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Son of a Gambling Man: My Journey from a Casino Family to the Governor's Mansion

An excerpt from Nevada Governor Bob Miller's book

Son of a Gambling Man: My Journey from a Casino Family to the Governor's Mansion

The path to the Nevada governor’s mansion for Governor Bob Miller was long and convoluted. But it all began with a typical life in Las Vegas—except that to most Americans, a Las Vegas upbringing isn’t so typical when it includes a father who worked with the mobsters who controlled Las Vegas casinos in those days. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of Miller’s book, which can be found at all online and land-based bookstores.

The Millers Begin Living the Vegas Life

The summer after my sophomore year at Bishop Gorman High School, when I was 16, I landed a busboy job at the Stardust Resort & Casino, a newer, upscale hotel. The Stardust had opened on the Strip in 1958, three years after the Riviera, and immediately made a national splash with its giant “Big Dipper” swimming pool, a drive-in theater, and the state’s largest casino (16,500 square feet). The Stardust also boasted the largest sign in the world; it was an array of stars brilliantly lit by 11,000 bulbs that could be seen 60 miles away.

The Stardust was just at a different level from its competitors. Its interior décor was posh, accented in deep reds and browns.

A busboy job at the Stardust was a great gig. I worked room service, which meant zipping around on a cart. The Stardust, like most hotels in Vegas then, had guest rooms in the back, not like today’s towers. There were two-story buildings behind the Stardust, and I would retrieve meal trays.

I didn’t last long, though. One day I came to work very tired. I said as much, and one of the waiters said, “Ah, go around the corner and take a catnap.” I’d seen waiters grabbing shut-eye when business was slow. It sounded good to me. So I curled up in a corner of the kitchen, out of sight, and dozed off.

A loud voice awakened me. I opened my eyes to see, staring down at me, the chairman of the board of the Stardust: Al Benedict. He was not a tall man, and he was of slender build, but his demeanor left no doubt he was the boss. He was a serious man. Just my luck, there he was touring the kitchen that afternoon. The sight of me incensed him.

“You’re fired,” he said.

To this day I don’t know whether I was set up. I suppose I was just a naïve kid and a perfect mark for the waiters. Maybe they resented the fact that my dad was a boss at the casino across the street. Or maybe they were just having some cruel fun at my expense. I can imagine now that one of them picked up a phone right after I’d nodded off and told a manager, “Guess what this kid’s doing?”

I turned in my bow tie and jacket. I was a nervous wreck. Dad was going to kill me. This was surely my last day on Earth.

He certainly was displeased when I told him.

“You’ve embarrassed me,” he said. “I can’t believe you did something that stupid.”

Those words crushed me. I knew I had no excuses to make. I’d deserved to be fired. Worse, I had let my dad down. I was not a stand-up guy; I was a sleeping boy.

I would not be out of work long, courtesy of my father’s upward trajectory.

Thanks to him, I landed a plum job working as a lifeguard at the Riviera pool, although he told the head lifeguard to keep an eye on me, to make sure I wasn’t sloughing off. I ended up keeping the lifeguard job for four summers. Like any job that involved dealing with people, it was an education in itself. In some ways, it would prepare me for what turned out to be a career in public office. I was shy by nature but the job put me into a position where I would have to chit-chat with guests, and it wasn’t unusual for out-of-towners to ask me whether I lived in the hotel. Tourists couldn’t believe people actually resided in regular homes in Vegas. To most visitors, our city was just the Strip and Downtown’s Glitter Gulch, surrounded by cactus-studded desert wilderness. They were unaware of the neighborhoods of ranch-style houses, or the parks and ball fields, the churches and schools.

They just saw Sin City. People stayed up all night. There were no clocks in the hotels or natural lighting in the casinos, for obvious reasons. The city never slept, and it didn’t want its customers to, either.

Las Vegas, though, was quite a conservative town then. There were various taboos in the early 1960s that have since fallen by the wayside, as in the rest of the country. African-American guests were not made to feel welcome in the resorts on the Strip or Downtown, even though blacks worked as laborers and, of course, as top-notch entertainers in the showrooms and lounges. Desegregation was slowly taking hold, as Vegas wrestled with the nickname “the Mississippi of the West,” a derogatory label slapped on it by civil-rights activists. I heard some unbelievable conversations between guests and the staff at the pool. Some segregationist-minded whites maintained that if blacks were allowed to enjoy the pool, whites would quit going there, or would demand the pool be drained and refilled.

The bosses who ran the Strip and Downtown casinos believed that gamblers from the South would not want to visit a place different from the society in which they lived, and most of these casino chiefs were not exactly racially progressive themselves. But even if they were sympathetic toward civil rights, they wouldn’t allow such sentiments to interfere with the bottom line. It’s shocking to reflect that in the years I was a lifeguard there were no black hotel guests at the Riv or any of the Downtown or Strip properties, nor did blacks work as dealers or waitresses there.

Even the black entertainers stayed at the only lodging available to them, in an area of town then referred to as the Westside. Through the efforts of Governor Grant Sawyer, and a welfare mom named Ruby Duncan, who led protest marches, the resorts finally were desegregated. (In 2008, Ruby Duncan was awarded the National Association of Secretaries of State’s Margaret Chase Smith American Democracy Award, beating out the likes of Al Gore. My son had nominated her.)

At least, in theory. Sawyer, whose two terms as governor ran from 1959 to 1967, wanted to do for Nevada what U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota urged the country to do in 1948: walk into the bright sunshine of civil rights.

Sawyer got an Equal Rights Commission through the Nevada legislature, which gave it everything but money for a budget and the power to do anything.

Racial mixing wasn’t the only taboo at the Riv. Public displays of affection that would be considered G-rated today were considered racy in Las Vegas in 1963. The stage was one thing, with its risqué (for its time) topless shows and scantily clad showgirls. Public behavior was another matter.

In summer 1963, we lifeguards were concerned by two young newlyweds embracing in the pool. The woman was well built and happened to be a singer opening for Liberace in the Riv’s showroom. Her curly-haired husband, a fledgling actor of some sort, had a thick mat of chest hair. Both were from Brooklyn, strong-minded and brassy, and didn’t seem to care what people made of them kissing passionately. We lifeguards had to go in the water and ask them to stop, saying, “Look, there are kids around here and if you’re going to get romantic, could you please go back to your room?”

It turned out that wasn’t the only friction this pair would cause.

A day or so later, the woman phoned down to the pool from her room. She gave me her name and room number and said, “I would like a lounge.”

“Certainly,” I said. “Do you know where around the pool you would like to lounge? I’ll set it up for you whenever you come down.”

“No,” she said, rather curtly. “I want this lounge in my room on the patio.”

As politely as I could, I said, “Well, the lounges are for the pool area, but I would be glad to set it up down here anywhere you like.”

She hung up.

Soon after, I got a call at the pool from one of the hotel owners. “Who just spoke to Miss Streisand?” he asked. I told him that I had, and I related the conversation.

“OK, I understand,” he said. “But would you take her a chaise lounge?”

So I did, carting it up the elevator to the third floor, down the hall, through her bedroom, and outside so that she could be the only guest having a chaise lounge on her patio. In return, I received no tip, or even a thank-you.

It was only a few years later that this woman became a major international star, and a celebrity of such stature that the public knew her by her first name only, Barbra. There at the Riv’s pool, I’d encountered Barbra Streisand, who in 1963 was a brash 21-year-old. Her 24-year-old husband, by the way, was actor Elliott Gould.

Dad kept an eye on me at the pool. He’d usually get to work around 5 or 6 p.m., and I’d usually get off work at 7 p.m. I’d glance up and there he’d be in his dark suit, standing there watching, maybe making sure I wasn’t sleeping on the job again. Of course, I wasn’t supposed to hang around the hotel after work; he’d made that clear enough.

Las Vegas already was different from any other city in the world. An ocean of multi-colored neon bathed the Strip. Marquees advertised the names of the country’s greatest entertainers. By the 1960s, Las Vegas had usurped Broadway as the live-entertainment capital of the nation. The Great White Way couldn’t compete with the Strip in terms of paying power to performers. The casino bosses wanted the best in the business so they could draw the most customers and the highest rollers, and they had the cash to spend. At the same time, the admission prices to the showrooms were bargain rates.

The Riv alone featured such luminaries as Liberace, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Harry Belafonte and Red Skelton. Elsewhere on the Strip, any one of the clique of entertainers the media dubbed “the Rat Pack” might be performing. When Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford held their legendary “Summit” in the Sands’ Copa Room over a three-week period in 1960, during their filming of Ocean’s Eleven, Dad used his connections to get me in, twice.

The lounge shows, of course, were free, and who knew what future star might be appearing. Wayne Newton, for example, got his start as a high-pitched teenager in Vegas’ lounges, performing with his older brother Jerry. One of the favorite lounge acts at the time was the Checkmates, a soul group that featured vocalists Sonny Charles and Sweet Louie, and that later on scored big on the charts with an R&B hit, “Black Pearl.”

One night, after an evening at the drive-in with my date, it was still early. She insisted we return to the Riv. She was a hotel guest I had met at the pool and going to a drive-in was not her idea of seeing Las Vegas. I kept protesting, but she wanted to get into the lounge show. I resisted but finally relented. Neither of us was of legal age, but that didn’t keep a lot of young people from making their way into the lounges. I really couldn’t think of a compelling reason not to try, except that Dad might find out.

But I never told any of my dates who my dad was, so I couldn’t use that as an excuse for why we should avoid the lounge.

So we gave it a whirl. To my relief, there was a long line outside. I was able to convince the girl that we probably couldn’t get in. But as we were making our way out, I made a small logistical error: We walked past the maître d’. He spotted me.

“Oh, Bob! How great to see you! Would you like to see the show?”

“Well, you look pretty crowded . . .” I began.

“No problem! Stand right here. Just give me a minute!”

He came back a few moments later carrying a little round table, followed by an usher carting two chairs. “OK, follow me,” the maître d’ said.

He walked down to the middle of the room and stopped right in front of the stage, adjusted some other tables out of the way, and put ours down.

As he seated us, he said, “I hope you enjoy the show.”

The cocktail waitress was waiting nearby. She greeted me by name and took our drink orders.

My date was so impressed she barely knew what to make of the VIP treatment. Eyes wide, she gasped, “Do they treat all the lifeguards here like this?”

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