Gambling In Venice

I tightened my fedora, and casually stepped off the Shortline car at Windward.

This was the 30s, and I was ready for some action.

As I strolled along the newly neon-lit archways, thanks to local merchant Joe Semper and his idea of attracting more business to town, my mind was perusing the nightlife possibilities available here in Venice. There was always the auditorium, which a few years earlier featured Benny Goodman and his orchestra, but I was in for something different.

I knew the history of this sea-shore town, of its ups and maybe its downs. It'd been a hard week at work and I wanted a drink. Maybe this guy Tony Cornero, who I'd heard about, could help me out. I heard he was connected. That Cornero, the lamb, was a dadgum humdinger as far as the hooch department was concerned. And I was hoping for maybe something more.

I stepped into Menotti's Buffet, looking for some kind of "gambling" action, if that's how you have to label it. I'd known of the open-secret about the alcohol availablity throughout town during those Prohibition years, and of course, with that, came gambling. And now we're talking my kind of action.

The bartender nodded my way, and I said the usual. It'd been a while since I'd been back to this place, and I thought I could certainly find some action around here, probably in the famous basement. Or maybe out at the Ship.

I remembered how back in 1912, boxing promoter Baron Long opened up the Vernon Country Club southeast of downtown, and it soon became the nightlife mecca that emerging Hollywood was waiting for. Skirting local liquor laws and outside the restrictive blue law district, Long's club became the site for early cinema high jinks. And as an alternative to the inland action, Long soon offered places such as the Ship Cafe on the Venice Pier and the Sunset Inn in Santa Monica, where Ivy at the Shore resides today, as locales for a little late-night action.

The Three O'clock Ballroom in Venice also offered up the forbidden delight of public dancing, which was outlawed in Hollywood back then. The "blue" laws forbade dancing and most forms of entertainment on Sundays, and there was heavy lobbying to end all forms of drinking as well. But not here in Venice.

Baron Long's Ship Cafe, built in 1905 alongside the Abbot Kinney pier and originally run by Carlo Marchetti, was the "in" spot to find some of this "action." Named the "Cabrillo," the combination hotel-restaurant was fashioned after a Spanish galleon and served up high-priced cuisine in the main dining room, or in private salons on the second deck. The staff were uniformed like sixteenth-century naval officers, and, as in most places outside Los Angeles, hootch was available to any well-heeled customer who could afford it.

The Ship was available for private functions, which many of Hollywood's rising stars preferred, and the mayhem that attended New Year's Eve made for headline copy. It was at the Ship that Valentino had his heels cooled by movie queen Nazimova, who called him a "pimp" and a "gigolo" at a private party she was throwing for co-workers at Metro. And it was Buster Keaton who, pestered by autograph hounds, jumped out of one of the restaurant's portholes in a faked escape attempt, only to find twice as many fans when he returned.

The Ship continued it boisterous activities despite a fire and reconstruction in 1924, several name changes (it was briefly the Showboat Cafe), and management shifts (from Baron Long to the Lyman Brothers and on to Tommy Jacobs, who remodeled it in 1933 for $50,000). But its heyday was before the Depression, and it slipped into obscurity, eventually to be razed in October 1946.

On the Sunday night of January 11, 1920, before Prohibition took affect, an estimated 100,000 revelers jammed this seaside resort, closing off all available avenues into the town. Tables at the Ship Cafe went for $300, and doors were closed at 10 p.m. after capacity had long since been reached. A funeral procession of "girls in Yama Yama suits and men in grotesque costumes" snaked through the town's streets, playing dirges lamenting the deaths of Gambrinus, the legendary king of Flanders, and the unofficial patron saint of beer or beer brewing, and John Barleycorn, a personification of the alcoholic beverages made from barley - beer and whisky. At midnight, the taps were turned off, and the orgy climaxed in an explosion of fireworks, auto horns, and whistles. California was officially "dry." But not the speakeasys of Venice.

During the Prohibition years, January 16, 1920 until December 5, 1933, liquor was smuggled into Venice in the dead of night by high-powered motorboats used by rumrunners, docking beneath the Kinney pier. Mobster Tony Cornero ran the operation. The underground utility tunnels along the alleys on either side of Windward Avenue proved extremely handy to the smugglers who delivered to the speakeasy bars in the basements along this business district.

Bathtub gin, so-named due to the poor-quality alcohol that was being made in amateur conditions, was also readily available. Many variations were created by emptying large quantities of any cheap grain alcohol into a large vessel (such as a bathtub) and soaking flavouring agents (such as Juniper berries) into the mix. Many other cocktails owe their life to Bathtub gin, as they were also created in order to hide the awful taste. But it remained popular throughout the 20s.

Local cafes, restaurants and nightclubs catered to those seeking a bit of the forbidden booze, which could readily be found beneath Menotti's Groceries store, the Tumble Inn, at the Ship Cafe, Ocean Inn, Sebastian's Café, and other businesses on Windward. A man-lift in the back alley would carry those who gave the right password from the hide-away street level doorway down to the sinful caverns waiting below. Let the partying begin.

It was also an open secret that there were speakeasys in the back rooms of the Antler Hotel on the lagoon, but especially along Washington Boulevard's 'Cabaret Row,' just east of Venice in Culver City which included the Nightingale Cafe, Tommy Jacob's Log Cabin, Ford's Castle, the Royal Barbeque Inn, Nick Taccagna's Moonlite Gardens, the Ace Inn, Danceland, King's Tropical Inn, the Chicken Roost, The Hot Spot Café, Barton's, Frank's Bar and Grill, The Hoosegow, Doo Doo Inn, the Kit Kat Club, the Monkey Farm, Club Royale, Harlow's Cafe, the Midnight Frolics, the Sneak Inn, the Lighthouse, Tommy Ryan's Diner, the Fil'm Hut Tea Room, The Frolics, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's Plantation Cafe, and the Green Mill Gardens, which later became Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club, "L.A.'s ultimate prohibition night spot," which then became the Casa Mañana, then finally the Meadowbrook Gardens. (Sheesh, I don't believe in run-on sentences or anything, but it seems to me these dens of iniquity seem to require their own article.)

This being the era of the Feds, Coppers, G-men and FBI, like Elliot Ness hounding Al Capone, the local police were also diligent. A fortune in whiskey was captured by Venice police who searched for four men who brought in the cargo on September 28, 1921. The cache, amounting to more than 100 quarts of bonded whiskey, was found in a garage near the corner of Cabrillo and Rialto. Police were called to the spot to invesigate a report that four men were fighting. When they arrived, the men fled. The estimated value of the liquor was $2500, or the price of a pretty large house in Venice at the time.

The public, which rarely saw any mob or gang violence out in the open, was surprised as gunfire erupted after midnight at the Ship Cafe during an Elk's award dinner. On June 27, 1928, Albert Marco, an alleged underworld czar, was dining with three of his associates, when he got into an argument with customers that quickly escalated into a massive fistfight. Realizing they were outnumbered, Marco reached for his gun and shot Dominick Contero in the hip. The gangster fled upstairs to the roof, where he was captured by policeman John Bounty. Marco was convicted of assault, being eventually deported after serving a lengthy prison sentence.

I recalled my recent thought about alcohol availability, and with that, came gambling as well. Overt gambling had always been an integral part of Venice's fun zone. Razzle dazzle and layout games, where spinning wheels determined the prizewinners, proliferated along the boardwalk and piers. Their legality was questionable, yet arrests were made periodically by crusading district attorneys and local police, mainly to keep up a good front.

In January 1923, during a liquor raid on the Venice Moose Lodge on Sunset Pier, the police discovered a secret back room full of illegal gambling equipment. The loot filled up a truck with confiscated wheels of fortune, slot machines, and other gambling devices.

Larger scale gambling was also de-rigueur. Whether the gaming took place in private dining rooms at the Ship Cafe or in small casinos located in the basements of various hotels and restaurants, if one were looking for a place to lose their money, it was easily found. Venice was that kind of place.

I motioned to the barkeep, and he ambled over. "You ever heard of a guy named Tony Cornero? You know where I might find such person?"

He looked to the other side of the room, then back to me. "He's planning on launching something, I think," he mumbled.

After a few more and more cocktails, I slowly staggered out the front of Menotti's, thanking Louie, Lefty, Larry... whatever the "L" name the barkeep had had. His advice sounded good to me, and the fresh sea air caught me in a moment of drunken contemplation. As I swayed along the boardwalk, trying to catch a ride to the Santa Monica Pier on the electric tram, I remembered a bit more about this local hoodlum, Tony Cornero.

He'd been born Anthony Cornero Stralla in 1895 in northern Italy, where his family had owned a large farm. But his father lost it all in a card game, then Tony accidentally set fire to the rest of the entire family harvest, driving them broke and forcing them to emigrate to San Francisco in the early 1900s.

At age 16, Tony pleaded guilty to robbery and did ten months in reform school. He moved to Southern California and racked up another ten arrests in ten years, which included three for bootlegging and three for attempted murder. So, from 1911 until 1922, he spent 6 of those years in jail. Some kinda guy. Quite the life.

Out of the clink, Cornero drove a cab for a few months, before falling back on his old ways and deciding to branch off into the rum running business. He started achieving the American dream during the Prohibition era by leasing a string of small boats and smuggling high priced whisky over the Canadian border and selling it to the wealthy and better clubs in Los Angeles. At the same time, he ran rum from Mexico to L.A., his freighters easily avoiding the understaffed coast guard.

Next, Tony purchased a merchant ship, the SS Lily, which he stocked with 4,000 cases of the best booze money could buy. He specialized in overseeing the unloading of these banned libations from ships waiting off the Southern California coast beyond the three-mile limit, to smaller craft which would speed to deserted beaches before dawn. Like right here in Venice, under the pier. Bootleggers such as Cornero controlled the illicit liquor business like nobody else.

By the time he was 25, he had made $1 million playing this racket. What a sly bastard, I thought. But eventually the "Admiral" got caught and served time in jail for smuggling thousands of cases of bootlegged tequila, in tons of shrimp from Mexico. He was released in 1930.

Heck, that was just a few... yep, about 8 years ago. Since then I'd heard he'd been laying low. After prison, he'd supposedly set up and operated the Ken Tar Insulation Co. - until the feds figured out its two operations were just giant stills, and shut him down again. Then he went to Vegas with his brothers, opened some ritzy-titzy club, The Meadows, a first-class casino, with a great restaurant and a wonderful bar. Supposedly ahead of his time, as far as his vision of how Las Vegas could be. And then after the East Coast Syndicate, not getting their cut of the action, burned his place down, he sold out and took to the high seas again.

Luckily, for him and for me, I imagined, the 1930s had brought back the popularity of offshore gambling boats. A fleet of these boats began in 1929 with the operation of the Texas anchored five miles directly west of the Venice Pier. Offshore, long low rods of red light glowed steadily through the Pacific nights, marking the positions of these floating casinos, the gambling ships Texas, Showboat and Tango. Rows of scarlet neon lights picked them out from stem to stern.

Now, this is what I was heading for. I'd seen Tony's full-page newspaper ads, and also the flying planes spelling out R - E - X, criss-crossing the skies, advertising his newest and latest gambling casino, the Rex. The ads promised 24-hour action, the cuisine of Henri, formerly of the Trocadero and Victor Hugo's, and dancing to the Rex Mariners. They assured female guests, escorted or not, that they would be treated with "unfailing courtesy and rigidly enforced standards." And Cornero even offered a challenge to one and all. A $100,000 reward was to be given to anyone who could show that any game on the Rex was rigged. The first day of operation had been May 5th, 1938.

The S.S. Rex, an old 1887 British-built square-rigger grain ship, was formerly the collier Kenilworth. Cornero had converted it into a casino to the rumored tune of $600,000. The ark-like freighter, which hardly matched the sleek ocean liner pictured in his ads, had a superstructure especially designed as a luxury gambling casino. The main salon was 250 feet long by 40 feet wide, and featured wood paneling and several bars. The ship was also outfitted with 1600 lifeboats, if for nothing else than to calm the nerves of customers who had read too many times about fires and the sinkings of former barkentines.

The operation was an immediate success. On most nights, some 2,000 patrons flooded onto the ship to a first-class casino with good food, top name dance bands, plenty of imported, unwatered booze, a staff of 350, including the ubiquitous bouncers, and honest games. Gamblers had a choice of playing the six roulette wheels, six chuck-a-luck cages, eight dice tables, keno, a faro bank, craps, blackjack, high spade, wheel of fortune, tables for chemin de fer, chinese lottery or stud poker. There were Tango layouts between decks, a 500 seat bingo parlor, a horse book that got results via short-wave radio, and 300 slot machines that lined the walls. All in all, it netted Cornero and his investors (Bugsy Siegal and actor George Raft) some $300,000 a month.

Just my kind of joint. The ticket. When we finally got to the Santa Monica Pier, a red "X" gave notice of the boarding area, where 13 water taxis carried customers, for 25¢, on a "comfortable twelve minute ride to the Rex."

Little did I know I was in for the night of my life!

By the time the skiff got us out to this mirage upon the ocean, with the distant sound of the dance band getting stronger as we approached, I was pretty much sobered up, at least enough to find out how I could maybe win some jack aboard. Poker was my game.

It was a good night that night aboard the Rex; 600 patrons were tossing in their chips. And the money would have continued to pour in, had Cornero not become the center of a reform movement in Los Angles County. Law enforcement officials had been trying to stop high-seas gambling altogether, and eventually Los Angeles County deputies were able to board the Rex. The sheriff brought photographers to capture the deputies axing roulette wheels and hurling craps tables overboard.

Back and forth it went, until at one point, after raiders had smashed almost a half a million dollars worth of gambling equipment on his ship, Cornero decided to fight back.

California Attorney General Earl Warren then took action, arming himself with nuisance abatement warrants, and attacked the gambling fleet. Cornero's brother, Frank, was even charged with kidnapping an investigator from the district attorney's office, though the charge was later dismissed by a judge who ruled there was insufficient evidence the investigator had been forced to board the Rex.

Warren had no difficulty shutting down the two boats off Long Beach, Showboat and Tango, and the Texas off Venice, but the Rex didn't give in easily. He had to deal with Tony and his skipper, George Kirkham, a retired Navy officer. Cornero got wind of the operation when 17 unarmed plainclothes officers tried to sneak aboard his ship with other customers, but his bouncers spotted them easily and escorted them off the ship.

Warren then rounded up a flotilla of boats, manned them with deputies and ordered them out to the Rex. As Attorney General Warren's boarding party approached, huge nets were flung overside on the Rex. "Stand off!" bellowed Cornero through a megaphone. We're on the high seas!"

I couldn't believe what was going on. Here I was on a roll, playing my ace in the hole cuff like nobody's business, and outside, there was a war going on.

Two of Warren's men grabbed at the netting to clamber to the Rex's rail. Cornero ordered his men to repel the attackers with a blast from the Rex's fire hoses. The Warren party fished out their men, but the sea battle went on for nine long hours. The lawmen finally gave up and returned to shore, where a stronger squadron was organized, including ships of the Coast Guard and Fish & Game Commission.

The 600 patrons, along with me, were finally returned to shore during a truce, at dawn the following morning. It had been a rough ordeal for everyone, especially us gamblers. Sheesh! What's a sport to do? The Warren fleet then returned, anchored, and enveloped the Rex, promising to starve its commander and crew into submission. Luckily, I had gone free, and could count my winnings, such as they were, to a minimum.

The Warren contingency laid seige for nine tense days while Cornero's men stood guard with sub-machine guns. All the while, his attorneys filed suit after suit charging Warren with everything from harassment to piracy. Tony, defiant in a tan sombrero, angrily snorted that he had "enough food for a year" on board. He threatened to have the law on Attorney General Warren and his "pirates."

Nine days later on August 9, 1938, however, Tony Cornero surrendered unexpectedly. As he climbed ashore at the Santa Monica Pier, a reporter called out "Why'd you do it, Tony? What made you give up?"

The swarthy man smiled and responded, "I needed a haircut, boy," as he slid into the waiting sheriff's car. "There wasn't a barber on-board."

I, personally was glad to be rid of all that hokum riff-raff. Although that's what I had originally been intending to find, I guess I'd been caught up in the time, you know, all the hoopla and such. Get out while the gettin's good. But I think those sorts are usually up to no good. And I guess, the same went for me. I just went back to my work-a-day world, after one crazy night.

As for Tony, he eventually lost his day in court over the Santa Monica Bight argument ordeal. Later on, at his home in Beverly Hills, he answered the door to the greeting of four shots of lead to his stomach, by an unidentified gunman. Surviving that ordeal, he once again sought refuge later in Vegas, investing more than $3 million to erect the Stardust Hotel. Just months short of its completion, Tony Cornero, on the morning of July 31, 1955, made his last roll of the dice at the Desert Inn casino, where he loved to gamble, then clutched his chest, and suddenly just dropped dead. It's reported Tony died of a heart attack, although the word going around was that he was poisoned from his drink. His body was taken off the casino floor before the coroner or sheriff was contacted. His glass was taken and washed and they were never able to find the exact glass Tony had been drinking from. No autopsy was performed and a coroner's jury in Los Angeles agreed with the doctor in Las Vegas that he died of natural causes.

Tony died the way he had lived, at a gambling table. He went the way any tough gambling hombre wants to get it. He crapped out. What a life...

Hey, I'd progressed a bit since that harrowing night on that gambling boat Rex. Like maybe I'd turned a corner, or something. None of that old hokum-pokum razzmatazz gambling jazz for me anymore. I was trying to go straight.

I guess I just wanted to go back to the way it was in the old days. Still back in Venice, but now only along the boardwalk. Still drawn to that Nirvana by the Sea feeling, the great home of my own childhood. I wanted it just the way it used to be.

As a kid, I have to admit, I'd completely fallen under the compelling influence of this "carnival in your backyard" atmosphere of the early years of Venice, and I grew up thinking this kind of influence was naturally normal. OK, maybe not rampaging monkeys everywhere else, but at least we could all agree with riding camels down our main-streets, couldn't we?

But what really got me was the whole pier-influenced atmosphere. Some folks called it "carny." I call them corny. I was just a local kid trying to make his best during those hard, Depression era times. I remember I liked Bingo?

Bingo was considered a gambling game and therefore illegal in Los Angeles back in those days. However, clever game operators invented variations that allowed customers to use their "skill" to select the numbers called. And that's what had hooked me.

One of the most successful operators was John Harrah and his son Bill. John had moved his family to a small home on Venice's south beach in 1912. The high tides that would run over the sand and beneath the stilt foundation of their frame house was minor compared to the Iowa-born lawyer's love for the sea, not withstanding the inconvenience of the occasional sandbagging. But his heart was with Venice.

Harrah had invested heavily in local real estate and became a partner in the Venice Investment Company, a theater chain later bought out by Fox West Coast. In the politically stormy 20s, he had served as mayor of the then independent city, and when Los Angeles sought to annex Venice, he fought the move vehemently.

When the annexation move finally succeeded, John Harrah was disgusted. He began to sell off his Venice holdings, including some 26 lots on the south beach, and then moved his family to Beverly Hills. The former Venice mayor was also badly in debt after the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, yet owned mortgages on a number of beach properties far above their deflated value. One such property was the Plaza Building - now the Sidewalk Café - at the entrance to the Venice Pier. At the time, it housed mostly bowling alleys and a pool hall. Harrah decided to use part of the empty space to open a variation of bingo, which they called the 'Circle Game'.

Players sat at a large circular bar during the game and marked their bingo cards. A revolving game board with its connecting runway was placed in the center. Each player in turn determined the next number by rolling a ball down the runway so that it landed into one of the numbered slots. If one of the players seated in a circle around the board matched a four-card sequence, he or she won. The 30-seat parlor grossed $100 the first night it opened on July 4, 1932. Bill had served as checker that night, and his friends had worked the game. His older sister Margaret served as the accountant. "After tallying the first night's score, we nearly dropped dead," she recalled. "That was very good money for those times. We couldn't believe it and added it up again. After that, things kept getting better."

The Harrahs became so successful that they soon opened a second game called Tango, then a third. Bill Harrah, at the age of 20, then went to work running the game and soon concluded he could do better than his father, who sold it to him for $500. He turned the $100-a-week game into a $25,000 and then a $50,000-a-year business, after only three years.

By 1934, California passed a law outlawing bingo as a game of chance, with police and sheriffs raiding the parlors that lined the coastline. "It was a political thing," recalled Bill. "But my father, being a lawyer, had a few political friends. They wanted to close the Circle Game but my father said, 'Hey, that's not a bingo game. It's a game of skill!" Supposedly set to shut Harrah's down, the arresting officer became confused when the game didn't even look like bingo. So, they managed to stay open nearly six months after everyone else was closed, by constantly changing the games and keeping one step ahead of the law. "The only game in town. It was quite profitable," remembered Harrah.

The legality of these games was constantly challenged in court, but there were still periodic raids, and ultimately closures, throughout 1935 and 1936. Finally, Harrah became fed up with the constant legal trials and uncertainties, and, on a lark, moved his operations elsewhere. On October 30, 1937 he opened a small bingo parlor, the first Harrah's Casino, in Reno, Nevada, where gaming was permitted. The following year his father joined him, closing the Harrah's Venice games forever.

Meanwhile, the Venice Pier continued to pull in crowds of revelers looking for inexpensive excitement all through those years. Others had evolved the old bingo-styled game into a variation called Bridgo. These parlors with exotic names such as Carneo, Vogue, Shamrock, and Canasto were a variation of the same old con game that kept popping up in the beachfront amusement zones. Another front for penny-ante crime, mechanical horse races, were shut down when investigators exposed their fixed wirings. The "sucker games" were wiped out in Venice when a final courtroom test put a clampdown on the rackets in 1949.

Wow! I can't believe that was little Willy Harrah, the guy I used to pal around with. He'd been born in South Pasadena in 1911, the privileged son of a lawyer and politician. From his early years, he was a driven individual. When the car his father bought him was stolen and stripped, he vowed to his sister that one day he would own a duplicate of every automobile the family had ever owned. And he stuck to his word.

He had studied mechanical engineering at UCLA where I first met him, but was forced to drop out when the Great Depression hit. Or so the story goes. Actually, he was caught cheating on his college chemistry exam in 1930, and soon began working at various family businesses, including a pool hall, a hot dog stand, a shooting gallery and a bingo-style operation called the "Reno Game," all right here in Venice.

I thought Bill was all right. At the time, the pier environs were largely populated with cheap hustlers and petty crooks. But Bill was a straight shooter, who built his business squarely. Then along came the circle game, and the rest was gambling history.

Bill's life and career, though, were marked by paradox. He was ill prepared to succeed in such a risky business, but by the mid-1960s his Harrah's Clubs were the most profitable casino gaming operations in America, and he had become the de facto leader of the industry. Although Harrah was honest, he was also a drunk and a womanizer and a habitual gambler. For years it appeared that he would never amount to much. When his second wife got him off the bottle, he focused his attention to building his business, but he never really cared for it. He was even married to singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry for a brief period in 1969, and ended up with six wives in all.

Bill Harrah's real passion was with old automobiles. Just like he had vowed. He personally sank tens of millions of his company's dollars into buying and restoring them, and he spent much more time with his auto collection than he did with his business executives. Always a car nut, he began his formal collection in 1948 with an early Maxwell. Within a few years, he had accumulated arguably the world's - certainly the country's - largest auto collection, which included some 1400 vehicles by the time of his death. His collection first opened to the public, at his Reno casino and hotel, in 1962. In the world of auto museums, this was pioneering. He had some of the rarest of the rare and it was a joy to be able to see them all in one place.

He provided for his beloved collection not only with a swarm of meticulous restoration technicians, but by hiring the world's best curators, and by building a library of detailed automotive data sought out by other restorers worldwide. He really was the king.

His insistence on perfection was well known. Yet, Harrah's personal life was always messy, and when he died at the age of 66 during an operation to repair an aortic aneurysm in 1978, he left no plans for his business, the automobile collection, or anything else beyond establishing trusts for his family.

Anyway, who knew that this guy, whose roots of his respected and quite successful gaming enterprise, which stretched back almost 75 years to that small bingo parlor on the Venice Ocean Front Walk, would turn out to live such an amazing life? Heck, it's said that today, Harrah's Entertainment is the world's largest gaming company. Makes sense to me. They own, operate, and/or manage about 40 casinos including casino hotels, dockside and riverboat casinos, and Native American gaming establishments, with yearly revenues around $7.11 billion.

Yep, quite a story.

As for me, I still miss old Venice, the illicit speakeasys, that wild Tony Cornero, the great gambling ships, the old pier concessions, and those wild old bingo parlors. I might have lost my shirt once or twice back then, but I'd probably do it all over again. But then again, maybe not.

Wanna bet?