Thursday, April 17, 2014 | 4:32 p.m.
As a revered Las Vegas maitre d’, Emilio Muscelli seated thousands of locals and visitors at the Rat Pack’s performances at the Sands in the early 1960s and to Elvis Presley’s attendance-record-setting shows at the Las Vegas Hilton in the 1970s.
But Muscelli saved the best table for himself — a front-row seat to some of the most enduring moments and colorful people in Las Vegas history.
In addition to getting to know Frank Sinatra and Presley, Muscelli partied with billionaire Howard Hughes in the 1950s, long before Hughes became a recluse, and chauffeured Meyer Lansky when the mob boss came to town in the ’60s to keep tabs on the mob’s casino operations.
Muscelli, an Italian immigrant who worked 27 years as lead maitre d’ at five major Las Vegas resorts, becoming as popular with some customers as the legendary acts that graced the showroom stages, died Tuesday of pneumonia at a Las Vegas hospital. He was 91.
Services are scheduled for 1 p.m. May 3 at Palm Mortuary-Eastern. Viewing will be from 3 to 7 p.m. May 2, also at Palm Eastern.
“I was surprised by the many people who knew my father,” Perry Muscelli said. “Several years ago, we took a family trip to Italy, and my father would walk down the streets and be recognized by people who years earlier had met him in Las Vegas. It blew me away that people a half a world away would remember Dad so well. He touched so many people’s lives.”
Muscelli worked as a maitre d’ at the Sands (now the site of the Venetian) and the Dunes (where the Bellagio now stands) from 1952 to ’58. At the Sands, he became friends with several Rat Pack members, including Dean Martin, who for many years was Muscelli’s golf buddy.
From 1958 to 1960, Muscelli was the showroom maitre d’ at the El Rancho Vegas. In July 1960, Muscelli stood just feet way from licking flames that engulfed the fabled resort, toppling its trademark windmill as the hotel-casino just south of Sahara Avenue burned to a pile of ashes.
From 1960 to ’69, Muscelli held the same post at the Flamingo. And Muscelli was executive maître d’ at the International/Hilton from 1969 to ’79.
As a footloose bachelor in the mid-1950s, Muscelli was in attendance the night the Moulin Rouge, Las Vegas’ first integrated casino, opened on Bonanza Road and for several months was a late-night regular. Muscelli also was close friends with billionaire hotelier Kirk Kerkorian, singer Bobby Darin and actor Cary Grant, among many others.
Muscelli helped prepare seating arrangements for the International Hotel’s massive showroom and oversaw Barbra Streisand’s historic opening of the resort that became the Las Vegas Hilton and today is LVH. Streisand once delivered to Muscelli a container of homemade tomato sauce she had cooked for Muscelli to serve to his family, Perry Muscelli recalled.
“I had the best job anyone could have had in Las Vegas,” Muscelli told the Sun in a story published Jan. 20, 2012. “Las Vegas was so very good to me. Whatever I have today, I owe to Las Vegas. The key to my success was that early on I learned how to treat people right — with respect — and, over the years, I always saw the sweet side of life.”
Despite being in the United States for many decades, Muscelli never lost his thick Italian accent.
Born Aug. 11, 1922, in the small Central Italian village of Ascoli Piceno, Muscelli served in the Italian Army during World War II and attended the University of Rome and studied economics. He left one year before graduation to come to the United States in 1948 to seek his fortune.
After working in New York for several years, including a job as captain of waiters at Jack Entratter’s famed Copacabana night club, Muscelli was sent to Las Vegas in 1952 to train waiters and busboys at Entratter’s new Sands Hotel Copa Room.
Muscelli, who in his lifetime was married at least four times but was single at the time of his death, enjoyed four decades of retirement at his stately home on the fifth hole of the Las Vegas Country Club golf course.
At age 90, he still drove his car and played 18 holes of golf daily. He was a charter member of the Las Vegas Country Club and one of its oldest members, if not the oldest.
In addition to his son, Muscelli is survived by daughter-in-law Kathy, adopted daughter Gina Muscelli, and two grandsons, Spencer and Blake Muscelli, all of Las Vegas; and a sister in Italy.
Ed Koch is a former longtime Las Vegas Sun reporter.