January 6, 2022

Fifth Street

In this issue: The Vegasy vamp of Diamonds Are Forever and Ocean's Eleven | Chris Ruby's untimely death - and his generous gift | The Mob revs its motor in Caesars Palace Grand Prix

IT WOULD BE tough to be cooler in Las Vegas than Danny Ocean or James Bond. The suave, tuxedoed men saunter into Vegas like they own the town, and in their films set in Las Vegas, they pretty much do. This month marks milestone anniversaries for both the 1971 James Bond adventure Diamonds Are Forever and Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 version of Ocean’s Eleven, and both films are essential components of the pop-culture image of Las Vegas.

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They’re also both time capsules of moments in Vegas history, from Bond’s car chase around Downtown among hotel-casinos like the Mint, the Pioneer Club and the Fremont, to Ocean’s exploration of the height of luxury at the Bellagio. There’s a sense of nostalgia watching these movies in 2021, but there’s also a vibrancy, a sense of the continuity of our city and the image we project to the world. If Vegas itself is as cool as Danny Ocean or James Bond, then who wouldn’t want to visit here?

The quality of the movies themselves is far from equal, though. Diamonds Are Forever is not a great (or even good) James Bond movie, although for an hour or so it comes close. Ocean’s Eleven is one of the all-time great Vegas movies — and simply a fantastic movie on its own, an improvement in nearly every way over the 1960 Rat Pack-starring original. There’s plenty of camp value in Diamonds Are Forever, but Ocean’s Eleven offers the pleasure of watching a master filmmaker at the top of his craft.

By 1971, Sean Connery was doubly over playing James Bond, having returned to the role following George Lazenby’s exit, lured in by a major payday, but already on his way out again. Connery’s performance isn’t quite as disengaged as his previous Bond farewell in 1967’s You Only Live Twice, but he’s clearly not at the top of his game as the debonair super-spy. The material doesn’t do him many favors, with an underwhelming, convoluted plot focused on stolen diamonds that pivots into a late-breaking showdown with longtime Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Charles Gray).

There’s about half an hour of set-up (including a clumsy, obvious fake-out death for Blofeld) before Bond gets to Vegas, as he first catches up with a shipment of stolen diamonds in Amsterdam. There, he meets Tiffany Case (Jill St. John), his surprisingly proactive love interest. She’s part of the smuggling operation, but her heart isn’t really in it, especially once she succumbs to Bond’s masculine wiles. The two of them head to Vegas separately, with Bond arriving via an amusingly bizarre funeral home in the middle of the desert, where the diamonds have been transported from Europe via corpse.

Things get even more ridiculous from there, and Diamonds Are Forever represents Connery’s Bond at his goofiest. That works for the Vegas portion of the movie, though, which focuses on the town’s endearing absurdities. Bond and Tiffany eventually wind up at the Whyte House, a hotel-casino owned by the Howard Hughes-style reclusive tycoon Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean). They stay in excessively lavish accommodations, including a bridal suite that would put the Hangover suite to shame.

The International (now the Westgate) stands in for the Whyte House, and one of the movie’s most memorable sequences features Bond riding on top of the hotel’s exterior elevator, before rappelling along the outside of the hotel, with a full view of the Vegas skyline behind him. The Downtown car chase is an even better showcase for the neon lights of Vegas, and director Guy Hamilton makes sure that Bond drives past each glowing sign at least twice as he attempts to evade his pursuers.

The filmmakers play with Vegas clichés within the context of a Bond story, making one of the diamond smugglers a hack lounge comedian named Shady Tree (Leonard Barr), who boasts, “I haven’t changed my act in 40 years.” When a pair of goons capture Bond and think they’ve defeated him, they drive out to the middle of the desert to bury him, just like mobsters reportedly did. The movie falls apart as soon as it leaves Vegas, but for a while, the coolness of the city and the secret agent are in perfect harmony.

When Bond walks onto a casino floor to gamble, he’s dressed like he’s in Monte Carlo, impeccably decked out in a tuxedo while surrounded by schlubs in casual wear. Thirty years later, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) carries that same air of sophistication as he walks into the Bellagio, also wearing a tuxedo amid the slovenly rubes. At the beginning of Ocean’s Eleven, Danny even leaves prison in a tuxedo, since it’s the outfit he was wearing when he was arrested four years earlier.

Ocean’s Eleven also takes a little time getting to Vegas, although it arrives more quickly than Diamonds Are Forever does, and it stays longer. Danny gets paroled by promising to keep away from a life of crime, but as soon as he’s out of prison, he hooks back up with his former partner in crime Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) and hatches a scheme to rob $160 million from three Las Vegas casinos.

Although it’s set in the year it was made, Ocean’s Eleven holds onto some old-school notions of Vegas, mainly the solo casino mogul who exerts ironclad control over his properties. Diamonds Are Forever had Willard Whyte, and Ocean’s Eleven has Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). In reality, the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand were all part of a corporate conglomerate in 2001, but the movie recasts them under Benedict’s private ownership. Benedict has muscled out fellow casino mogul Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) and slated Reuben’s former property for implosion, and that’s enough motivation for Reuben to bankroll Danny and Rusty’s scheme to rob Benedict.

The heist plan is every bit as convoluted as the plot of Diamonds Are Forever—probably more so—but its incomprehensible intricacies are part of its charm. Danny and Rusty put together a crew of 11 veteran criminals to pull off the job, and despite the large cast, Soderbergh and screenwriter Ted Griffin give every character the chance to shine. There are some stock Vegas types, including a blackjack dealer played by Bernie Mac and an acrobat played by Shaobo Qin, but even the characters who have nothing to do with Vegas fit right in as if they’ve always belonged.

Danny calls Vegas “America’s playground,” and Soderbergh makes it look like somewhere that anyone would want to play. The filmmaking is as slick and dazzling as Danny’s heist plan, full of glamour and delightful misdirection. Danny’s ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts), who’s now dating Benedict, gets about as much character development as a Bond girl, but Soderbergh and Roberts make her believably alluring and cultured.

If Diamonds Are Forever treats Vegas as a weird funhouse detour for Bond, Ocean’s Eleven affords the city more respect, so much so that parts of it could double as a tourism ad. Reuben runs down a history of (fake) robberies to assert that no one has ever successfully ripped off a Vegas casino, and Vegas celebrities like Wayne Newton and Siegfried & Roy have cameos as themselves.

The movie’s most iconic scene is the post-heist montage of the characters standing at the Bellagio fountains, departing one by one to head back where they came from, as Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” plays on the soundtrack. It’s the kind of magical ending that anyone would want for their own Vegas trip with friends — even if they weren’t leaving with $160 million.

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ON ONE OF Southern Nevada’s fleeting frigid January days, Jeff Ruby asks me over the phone whether citrus trees have to be wrapped in burlap to shield them from freezing temperatures. We’re talking gardening, a hobby the soft-spoken retired firefighter has taken up in the last couple years, and I admit to him I have no idea. My husband actually does all the work; I just enjoy the fruits of his labor. Ruby is considering how to protect his own plants during the winter, an impulse that must come naturally for a father of two whose career focused on saving lives.

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It makes the reason for my call — to talk about the horrific tragedy that befell Jeff and his family — all the more gut-wrenching. Eight years ago, while Ruby skied and his 20-year-old son Chris Ruby snowboarded together at Lee Canyon, Chris took a jump in the terrain park, fell hard, and died. The family continues to grieve the loss; part of the coping process has been their involvement with the annual Chris Ruby Memorial Cup. Founded by the ski resort the winter after Chris’s death, the Chris Ruby Memorial Cup is a family-friendly ski race benefitting organ donation nonprofit Nevada Donor Network. In advance of the event this Saturday, January 8, Jeff Ruby talked to me about his son and his passion for organ donation.

Tell me about Chris.
He was really just a quality young man. We were proud of him. He enjoyed the outdoors. He had a good sense of humor, manners, was respectful … After high school, he went to an automotive trade school in Sacramento, and he wanted to eventually open his own business. He liked working on cars — he did paint and body — and liked the business end of it, too. He was back in Las Vegas and working for a high-end body shop, and he was doing well. They liked him. He was a hard worker, had a good work ethic.

Were you two close?
We were. He and I hunted and fished together. My wife and daughter would go fishing with us every now and then, but Chris enjoyed the outdoors. We spent a lot of time together. I was retired from the fire department when he went to school, so I’d go up to Sacramento and visit, and when he wasn’t studying, we’d go camping up there on the coast and explore all of the stuff around the area.

Can you talk about his death?
When my son and daughter were little, we (parents) got them skiing, and they both wanted, after two years, to snowboard … My daughter was just kind of do it or not, didn’t really care, but Chris really took to it and enjoyed it and was good. He would go with me on black diamonds, double black diamonds, in Mammoth (Mountain Ski Area), and he would do the jumps and all that.

That day, he had the day off, so I asked him to go up, and he did. He was gonna take some jumps, and I told him, “You have a career now; you can’t afford to take risks,” because a few years earlier, he had taken a jump and broken his collar bone. But he said he could do it, and I said, “You’re a grown man, you make your own decisions.” He took the jump, maybe 15 feet in the air, feet out in front of him, and landed hard on his left side, broke his ribs, punctured a lung. I always videoed him, off to the side — I didn’t do that kind of thing (jumps) anymore — so I saw it happen.

Most people can’t imagine a grief more profound than that of losing a child. How do you cope with it?
Well, when the whole incident happened, I basically kind of fell back into what I’d lived with my whole life on the fire department, where we would see tragedy — anything you can think of, I’ve seen and dealt with. But when it’s your child … After they helicoptered him out, I hurried to the trauma center, and my wife was there, and she told me once I got there that he didn’t make it.

But the thing that has kept me just sane, I guess, is my faith in God. If I didn’t have that — and I know a lot of people don’t — I don’t know what I’d do. It makes all the difference for me and my family.

When Chris died, he was a registered organ donor. Why?
Well, I’ve always been one, for a long time. And I had said that this is important. So, he was one as well. We watched a documentary about a guy who’d had a successful face transplant, and we were both amazed, both being organ donors, and it was interesting how they pulled it off and gave this guy his life back. But we didn’t think it would come so soon to us.

My work as a fireman also influenced it. We’d run calls on accidents, DUIs, overdose, illnesses, and so I’ve always known how fragile life is and basically seen it. This is something we need to think about, because when we leave this world, we’re not taking anything with us. If we can help somebody else improve or save their life, then absolutely, we should.

Chris’s donated organs and tissues improved or saved the lives of dozens of patients, including his aunt (your sister), who got his anterior cruciate ligament in her knee surgery. Can you tell me about another recipient?
We received a thank-you letter the Christmas after Chris died — the timing was incredible — and she told us that her son had received Chris’s heart valves. At the time, the boy was 5 years old and he’d had at least four open-heart surgeries. Because he received Chris’s heart valves, that did the trick. It fixed him.

I imagine this strengthened your conviction about the need for organ donors.
That letter, it warmed our hearts. Who knows how this will affect this young man’s life, where he’ll go, the joy that his family will have, being with him. I saw this a lot in the fire department: When there was an accident or things were going south, there were always people who wanted to help, but they’re not necessarily trained. This way, you’re helping, and it’s really at no cost to you. It doesn’t require any training.

There are so many people who actually need and benefit from people who donate their organs. Really, it’s important to think about it as a family and talk about it and know whether you do or don’t want to do it. Everybody has someone who cares about them. If they need a heart, or a liver, or any kind of tissue, and they would survive from a donation but there are no donors, then you can see how, from that point of view, it makes a lot of sense.

You continue to ski. What would you say to readers who are surprised by that?
Working for the fire department and going through the stress of sleepless nights and a lot of calls, I’ve always enjoyed skiing. It’s a good release, very relaxing, people are in a good mood. It’s just a good, positive activity. It always has been. I guess if you lost someone in a car accident, you wouldn’t think about never driving again. You still have to live your life.

It’s also a way for me to relive moments I shared with Chris. I grew up skiing at Lee Canyon, so there’s a lot of memories and history up there. I was skiing up there when I was 12 years old. On my days off, I’d work — for about 5 years — as a pro patroller. They would hire firefighters to work on their days off. So, I was doing that and enjoying that part of it. And then I met my wife up there and, basically, we’ve been together ever since, 31 years this month.

For information on organ donation, visit dmvnv.com/dlorgan.htm or nvdonor.org. For information about this weekend’s event, see leecanyonlv.com.

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WHEN IT COMES to auto racing in Southern Nevada, the first thought for most of us is the annual NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But the history of auto racing in Las Vegas began long before the speedway opened in 1996.

Randy Cannon chronicled the sport’s first major period in Las Vegas in his 2018 book Stardust International Raceway: Motorsports Meets the Mob, 1965-1971. Now Cannon has tackled another big Las Vegas racing story in Caesars Palace Grand Prix: Las Vegas, Organized Crime and the Pinnacle of Motorsport.

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In each case, as the subtitles emphasize, Cannon has identified a theme that expands his potential audience. A reader with only a modest interest in auto racing may be enticed to take a chance on these books to find out how the mob wormed its way into yet another industry.

Cannon is a tremendous researcher, digging deeply into newspaper archives and FBI files for long-forgotten information. For his latest book, he provides not only a detailed narrative of Formula One racing in America, but fascinating insights into how the Caesars Palace executive ranks were riddled with organized crime figures long after its glamorous debut in 1966.

The origins of Caesars Palace are fairly well-known. In the early 1960s, Jay Sarno and Stanley Mallin, builders of hotels and motels in Atlanta, Dallas, and Palo Alto, California, decide to push all their chips to the center of the table to create a Roman-themed resort on the Las Vegas Strip. They obtain financial help from labor boss Jimmy Hoffa in the form of loans from the Teamsters Union’s Central States Pension Fund.

The link to Hoffa, a heavily mob-connected union leader, might have been trouble enough for Sarno and Mallin, but as Cannon reports, the mob connections and hidden ownership suspicions at Caesars extended well beyond the Teamsters loans. Cannon describes the casino’s executives and associates as “a veritable wrecking crew of bookmaking, numbers, policy and strong-arm syndicate racketeers and mobsters.”

Topping the list was Jerry Zarowitz, the Caesars executive who was convicted of bribing three New York Giants football players to influence the NFL championship game in 1946. Investigators suspected Zarowitz reported to New York Mafia boss Tony Salerno. Cannon also draws a connection between Caesars and the mob’s legendary financial wizard, Meyer Lansky, through a mysterious intermediary named Alvin Malnik. Interestingly, Cannon notes that New Jersey gaming regulators were considerably more curious about mob ties at Caesars than their counterparts in Nevada.

Of course, the book’s primary goal is to document how the Grand Prix — the world’s most popular motorsport circuit — came to Las Vegas in 1981. The 2.2-mile course was built in the north parking lot of Caesars, on property that today sits beneath the Forum Shops and The Mirage. The Grand Prix returned to Las Vegas in 1982, but Formula One races did not continue after that because they proved a money-loser for Caesars. While championship boxing matches drew large, high-rolling crowds to Las Vegas, Formula One’s global popularity failed to duplicate boxing’s success. (IndyCar races did continue at Caesars for a couple of years.)

Cannon’s relentless cataloguing of winners and losers in each annual Grand Prix racing series from the 1950s through the 1980s is thorough and authoritative, but it can be mind-numbing for those with minimal interest in the sport. His detailed reporting on the mob connections at Caesars Palace is more intriguing.

But the two stories — auto racing and the mob — do not collide as one might expect. No evidence is presented that mobsters used nefarious means to bring Grand Prix racing to Las Vegas, nor that they tried to fix the races. There are no offers that can’t be refused, no thugs knocking at the door. This is a story of the mob gone corporate. Cannon sticks to the facts, which is appreciated, even if the result is a book lacking in drama.

Geoff Schumacher is vice president of exhibits and programs at The Mob Museum.

Caesars Palace Grand Prix: Las Vegas, Organized Crime and the Pinnacle of Motorsport

by Randall Cannon
442 pages, $49.95
McFarland Books

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Photos and art: Chris Ruby courtesy the Ruby family; Caesars Palace Grand Prix courtesy Las Vegas News Bureau

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