Remembering Our Friend, Dennis Griffin

It is with great sadness that we report that a great friend and an early supporter of The Vegas Tourist has passed away. Author/speaker/mob aficionado Dennis Griffin put his pen down for the last time on Monday, June 21, 2021.

Dennis moved out to Las Vegas after a 20-year career in investigations and law enforcement in New York State.  He was a Madison County Deputy and transferred to the NYS Department of Health to become the Director of Investigations. After retiring in 1994, he fulfilled his ambition of becoming an author of true crime and cold case stories.

He successfully wrote over twenty books that were published. Most of them were mob or organized crime-related. Wait until you hear in the podcast, the story of how he started his writing career! Hint, “Here, hold my beer”

The Podcast

I am not sure of when exactly this podcast was recorded.  All my early notes have vanished.  However, this was recorded right after I had been introduced to him and devoured his book “The Battle for Las Vegas, The law vs the Mob“. A very detailed, very factual read about Las Vegas during its Mob era. If you love true crime stories or the history of Las Vegas, this is your book! So that puts it late 2006, early 2007.

One of his main sources for the book and he talks about here, was a man who knew the Vegas mob very well. In fact, at the time of this interview, Denny was helping to write his life story.  Las Vegas mobster Frank Cullotta – Who we later interviewed as well.

Denny was the second person we ever interviewed on the podcast and was a great man to have on.  This was a fun interview because it was so free-flowing and Dennis was a fun man to be around.  Listening to how he became a writer then deciding to write about the Vegas Mob and then to meet the men involved in the Vegas mob scene is an interesting look down that rabbit hole you could never imagine at the beginning.

As you will hear, he worked well with both the law enforcement side and getting the actual mobster’s real point of view!

We did a follow-up interview with Denny after he moved to Florida. Podcast 204 Catching Up With a Snowbird – Dennis Griffin

Through the years, Denny was a great friend and supporter of The Vegas Tourist and he will be missed.

He is survived by his loving wife of 45 years, Faith Griffin; two daughters, Margaret Carro and Antoinette Mahoney: his step-children, Pamela Ashley and Robert McAree; seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by a daughter, Kimberly McAree.

 

Listen to The Podcast

 

Books Mentioned

 

 

Casino Turns 25

The Movie Casino
On November 22, 1995, the Martin Scorsese movie Casino opened. And the world still can not get enough of it.  Based on writer Nicholas Pileggi’s book by the same name and starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, and probably Don Rickles best movie performance ever!

I’m not forgetting James Woods performance as the scumbag pimp, druggie, and asshole lover to Sharon Stone’s character. Actually, can we just agree that the main cast rocked! Ok?
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Being a big fan of that movie, it was one of the very first DVD’s I ever bought. Never imagine that a few years later I would not only get to move to Las Vegas but get to sit nose to nose (sort of) and interview one of the real-life characters from that movie, Frank Cullotta!  That podcast still remains one of the most popular podcasts we ever recorded. Podcast 40 – The Frank Cullotta Interview

Frank also gave tours showing off some of the important locations used in the movie.  Complete with narration from the man that knew the sites very well.  Why not? He was there when the real scenes happened and he helped recreate them in the movie!   He would add a few other stops along the way that may not have made it in the movie, but that he may have a little recollection of them actually happening in real life!

I can say that a tour of Las Vegas with narration from an ex-mobster can really give you a new view of Las Vegas and its landmarks. Not to mention making you want to stop and wonder when you see a piece of vacant land where you really don’t think there should be an empty plot of land.  Because maybe it really isn’t “empty”?

Many people that I have talked to from that era (and some who had a role as an extra) said the movie captured the “essence of Las Vegas and the Mob” very well. Especially the smugness of the Mobsters. It was nice to know they were able to recreate most of the movie scenes right here in Las Vegas, using a lot of the actual dealers and casino workers who were still working, twenty years after the real story actually happened.
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The Riviera Casino

The Riviera Casino was used as a stand-in for the Stardust

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The Vegas Scenery

The movie was made in 1995 and the Mirage was already five years old. So Las Vegas was already into its big “Bulldoze and Build Bigger” mode.   Thankfully they were able to find locations that still reflected the vibe and the architecture of the 1970s.  I think that one of the reasons the movie was able to be such a long-lasting success was its feel of realism.  Besides some great acting, it was the visuals that enhanced the feel and the emotions of the movie.  It looked, felt, and sounded like what we are told Las Vegas was like in that era.

Although the movie focused on what was really the Stardust Casino, they used the interior of the Riviera for the casino shots.  Many people complained that the Riv was “dated” and not modern enough for them. But you had people like myself who loved the old girl for that very reason.  The Riviera was probably the best representation of what we call “Old Vegas”.  And it worked well for the movie.

In a recent Facebook post, UNLV Libraries Special Collections & Archives Talked about a collection of photos and notes they have from the lead location scout on the movie, Maggie Mancuso.

The link included goes to their website and you can read about the collection and the issues they had as well as some of the issues the scout had in finding the right locations. Noting that it would probably be impossible to replicate such authenticity in the Las Vegas of today. Mainly because we have demolished so much of our past. As well as the reality of how our skyline looks now compared to twenty-five years ago.

This past Sunday, November 22, 2020, marked the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Martin Scorsese’s classic film “Casino.” To achieve the look of Las Vegas in the 1970s, Scorsese had a top-notch art director and a talented location scout who searched for the perfect spots around Las Vegas in 1994 that still had that vintage look. We are fortunate to have the scouting files of Maggie Mancuso (talented actress and singer in her own right), which provide a fascinating time capsule of the built environment of Las Vegas as it looked in the early 1990s. These photos are available to view in Special Collections and Archives as the Maggie Mancuso Collection on Martin Scorsese’s Casino (MS-00504). To learn more about the Mancuso Collection and how these snapshots became a permanent record of the Las Vegas landscape check out this paper from artist Catherine Borg who was one of our Eadington Fellows in 2015. “Scouted: An Inadvertent Archive from the Search for a Cinematic Vegas”  https://digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/occ_papers/

Looking at the photos can give some of us flashbacks. And for that, you have to smile, maybe even laugh a little looking at them. Not only for the decor but for the technology. You need to remember that there was a time when cameras were not instant or electronic. That you need to actually have the images printed to look at them. No photoshop in 1995!

Twenty Five Years??  Wow….

Question?

What are your thoughts or memories of the movie?  Let me know in the comments below.  Thanks!

 

Related Links

 

Other Interesting Links

The Best of Frank Cullotta

Frank Cullotta

Last week, the news came that former Las Vegas mobster Frank Cullotta had passed away due to health complications including COVID 19.

He was 81 years old and the last of the Tony Spilotro‘s Las Vegas crew known as “The Hole in the Wall Gang”. What a life that man lived!

Some of you long time TVT fans know, we were the first podcasters and even the first “media” people to interview him when he left the witness protection program and was about to release his biography.

This was all arranged by our friend and the man who co-wrote his biography, true crime author Dennis Griffin. Denny was the second person we ever interviewed for the podcast!

Over the years, I had several opportunities to be with Frank, talk, and get caught up on what the man was up to in his retirement years. And he was a busy old man!

Frank was a friend of the Show

For me, I always considered a friend of mine and of The Vegas Tourist. So some have asked about him and wanted to know more about the history of the man.

I am planning to do an update video on him and his Vegas days soon.  But for now, I thought of doing a little roundup of how you can read more on his life and the times of when the mafia ran las Vegas.

Frank, working for Tony, was part of the Chicago “outfit”, here to watch over the Ls Vegas casino skimming operations and to protect their main money man Frank “Ace” Rosenthal. Ace was the man who ran the Mob’s operations at the Stardust, Fremont, Marina, and the Hacienda casinos.

Yes, this was all the basis for the movie “Casino” with Robert Dinero. Frank was actually one of the technical advisors on the movie.  Frank become an actor in the movie when several of the killing scenes he was supervising, were recreations of hits he actually did.

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Meeting Dennis Griffin

Having just started the podcast, I was reading up on the Mob and of course, the movie “Casino”.  That led me to the book “The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs. The Mob” by Dennis Griffin. A very well written book using real sources, real people for his information.  Unlike other Vegas “Mob”  books, these were not stories told to him by people who thought they knew the people who did the crimes.

Dennis (Denny) was talking to the actual mobsters and law enforcement people who were part of the crimes and the takedowns.  His main source for the mafia side of the story was the one man who either did the crimes or was the man who helped plan the crimes. That would be Frank Cullotta.  At first, they talked through his FBI handler, Dennis Arnoldy, then finally in person, and over time became good friends.

A few weeks after that podcast hit, Dennis called me up and asked if we wanted to actually meet Frank and to do a podcast with him?  How could I say “No” to that offer?  There was one hitch to it all. Frank was coming out of the Federal Witness Protection Program and was about to release a book on his life.  A book that was co-written by Dennis Griffin.

The kicker for us was, nobody was to know Frank was in town or that we were going to be interviewing him. Stressing the word “Nobody”

There were a few other little nuggets attached to that interview that I can into a little later.  But for now, it was Denny, Frank, and his former FBI handler Dennis Arnoldy.

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Frank Cullotta Podcast

Dennis Arnoldy and Frank Cullotta

Meeting Frank Cullotta

Before I start here, I need to confess that I was raised on Saturday morning cartoons.  Back when they were funny and well animated. So seeing the mobster walk into my living room with an FBI agent, like two old friends coming off the golf course, reminded me too much of the old Warner Brothers Cartoons   Ralph Wolf & Sam Sheepdog! Seriously!

As they said in the podcast: Despite what their jobs were, it was nothing personal. It was just business. In the end, they’re just people trying to live their lives and do their jobs. Both men were very good at what they did for a living.

The interesting thing about Frank and in many ways his mannerism that reflected those in Dennis Arnoldy, was that you knew where you stood with them.  They were both upfront, honest and well-spoken men.  They both would tell you what they think you needed to know and not a word more!

Mr. Arnoldy, being FBI, was always a little less in words to say what needed to be said and he always measured his words carefully.  Where Frank just answered the question, nothing more.  So you knew it was answered the best you were going to get and to move on to the next question.

The Business of the Mob in Vegas

Frank Cullotta was Tony Spilatro’s right-hand man.  They grew up together in the mean streets of Chicago before getting a chance to come to the wide-open spaces of Las Vegas. For Frank, that came in 1979.  To earn some extra money, he was tasked with creating what was known as the “Hole in the Wall Gang”.

Back then, home or business security meant some magnetic switches on the windows and doors of the building.  If the magnet was moved, the switch was turned on and tipped the alarms.  There were few if any that would have anything that felt motion.  So to break into the place and not set off the alarm, you break a hole in the wall and enter the house or business there. Thus, you have the Hole in The Wall Gang.

Reading his book, you get to know the man and what made him tick.  For him, this was all business. and business was good.  So I needed one question answered.  Was Las Vegas a safe place to live with the Mob here?  The answer was a simple “Yes.” Asking for a little more clarification, he said that people living here knew their places in society.

I had a friend who’s mother ran a store that was frequented by Tony. She never believed Tony was this cold-blooded killer the press made him out to be. She was not in the mob, so why should she think that?  She never had a reason to see the mob in action or to fear them.

However, if you were in the mob, you knew the rules and you knew the penalties for breaking those rules. In simple terms, that’s what life was like here in Las Vegas. People also forget that back then, Vegas was a small town in the middle of the desert.

Vegas was a place Ma & Pa Kettle from Iowa would NEVER venture out to as easily as they can today. You needed to have a certain level of wealth and stature to make Las Vegas your vacation playground.

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Holes in the Desert?

Asking about the holes in the desert? Frank asked if I was asking about how many there were or where were they?  Ok, that question was answered.  next question.

Just for the record, That question was answered in a lot greater detail several times in several other conversations over the years! Yea… Ok… Moving on….

Frank made it clear, the Mob was a business.  At that time, it was a well run, a well-organized business that made a lot of money, and yes, people died in the business.  You never really “left” the business breathing. However, as the years went by, it became a less organized business with fewer rules and structure.

People stopped looking out for each other and started to look out for themselves. That was one of the reasons that led to his decision to become a government witness. His life and the lives of his family depended on it.

This was all backed up in later conversations with another well know mobster, Henry Hill.  Henry’s life story was documented in the true crime book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi, which was subsequently adapted by Martin Scorsese into the critically acclaimed film Goodfellas in 1990. Hill was portrayed by Ray Liotta in the film.

Of Rats and Men

To be in the witness protection program, you had to come 100% clean on all crimes.  Everything had to be detailed. If you “forgot” something, it could kick you out of the program. Frank always made it clear that he never snitched, never wore a wire. What he did was cross the “t”‘s and dotted the “I”‘s of what the government already knew.

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Oscar and a Rat

When we were later invited to visit Mayor Oscar Goodman’s office, (Oscar was the Mob’s main attorney in Las Vegas before becoming our Mayor) I was briefed beforehand not to mention Frank’s name to the Mayor.  It was a sore spot with Oscar. In fact, there was a giant rubber rat that sat on the couch in the office Oscar told us that he named it “Frank”.

To add even more to the story, Oscar Goodman’s biography is titled “Of Rats and Men: Oscar Goodman’s Life from Mob Mouthpiece to Mayor of Las Vegas”

I’ve had the talks with others who think that a man must publicly pay for his sins his entire life. I don’t see it that way. Frank, like everyone else, makes the decisions they make based on circumstances.  We make some good ones, we make some bad ones.  And we pay the price for them either way.  Frank Cullotta lived a long life.  One that was not ordinary to you and me.  But it was his life and he made it a full life.  Unlike others who like to sit on the sidelines and complain. Good or bad, he lived his life on his terms.  How many of us can say that??  Not too many…

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Links Mentioned in Post

Amazon Links:

 

204 Catching Up With a Snowbird – Dennis Griffin

Time to catch up with a friend of The Vegas Tourist – True Crime author Dennis N Griffin. Sazzy and I nicknamed him “Uncle Denny” because he became a very good friend and a fan of ours.  He was one of the first people we ever interviewed for the podcast.  On the interview, I mention he was the first person we interviewed.  After going through the notes, I was wrong on that.  Dr. Lonnie Hammergren was our first interview. Podcast #10.  He’s affectionately known around Las Vegas as our unofficial curator of Las Vegas history.  or simply as our Vegas pack rat!

The first interview we did with Denny was actually used as a bonus for our iTunes subscribers, not as a normal podcast. See links down below for that interview.  However, Denny was the man who brought us Las Vegas mobster Frank Cullotta and that interview is our most popular downloaded podcast ever and still is to this day!

We talked about Frank Cullotta, Tony Spilotro, and other interesting characters that made Las Vegas famous.

If you are a lover of true crimes books, the Mob or you want to become a published author, both interviews are worth a listen because Denny explains how he went from being easily retired to a popular writer and speaker.

In this podcast, I catch up with Dennis who now is a Florida snowbird, not a Vegas snowbird.  Talk about his career, some of the books he has written, the people he has met and even about Las Vegas casino treatment of African-American entertainers in the days of segregation.

Books Mentioned

 

The Mob Museum

How can you talk about Las Vegas and the mobsters without mentioning The Mob Museum?  We talk about that!

The Mob Museum, officially the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, is a history museum located in Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada. Opened on February 14th, 2012, the Mob Museum is dedicated to featuring the artifacts, stories, and history of organized crime in the United States, as well as the actions and initiatives by law enforcement to prevent such crimes. The Museum is housed in the former Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse, which was built in 1933 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum is located on Stewart Avenue, two blocks north of Fremont Street, the main artery of the downtown casino district.

Lightning Round!

What do you miss most about Las Vegas?
Miss the action.  Everything is on a 24/7  schedule.   Miss meeting all the people.  The beauty of the surrounding areas.

Favorite Hangouts?
Downtown, Fitzgerald’s, Flamingo

What’s Next?
Currently writing three books that have a Vegas connection including one book with Frank Cullotta getting the truth about Tony Spilotro.  Frank was Tony’s right-hand man. So if there is anyone who should know what the truth was versus legend, it’s going to be Frank.  He knew what all was going on and helped plan or commit the hits ordered by Tony and the Chicago Outfit.

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The Mob Museum is Now Open for Business

The Mob Museum Turns 7 Years Old

Who would have thunk it?  That one day there would be a museum in Downtown Las Vegas that tells the real stories (the good, the bad and the ugly) of the birth, rise and fall of Organized Crime in America.  And now there is one and it opened today, St Valentines Day, 2012.

To kick everything off,  The Mayor was there with his showgirls. After all, this was one of his pet projects as Las Vegas Mayor, that actually came to life!

The real Mayor, Oscar Goodman (and wife of the former mayor) of Las Vegas was there with her “Showmen”  (her words).  Actually they were the men from the San Diego Police Historical Museum.  They even brought over some really cool vintage police vehicles for the occasion…

Since this was for mobsters and law enforcement, even a few of the mobsters themselves were in attendance.  Including Andrew DiDonato and Frank Cullotta.  I also saw Henry Hill and a few others wandering in the crowd.


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About the Museum

You know that mob “attraction” or “experience” or whatever it was/will be called, down at the Tropicana?  Fugetaboutit… Also, screw the critics who bitched about the cost and the idea behind a museum that “glorified” the Mob.  They are mostly local idiots who forgot what it was like to be a tourist and forgot why they wanted to come here in the first place.

You have to go see this Museum.  It’s the real thing.  And it is very well done.  It lives up to its hype and does not glorify anything except that crime really doesn’t pay.  Unless you are a paper pushing lawyer who happens to get a few of them as your clients… Then its a different story!

As Vegas attractions go, it’s also very affordable.  $18 for adults.  $10 for Nevada residents. Law enforcement, Military and teachers also get a discount.

 

The official title is “The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement“.  So they keep it pretty even.  Telling the good and the bad of both the law enforcement and the mobsters.

As you walk thru three floors of interactive displays, wallboards and storyboards, you get the whole gritty story.  How it was formed, how it thrived and survived and how it died (or at least lost a considerable amount of its power) .  They even admit that the bad cookies were on both sides of the badge.

The whole thing is even housed in a very historic courthouse/post office.  Built in 1931 and at one point, you are sitting in the very courtroom where Senator Kefuver held one of his hearings on Organized Crime, back in the 1950’s.

I’ll add more to it later, in an actual review.  Just remember to put this on your “todo” list the next time you are in Las Vegas and want something different to do.  Go see what really made Las Vegas, Vegas.