Las Vegas Sun

March 24, 2019

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Professor mops up mob stereotypes, shows the positive impact of LV Italians

It's the stuff Las Vegas folklore is made of.

Tales of powerful Mafia crime bosses and their crooked-nosed cohorts pocketing profits from casino counting rooms, careful not to leave paper trails in their blood-splattered wake.

But that's been done before.

So when Dr. Alan Balboni, a professor of political science and history at the Community College of Southern Nevada, set out to research the role that Italian-Americans played in raising Las Vegas, his focus turned to the good, rather than the bad and the ugly.

"I felt that too many sensationalist books have been written about the mob or the Mafia," Balboni says, "and it would really serve the purpose of a better understanding of history to look beyond that."

For his first effort, "Beyond the Mafia: Italian-Americans and the Development of Las Vegas," Balboni spent the better part of seven years poring over newspaper clips and census counts and interviewing countless subjects about the city's early days.

It was about time the hard-working and honest Italian Joes who nurtured Las Vegas' chief industries -- gaming, entertainment, construction, banking -- got some credit, he says.

Gaming bigwigs Frank Modica and Frank Fertitta Sr., for example.

Modica, the Showboat's recently retired chief executive officer, started out as a dealer and went on to hold "virtually all the positions one can hold while climbing up the ladder," Balboni says.

Fertitta, the author says, personifies "the great American success story."

He moved to Las Vegas at age 21 with his wife and young child and started as a break-in dealer, taking a job as a busboy to make ends meet, then rising through the corporate ranks slowly but surely. The Fertitta family is responsible for four Station properties in town.

Balboni's original mission was to include such stories in "a short, scholarly article" about Las Vegas' Italian pioneers. But after the Boston native and 15-year Vegas resident had amassed a mountain of data, he decided to do a book.

His dedication to the project is evident, says Eugene Moehring, a longtime UNLV history professor and adviser for the University of Nevada Press. He calls Balboni's book an "informative study" of the major contributions Italian-Americans have made to Las Vegas.

"It shows how they networked. You see a lot of upward mobility in the casino industry," he says.

"There are few serious books that are written about Las Vegas. I think it's going to spawn more books of this type," he says, adding that he'd like to see a similar work on the city's Mormon population.

If one theme is consistent throughout "Beyond the Mafia," it's the stereotypes that many Italian-American settlers faced simply because of their surnames.

Discrimination loomed like a dark cloud, especially over those attempting to secure "key positions" and operating licenses for gaming operations.

That was true even in the early days, before the creation of Nevada's infamous Black Book, which bans a notorious few -- "predominately Italian," Balboni says -- characters from entering casinos.

"My perception is that gaming authorities have been very image-conscious," he says. "Because of this ... idea that all organized crime is controlled by some sort of Mafia with tentacles coming out of Palermo (Italy), ... too often Italians came under more scrutiny than others."

More than a regulatory function, Balboni says the Black Book "served a public relations goal" for the state.

"It made Nevada look good because they've had people in the Black Book who achieved national notoriety," like organized crime leaders Sam Giancana and Marshall Caifano. "Public relations is good, but it became a hurt for Italians.

"There are a lot of people who have come to Las Vegas and Nevada and they've paid their taxes and they've operated honest games. But back East or in California, they were doing something illegal, because just to run a gambling operation was by definition illegal."

Because of the negative publicity, Balboni often faced opposition by several of the older Italian-Americans he attempted to interview.

Former county commissioner and businessman William Peccole, who was one of the city's most prominent real estate moguls during the '50s and '60s, is one of them.

"He does not like to interviewed at all," Balboni says. But Peccole reluctantly granted one for Balboni's book at the urging of his wife, Wanda. "He's quite negative about any publicity going back into the family."

"The image of the negative journalist hurt me because a lot of the old Italian-Americans did not want to talk and did not really understand what a professor was," Balboni says.

He twisted their arms by saying, "Well, if you don't talk to me as a historian, I have to go to the negative article. If you talk to me, then you can give me your perspective on events."

Most, like Phil Dioguardi, spilled their stories.

He jumped from job to job at a slew of casinos in the '50s and '60s before landing at the Stardust as an executive casino host. Not only was his tale an interesting one, but "he had a good memory," Balboni says.

"If I got a piece of information from old newspaper, I'd say, 'Phil, ... how do you perceive it,' or 'How did this come together,' and he could piece it together or tell me why."

Women aren't featured as prominently as men in "Beyond the Mafia," and Balboni defends this by pointing out that women played a less visible role in society during the first half of the century.

Lorraine Hunt, he says, is "a good exception to the rule."

Before she owned her own restaurant (the Bootlegger on Eastern Avenue) and became a county commissioner, Hunt played the more "traditional female role" of entertainer. During her 15-year singing career, she performed at the Landmark and the Riviera.

Besides business successes, Balboni points out the impact Italian-American social organizations have had by keeping ethnic morale on the high side.

The granddaddy of them all, the Italian American Club of Southern Nevada, at one time served as an employment networking hub between established members and newcomers.

"It was like a hiring hall there," recalls the club's vice president and 30-year member Tony Allotta, whom Balboni says is "a wealth of knowledge."

Especially, Allotta says, when Nick "Kelly" Fiore, a "big wheel" at the Sands and the club's president during the '60s, ruled the roost.

"He used to pick up the phone and call this guy or that guy and say, 'I've got some friends here from New York who need jobs.'"

Fiore, along with another member, former culinary union head Mike Pisanello, "helped a lot of people out because they were in positions to do it."

Balboni says, "I think there was a good degree of ethnic consciousness among most people of Italian background. That's why the Italian American Club flourished.

"Early on, it was the place to be," especially when stars like Frank Sinatra would stop by to hang out or grab a bite. "There was a positive feeling about being Italian."

No book about Italian-Americans in Las Vegas would be complete, though, without at least a nod to the underworld.

Probably most familiar to area newcomers, thanks largely to Martin Scorsese's movie "Casino," are the nefarious goings-on and gruesome death of Chicago mobster Tony Spilotro.

Balboni mentions him in the book but chose "not to spend too much time" on him.

"He may have contributed to the allure of the mobster that might be standing next to you in the casino, but Tony Spilotro on balance was not someone who contributed whatever talent he had to building Las Vegas.

"I certainly wouldn't write a book about Las Vegas Italian-Americans without mentioning Spilotro, but I certainly wouldn't give him any more pages than I have."

All two of them.

Having said "Ciao" to his book (he may update "Beyond the Mafia" in a few years), Balboni is researching the role of Jewish-Americans in Las Vegas, specifically hotel builder Moe Dalitz.

The brief biography will be included in a book about the lives of a dozen or so prominent Nevadans that's due out next year.

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