Wilbur Clark was a prominent figure in the development of Las Vegas, known for his contributions to the city’s casino industry and luxurious resort properties. Congenial and affable, he offered a friendly face and made a casino look safe – not shady. Las Vegas was never perfect, but the right frontman never hurt.
In the photo above, Hollywood and TV legends Ed Sullivan (R) and Red Skelton (C) enjoy a round of golf with their host, Wilbur Clark.
Born in Afton, Wyoming, in 1908, Clark grew up in a family of modest means and worked his way up through the ranks of the hospitality industry to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Las Vegas.
Wilbur Clark’s Reno Casino Roots
After graduating high school in 1925, Clark moved to Los Angeles to attend business school. He started his career working as a bellhop at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where he quickly moved up the ranks to become a hotel manager. Clark also became friends with Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Carole Lombard.
In the 1930s, Clark moved to Reno, Nevada, where he worked at the Riverside Hotel for George Wingfield and took an interest in the casino operated on the property by Bert Riddick and Nick Abelman. He was great at cultivating friendships as well as perfecting marketing tactics that put his name first. Those schmoozing skills would someday make him a legend in Las Vegas.
But first, a stint in a series of bars in San Diego and a partnership with Tony Cornero at the SS REX made him a healthy profit and led him to move back to Reno and try the gaming industry. He purchased the Barn casino and renamed it the Bonanza at 207 N. Center Street – 100 feet from Bill Graham’s Bank Club. It didn’t go well. Players had little reason to play at the tiny Bonanza when larger casinos like Harold’s Club and the Palace surrounded it.
He didn’t have much cash left after taking a $25,000 loss. But he took his bankroll to Vegas and bought into the existing Northern casino downtown, fronted for the Mob, and kept his mouth shut, even as the name changed to the Turf Club to accommodate track and sports bettors who flocked to the town for legal wagering. The Mob and the Chicago Outfit owned the sports wire – fronted by Moey Sedway and Bugsy Siegel. See where this is going?
That’s right. Thomas Hull sold his points in the El Rancho to Moe Dalitz and Meyer Lansky. The new owners of record for the Clark County gaming license, Hilton-Brown, worked fine as a front for a while, but they kept wanting to be in the count room when the table game drop boxes were opened and the money was counted—the nerve of some guys. The Mob needed a guy who knew the score, a guy with more ego and less greed, and that man was Wilbur Clark.
The Desert Inn Casino
Clark was very good at his job. He worked with Hollywood show people, he threw lavish parties for high-rollers, and he made giveaway tokens with his likeness and name: Wilbur Clark – El Rancho Vegas. And then he took a few partners, sunk $245,000 into the sand along the Strip, and sat brooding in the baking sun months later when his funding dried up. How could that happen? Was it anything like Bugsy Siegel taking over the Flamingo around the same time? Of course, it was!
But instead of Bugsy, it was Moe Dalitz to the rescue. And Moe knew his stuff. He hired new contractors and new architects, and there was always Wilbur’s Rolodex of big players to fill the casino. The Desert Inn hotel was a massive success, known for its luxurious accommodations, high-end dining, and world-class entertainment, and quickly became one of the most popular resorts in Las Vegas. As told in Vegas and the Mob, it even had its own Golf Tournament with a $10,000 prize.
It had Hollywood stars in the showroom, famous faces on the walls, and Wilbur Clark’s smiling face on the casino chips. Plus, Wilbur minted many more thousands of tokens with his likeness. He liked them so much that he made key chains and lucky bucks with his picture. The property was spacious, with plenty of parking in front of the casino. It became a local meeting favorite, and plenty of deals originated at the bar.
All the while, Moe Dalitz’s Cleveland Syndicate (with Morris Kleinman, Louis Rothkopf, and Samuel Tucker) sent skim to the Cleveland family to support northern Ohio illegal gambling, loansharking, and labor rackets – and to keep other Mafia families from trying to force their way into the Desert Inn. However, the Chicago Outfit maintained a piece of the pie.
Wilbur’s face adorned a series of gaming chips down in Cuba at Wilbur Clark’s Havana Casino. His investment was minimal. Meyer Lansky fronted most of the cash along with the Mob, but Wilbur was a safe bet!
Clark expanded his empire in the following years and was known for his philanthropic efforts. He was a significant contributor to charitable causes, including the construction of the Las Vegas Library.
Wilbur Clark’s Later Years
Despite his success in the casino industry, Clark’s later years were marked by controversy and financial difficulties. In the 1960s, he became embroiled in a legal battle with Howard Hughes, who had purchased the Desert Inn. Clark claimed that Hughes had cheated him of millions of dollars, and the two men engaged in a bitter legal dispute that lasted for years.
In addition to his legal troubles, Clark’s health began to decline in the 1970s, and he was forced to sell off many of his properties to pay for medical expenses. He eventually retired to his estate in La Jolla, California, where he passed away in 1965 at 79.
Despite the controversies that marked the later years of his life, Wilbur Clark is remembered as a Las Vegas legend and a pioneer in the casino industry. His contributions to the development of the city’s resort properties helped establish Las Vegas as a premier tourist destination, and his philanthropic efforts helped support various charitable causes.
Although he didn’t have the financial investment others did in his casinos, the man knew how to operate resorts and marketed them like a genius. There are many merits to his legacy and his business acumen.
Wonderful historic review of Wilber Clark. I was a 21 dealer years ago and remember his name very well. He truly was a legend for Nevada! Thank you for your post about Wilber.
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Thanks for reading! You’ve probably got some great stories yourself about dealing cards. Enjoy your day.
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