The story of Tony Cornero and the Stardust Casino

Wednesday, 14 February 2024

Like so many of Las Vegas’ beautiful stories, the story of Antonio Cornero Stralla – founder of Stardust Casino, starts from a story of life, survival and through a native entrepreneurial talent to the realization of an ambition in troubled times when hardly anyone could do business in the Nevada desert without the East Coast family being involved.

Tony Cornero

The beginning of Tony Cornero’s story

In the summer of 1899, Antonio Cornero was born in northern Italy. They lived off the work of their father who owned a farm. After his father lost the farm in a card game (how ironic) and a fire destroyed their crops, the family left Italy and emigrated to the United States.

In America they settled in the San Francisco area. His mother remarried and in doing so he also got two half-brothers. During the Prohibition period he became involved in the liquor trade. Bringing shipments over seas from Canada and Mexico. He used a shrimp boat as a cover for his illegal activity. He got rich. The classic story of the mobster made rich by Prohibition.

In 1926 he is caught by the Coast Guard and arrested. He gets two years in prison. For a while he stays in hiding.

His beginnings in gambling

In 1931 he re-entered the business. America drops Prohibition, and Cornero moves his business into gambling. In 1931, when gambling is legalized, he and his brothers move to Las Vegas and buy 12 acres in the desert near the Las Vegas city limits at the corner of Fremont Street and Charleston Boulevard. Soon, Cornero opens The Meadows Casino & Hotel, one of the first seven licensed casinos in Las Vegas.

It is considered one of the first resorts in Vegas, 10 years ahead of El Rancho Vegas and 15 before Flamingo. This success draws attention to itself. Charles “Lucky” Luciano, head of the New York mob family, demands through Meyer Lansky, their associate, a percentage of Cornero’s gambling profits to be left alone. Cornero refuses, and Meadows ends up being burned. Cornero sells the business to Alex Richmond, a Southern California hotel owner, and moves back to Los Angeles.

Meadows Casino

Floating casinos

In 1936 Cornero decided to open a gambling operation aboard ships off the coast of Southern California. Already familiar with the area’s waters from the Prohibition era, and intending to sail in international waters, Cornero hopes to legally operate his gambling halls without interference from American authorities.

Cornero buys two large ships and turns them into luxury casinos. So the SS Rex and the SS Tango go into action. The most important cruise ship was the SS Rex, a vessel that could accommodate more than 2,000 gamblers. It had a crew of 350 on board, including waiters and waitresses, fancy chefs and a full orchestra. The restaurant here served exclusively French cuisine.

The two ships were anchored outside the “three-mile limit” of Santa Monica and Long Beach. The wealthy of Los Angeles would take water taxis to the ships for as little as 25 cents to enjoy gambling, shows and fine dining, and Tony earned $200,000 a month (a fortune in those days).

His success earned him the nickname “The Admiral”.

The Stardust Casino Story

Ten years later, in 1954, Tony returns to Vegas, still drawn by the allure of the city. He buys 16 acres right on the Strip. The plan for the new casino included a strategically located property near the Sands and Desert Inn with hundreds of motel rooms, restaurants and a casino. The dream property was to be called Starlight Casino. Only Davie Berman and Bugsy Siegel still held the power in town…

Unfortunately, Tony’s construction claims were far from modest and the establishment was gobbling up a lot of money. After two years of wrangling with the Nevada Gaming Control Board (which denied his gaming license because of past problems with the law – bootlegging and former prison sentences) Cornero was beset by mounting financial problems.

STARDUST

It had unfinished construction and an unlicensed casino.

To avoid bankruptcy, Cornero borrowed successively from Moe Dalitz, owner of the Desert Inn, and Dalitz’s partner, New York mobster Meyer Lansky. Tony borrows a total of $4.3 million using the unfinished Stardust Hotel as collateral for the loan. Despite these cash infusions, the Admiral runs out of money again as construction of the hotel is nearing completion.

On July 31, 1955 Cornero requests an additional $800,000 of investor funds to properly stock the property. We don’t know how this story would have ended if Tony had gotten to see his dream for himself, but to his lenders he was more useful dead than alive. He loved to play craps at the Desert Inn so the last hours of his life were spent at the table. He ordered one last drink and collapsed on the floor. He died soon after, before a doctor could save him.

He was said to have died of a heart attack…

The Cornero family received no compensation for the two years of effort to open their new casino.

As for the Starlight, the new owners of the Rela Factor project, the wife of John Factor (real name Yakov Faktorowicz) – a mobster associated with the Chicago Outfit buys the property in January 1958 and completes construction. They renamed the casino the Stardust and opened it to great fanfare on July 2, 1958. The resort also had the largest hotel in the world at the time (1,065 rooms).

The Stardust closes on 1 November 2006. On 13 March 2007 the building is demolished by controlled implosion. Thus ends a turbulent story of shattered dreams, intrigue and a lot of dirty money.

Sources: nevadagaminghistory.com, reviewjournal.com, Wikipedia.





Author: Editor

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