but he was. He said, ‘I want you to work here with Jeff Chandler.’”
Jeff Chandler was an Oscar-nominated actor who starred in movies such as Broken Arrow, Sword in the Desert, Away All Boats and Deported. He also had a number of successful recording singles that made him highly desirable for casino shows.
Rose Marie described her status as compared to Chandler’s. “Jeff was a big movie star. He was getting $30K a week, and I was making $2,500. I said Jack, ‘I can’t work at a place before I have to check it out.’ He said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘I’ll call and let you know.’ I called the Flamingo, and I spoke to Moe Sedway. I said, ‘Jack Goldman wants me to work at the Desert Inn. I wanted to check with you first. Is that all right? Moe asked, ‘When?’ I said, ‘About a month from now.’ He said, ‘How much is he gonna pay you?’ I told him, ‘$2,500.’ He said, ‘Tell him $3,500.’ I said, ‘Okay. But then I can play it, the Desert Inn?’ Moe said, ‘Yeah, you can play it.’ ‘Are you sure it’s all right?’ ‘Yeah, it’s all right. You’re still a Flamingo Girl.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ I called Jack back and said, ‘Okay, I can do the date, but you’ve got to pay me $3,500.’ He said, ‘Is that what Moe told you?’ I said, ‘That’s what Moe told me.’ Jack said, ‘Okay.’ And that was it. I played the Desert Inn.”
Stories have it that Jimmy Durante was a money courier for the Mob. When asked about that, Rose Marie didn’t hesitate for a second. “Of course he was. All the performers in Vegas did things for the Mob.”
As she explained it, the Mob controlled all the best places for entertainers in the country. It was their decision who would work where, and who wouldn’t work. There were no secrets.
Rose Marie reminisced about Mob-controlled Las Vegas, and how they were to her as a performer.
“When the Mob ran Vegas, it was great. We were like family. It’s terrible now. You see, each of the casinos had one of the boys running it, and no matter where you went, one of the boys was there. It was wonderful. They treated me like a queen. They did everything in their power to make me happy. And do everything to please you. They were a wonderful group of people. And, believe it or not, I miss ’em. They were wonderful guys. I met Tommy Brown [Tommy Lucchese], Willie ‘Ice Pick’ [Alderman], Joe Silverman . . . wonderful guys.”
Of all the Mob-owned clubs she worked at in the country, and she worked at many of them, Rose Marie loved the Flamingo the most.
UPDATE: Rose Marie died on December 28, 2017, at age 94. She recently had been busy on Twitter, writing many remembrances of her almost 90-year acting and singing career that included singing for Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover as a child. She also wrote about the new documentary on her life, Wait for Your Laugh, that was released in selected theaters in late November and picked by The New Yorker magazine as one of the best movies of 2017.
Two days before her death, she tweeted about the 71st anniversary of the opening of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas on December 26, 1946, where she headlined with comedian Jimmy Durante. It turned out be her final tweet.
“After opening the @FlamingoVegas 71 years ago this week, I always considered myself a Flamingo Girl, and worked there many times,” she wrote. “I worked other casino showrooms, but only after I made sure it was okay with ‘the boys’ at the Flamingo.”
After opening the @FlamingoVegas 71 years ago this week, I always considered myself a Flamingo Girl, and worked there many times. I worked other casino showrooms, but only after I made sure it was okay with “the boys” at the Flamingo. pic.twitter.com/x9NFOCElo2
— Rose Marie-Official (@RoseMarie4Real) December 28, 2017