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LOST VEGAS: “Tony The Ant” Spilotro’s Circus Circus Gift Shop

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Posted on: April 23, 2024, 07:35h. 

Last updated on: April 23, 2024, 07:35h.

When people talk about the mob running Las Vegas, they’re not referring to the gift shop at Circus Circus. But that’s exactly what Anthony Spilotro — the high-ranking Chicago Outfit member who inspired Joe Pesci’s character in the 1995 movie “Casino” — ran in 1975.

Circus Circus, shown circa 1970, had a gift shop run by mobster Tony Spilotro. (Image: Historic Vegas Project, inset: IMDB)

The shop, located next to the circus-themed casino’s midway, was called Anthony Stuart’s — after his wife Nancy’s maiden name. While it may seem unwise to lease out space in your casino to a known mobster, it was part of a deal that Circus Circus’ owner, Jay Sarno, was forced to cut with the Teamsters Union.

The union — mobbed up through its then-imprisoned leader, Jimmy Hoffa — loaned Sarno $7.6 million from its pension fund to help him build a 15-story hotel tower in 1971.

Spilotro with his attorney, and future Las Vegas mayor, Oscar Goodman in an undated photo. (Image: IMDB)

No theory has ever been proven as to why Spilotro — a man supposedly earning millions from the mafia’s skim operation at the Stardust, Fremont, Hacienda and Marina casinos — would want to own a casino gift shop. However, in 1976, Spilotro opened a pawn shop next to the Golden Steer steakhouse, called Gold Rush, which fenced goods stolen by his notorious Hole in the Wall Gang.

Offer He Couldn’t Refuse

Spilotro paid $70-large for the Circus Circus gift shop to its owner, Willie Cohen. When Spilotro brought the contract to an attorney recommended by Cohen, it was the mobster’s first meeting with the man who would famously represent him in court for the rest of his short life and who, 25 years later, would become the mayor of Las Vegas.

“Tony showed up at my office dressed very professionally in a jacket and tie,” Goodman wrote in his 2013 autobiography, “Being Oscar.” “I looked over his paperwork. It was a legitimate business as far as I could tell, and the contract was strictly on the up-and-up.”

The meeting lasted only 15 minutes.

Spilotro’s Gold Rush pawn shop was located at 228 W. Sahara Ave. (Image: The Mob Museum)

“To me it was not a big deal, but people in law enforcement were watching Tony’s every move,” Goodman wrote. “This was just the start of a ten-year run where it seemed like every day I was fighting some battle on his behalf.”

When the police informed gaming regulators, they threatened Sarno with revoking his gaming license. Sarno was forced to evict the only casino  retail tenant in Las Vegas history ever suspected by the FBI of being involved in two dozen murders.

Of course, Sarno didn’t get away scot-free. To buy back the shop, he had to pay Spilotro 10 times what he paid ($700K).

“Not a bad profit for Tony,” Goodman wrote. “For me, it was the start of a fascinating relationship.”

“Lost Vegas” is an occasional Casino.org series spotlighting Las Vegas’ forgotten history. Click here to read other entries in the series. Think you know a good Vegas story lost to history? Email corey@casino.org. 

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