Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 | 2 a.m.
When Italian immigrant Emilio Muscelli came to Las Vegas to work as a showroom maitre d’ 60 years ago, he had no idea he was giving himself one of the best seats in the house to watch the meteoric growth of the tiny desert city.
“I am a very lucky man to have come from such humble beginnings and accomplish what I have,” said Muscelli, who will turn 90 in August. “I had the best job anyone could have had in Las Vegas. 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.”
A diminutive man hunched slightly by age, Muscelli long ago traded his clean-shaven chin and smart black tuxedo for short gray whiskers and sweatsuits.
But, despite having been in the United States for so many decades, Muscelli still speaks with an Italian accent almost as heavy as the day he left Rome with just $20 in his pocket. (His first job in America: washing dishes in a New York coffee house.)
During his 27-year tenure as one of the Strip’s most respected maitre d’s, Muscelli witnessed much of what has been called Las Vegas’ golden age:
• He worked the showrooms that launched the Rat Pack to legendary status and breathed life into the fading career of rock ‘n’ roll king Elvis Presley.
• He saw Barbra Streisand’s historic opening of the International Hotel, which became the Las Vegas Hilton and now is called the Las Vegas Hotel.
• In July 1960, he watched flames engulf the fabled El Rancho Vegas, toppling its trademark windmill to the ground as the Strip resort just south of Sahara Avenue burned to a pile of ashes.
• While working for the Flamingo Hotel, his additional duties outside the showroom included chauffeuring the infamous Meyer Lansky during Lansky’s visits in the 1960s to check on operations at that Strip hotel.
• Muscelli was in attendance the night the Moulin Rouge, Las Vegas’ first integrated casino, opened on Bonanza Road in the mid-1950s and was a late-night regular at that swinging hot spot until it closed several months later.
• He partied with reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes and was befriended by billionaire hotelier Kirk Kerkorian, singer Bobby Darin and actor Cary Grant, among many others.
Today, Muscelli enjoys retirement in his stately home on the fifth hole of the Las Vegas Country Club golf course, where he has resided for 39 years. He still drives a car, surfs the Internet and tries to get in nine or 18 holes of golf each day.
He relaxes in his study and living room surrounded by photos of him with such stars as Perry Como, Ann-Margret, Paul Anka and Tom Jones. He has boxes full of other photos of him standing beside top entertainers of Las Vegas’ glittery past — far too many to frame and display on his walls.
Despite the fun he had rubbing elbows with entertainment’s elite, Muscelli said his job was a serious one — serving as the liaison between the resort and customers.
“Being a Las Vegas maitre d’ in the 1950s was more than just standing at the showroom door, taking tips and showing people to their seats,” Muscelli said. “As maitre d’ back then, I worked closely with the chef and managed all food services, whether it was in the showroom, the cafe, room service — everything.”
Born in 1922 in the small East Central Italian town of Ascoli Piceno, Muscelli served in the Italian Army during World War II. After the war, he attended the University of Rome, where he studied economics and commerce.
In 1948, Muscelli came to New York and initially could only find work as a dishwasher. He spoke no English at the time, but that summer he got a job as a busboy at a resort in the Catskill Mountains.
Muscelli later got a job in a restaurant across the street from the famed Copacabana night club in New York City. The club’s general manager, Jack Entratter, a future Las Vegas gaming legend, came into the restaurant daily for lunch and soon befriended Emilio, setting a chartered course for the rest of Muscelli’s career.
Entratter hired Muscelli as captain of waiters at the Copacabana, where Muscelli met performers including Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee — entertainers he would later become reacquainted with in Las Vegas.
In 1951, Muscelli became a U.S. citizen in Brooklyn. Early the next year, shortly after Entratter had been chosen to open the then-250-room Sands Hotel, Muscelli asked him for a transfer to Las Vegas.
Muscelli was well aware that Entratter, a Nevada Gaming Hall of Fame inductee who died in 1971, was connected to the mob — or as Muscelli puts it, “the gentlemen” or “the boys.”
Muscelli shakes his head in disgust when people refer to many of Las Vegas’ founding fathers as “mobsters,” arguing that they instead should be credited with nurturing the growth of this city during its delicate formative years.
Muscelli had been aware of the Mafia and its influence since his earliest days at the Copacabana, when he was assigned to personally wait on “Prime Minister of the Underworld” Frank Costello, then head of the Genovese crime family.
“In the 1950s, every single hotel (on the Las Vegas Strip) was controlled by the boys,” Muscelli said in a 2008 UNLV Oral History Project interview. “The Sands was completely owned by the boys.”
The same was true of the Flamingo, which was opened in 1946 by Lansky’s lieutenant, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. Muscelli worked there from 1960 to 1967, the year the resort was sold to Kirk Kerkorian. He got to know Lansky pretty well.
“If it were not for Meyer Lansky, Las Vegas would not be what it is today,” said Muscelli, arguing that Lansky and others like him have gotten a bad rap as Las Vegas history has been written — and rewritten.
“These gentlemen took their job seriously,” Muscelli said. “If a dealer was stealing from them, they’d have him taken out back and have both his arms broken. But they also took real good care of the thousands of tourists who visited this city.”
Muscelli believes that men like Lansky should be honored for the good they did during Las Vegas’ early days, but he is not too thrilled with the city’s plans to open a mob museum in the historic downtown post office.
Muscelli says the name itself indicates that “the boys” will be backhandedly remembered as little more than colorful criminals and outlaw businessmen.
“There has to be justice in history,” Muscelli said. “These men created Las Vegas. That’s how they should be remembered.”
Muscelli came to Las Vegas in November 1952 via a 10-hour flight in a propeller-driven plane. Clark County’s population at that time was about 67,000.
Muscelli, who was assigned to train the waiters and busboys for the opening of the Sands’ Copa Room, moved into the San Souci Hotel, where the Strip’s first megaresort, the Mirage, now stands.
Muscelli married the daughter of the San Souci’s owner. They had one son, Perry Muscelli, a longtime Las Vegas real estate businessman who, with his wife, Kathy, has given Emilio two grown grandsons, Blake and Spencer.
Muscelli divorced his first wife in 1975 and admits with a wide grin, “I married three or four more times.” But, for a number of years, he was a bachelor in a town that has long been a playground for carefree single males. Today, Muscelli has a steady female companion, but has no immediate plans to get married again.
In the 1960s, businessman-aviator-Hollywood mogul Howard Hughes came to town, stayed reclusively in an entire floor of suites at the Desert Inn and bought Strip properties, forever changing the landscape of the Las Vegas resort market. But years before that, Muscelli partied with a much more public Hughes.
Muscelli recalled in his UNLV oral history that in the 1950s, Hughes owned a villa near Convention Drive where he stayed during his frequent visits to Las Vegas.
At a 1954 party at the Sands attended by Hollywood’s elite, including Marlene Dietrich, Muscelli said he met Hughes for the first time and the two hit it off. Over the next few years, Hughes would call Muscelli for tables at Las Vegas shows.
“Howard always dressed casually for the shows,” Muscelli said. “It looked like he had bought his ties at Sears and Roebuck.”
Hughes also often asked Muscelli to introduce him to beautiful showgirls. Muscelli remembers introducing Hughes to an attractive 16-year-old Sands showgirl whom Hughes soon after signed to a contract with his movie studio. The girl did not become a movie star, Muscelli said.
From 1952 to 1958, Muscelli worked as a maitre d’ at the Sands (now the site of the Venetian), the Dunes (where the Bellagio now stands) and then the Sands again, where he was friends with members of the Rat Pack, including Dean Martin, who was a regular golf buddy of Muscelli’s.
Muscelli often accompanied Sinatra and his pals to the old Silver Slipper (now a parking lot for the demolished Frontier Hotel and the proposed Plaza Las Vegas megaresort), where they enjoyed the late-night show and hung out with showgirls at area casino lounges until the wee hours of the morning.
From 1958 to 1960, Muscelli was the showroom maitre d’ at the El Rancho Vegas, where he was befriended by Cary Grant, a regular Friday night showroom guest.
He said the two frequently would double date — Grant accompanied by gorgeous German dancer Shaka Mozer, who was billed as Yellow Bird because she danced in a feathery costume, and Muscelli with an attractive lady du jour.
At the Flamingo, Muscelli spent a great deal of time with his best friend Bobby Darin (“Mack the Knife,” “Splish, Splash”).
“Bobby was really dedicated to his music,” said Muscelli who regularly dined with Darin between shows in the 1960s and was devastated by his 1973 death at age 37 following a lifetime of heart problems and other ailments.
“After Bobby’s second show, we’d go to the (downtown) Fremont Hotel, where he would give tips about performing to a young Wayne Newton.”
When hotel giant Kerkorian decided to build the International — at the time billed as the world’s largest hotel — he hired Muscelli to work on the design team for the massive showroom, where Muscelli would be the maitre d’ for 10 years.
Muscelli was there opening night in 1969. A photo shows him on stage with Streisand. He has among his collection the playbill from that performance.
“What I remember about Barbra was that she loved spaghetti in pesto sauce and would call me to have it made for her (after her shows),” Muscelli said. “She was always nice to me, but she did have a strong personality.”
When Streisand ended her brief run at the International, Elvis Presley came in and forever changed the Las Vegas entertainment scene.
“No question, Elvis was by far the biggest attraction ever in Las Vegas,” said Muscelli, who in one way helped to make Presley an even bigger star than he was.
Muscelli said he used creative seating to pack the showroom each night, often with as many as 4,000 guests for both shows. What few people knew, Muscelli said, was that the Clark County Fire Department had limited the capacity of that showroom to 1,150 people per show.
“Certainly, (Presley’s manager) Col. Tom Parker was not going to turn me in for putting so many extra people in the showroom,” Muscelli said. “He was happy to see so many seats filled.”
When Presley died in 1977, and the excitement that he brought to Las Vegas quieted down a bit, Muscelli decided it was time to wind down his career. He retired two years later.
“I have no regrets that I turned down several requests to come out of retirement,” Muscelli said, noting that he said no to offers to work at both the Mirage and Bellagio. “I had invested my money wisely and decided it was time to leave.”
Among those investments was the purchase of 10 acres of then-vacant land at Flamingo Road and Tenaya Way — real cheap. Muscelli sold the property at a handsome profit to a developer who built a 190-unit apartment complex on the site.
In retirement, Muscelli traveled the world. He bought a house in Italy where he spent many summers.
Muscelli survived prostate cancer in 1993 and a bout with phlebitis last year. Still, he considers himself to be in good physical condition for a man his age.
Muscelli says he likes the big city Las Vegas of today, but admits that he longs for the small town Las Vegas of yesteryear. However, he is stone-cold realistic.
“Las Vegas will never again be the same as it used to be,” Muscelli said. “Too many of the small hotels are gone. Nothing can be done to bring those days or those places back. I miss Las Vegas’ golden age.”
Ed Koch is a former Las Vegas Sun reporter.