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Barney Vinson's World

19 May 2003

It was Pegg Wallace's idea. The tenth anniversary was coming up on the closing of the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, and she said, "We ought to have a party." So that's exactly what we did.

We printed up some flyers, nothing fancy. Just "DUNES CASINO EMPLOYEE REUNION -- 10 YEARS LATER. SEE OLD FRIENDS, HAVE SOME LAUGHS, AND SHARE SOME MEMORIES." A local bar agreed to host the party, even promised to lay out some free food. Of course, those chicken wings and meatballs would just make everyone thirsty, and that's what the bar was counting on.

John L. Smith devoted an entire column in the Review-Journal newspaper to the reunion, and by the night the party rolled around we didn't know what to expect. Would anyone come? Did anyone even care? Or would it just be Pegg and me, and our spouses, shooting pool and drinking ourselves into a coma.

Over the years I'd worked at quite a few casinos: Pioneer, Mint, Landmark, Caesars Palace. But the Dunes was special. It's where I made some lifelong friends, including a cute and sassy blackjack dealer named Debbie. Matter of fact, we've been married ever since the Dunes closed. Kind of like the end of one era, the beginning of another, you might say. If it hadn't been for the Dunes, I probably never would've met her, and who knows where I'd be now.

The Dunes opened in 1955 B.C. (before corporations) with 200 rooms, a "Magic Carpet Revue" featuring Vera-Ellen, and a 30-foot Sultan standing out front, hands on hips and daring you to say anything. If he could have seen what lay ahead, he probably would have sprinted back to Arabia as fast as his fiberglass legs could take him. But in the fifties the Dunes was one of the classiest resorts on the Strip. It specialized in junket play, bringing in high-rollers every week from New York, Miami, St. Louis. Everything was free, as long as the players gambled.

They all had plenty of dough. You could tell that. It oozed out of their pores like expensive perfume, the men wearing pinky rings the size of my fist and the women wearing big black furs that had probably wiped out half the country's wildlife population.

For a young dealer, fresh from downtown, it was an adventure like no other, and it started on my very first night at the Dunes. I hadn't been working five minutes when this heavyset gambler threw me a handful of checks. "Gimme three thousand across," he said. God almighty, those were $500 checks! I'd never even seen one before. I just wanted to sit down and gaze at them for a while. Then it hit me. I didn't even know what "three thousand across" was. I leaned over to the boxman, who was six feet tall, sitting down. "What is it?" he growled, looking at me like I was a piece of dog meat.

"This guy wants three thousand across!"

"Put 'em up."

"Okay." Then: "What is it?"

He exhaled slowly, hitting me in the face with a blast of garlic. "Five hundred on each number!"

I stood there, trying to figure out what the payoff was for a $500 six. Thank God a seven came up on the next roll, or I'd still be trying.

The whole night was like that, more money passing through my hands than I'd ever have in my whole lifetime. Where did it all come from, I wondered. How could someone bet $3,000 on one roll of the dice? If he could afford to bet that much money, then how much money did he have? And if he had that much money, why would he want to gamble in the first place? It was a complete mystery to me.

Sid Wyman was the big owner of the Dunes, and he was a great man to work for. He'd walk through the pit, saying hello to everyone, even greeting us by name. Of course, we were wearing name tags, but it was still a nice gesture. If you were running short, he'd advance you a few bucks till payday, right out of his own kick. Anything you wanted, just ask him for it and you got it. If you crossed him, you were out the door, but that hardly ever happened.

In 1978, Sid Wyman died, and the Dunes died with him. The hotel was taken over by St. Louis attorney Morris Shenker, mouthpiece for Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa. In less than ten year's time, the Dunes went from the showplace of the Strip to a teetering high-rise on the brink of doom.

By the time Steve Wynn bought the 164-acre resort in 1992, there wasn't much left to do except blow the place down, which Wynn did the following year. The Bellagio opened on the site in 1998, and thousands of former Dunes employees were left with nothing but dusty old memories.

Now Pegg was lining up a party. And me? Well, I was giving her moral support, saying things like, "It's a great idea, Pegg." I even brought one of those disposable cameras to the reunion. The way the pictures came out, I should have disposed of it right after I bought the damn thing.

Yeah, I took a lot of pictures, because here's the thing. The party was a roaring success! I'm not exaggerating when I say there must've been 300 former Dunes employees at the reunion, people I hadn't seen in a whole decade.

One was a blackjack dealer named Eleanor. She came wearing a Dunes bow tie and a Dunes apron, and even had a $5 Dunes chip in her pocket. Another was a former Dunes cocktail waitress who had to be honing in on 80. Trying to be funny, I asked her where she was serving drinks now. "At the Hilton," she answered in a scratchy voice.

George Duckworth was there. He was one of the original owners of the Dunes, along with Sid Wyman and Major Riddle. "I retired in 1991," he told me. "Worst thing I ever did." I started to tell him I retired in 2001; best thing I ever did.

In fact, a lot of the Dunes people were retired. They were doing things they'd wanted to do all their life, traveling mostly. Others were now in other lines of work: real estate, law, construction. Some, though, were still in the casino racket, sitting box, working the floor, a few still dealing. One was even a casino vice-president. It made sense. He was the only one there under 40.

I wandered from group to group, taking my pictures. I got a couple of shots of Sam Angel, holding court with a few other old-timers. Sam never actually worked at the Dunes, but sold jewelry out of a battered suitcase over by the baccarat pit. I bought a ring from him one time, and I still get green on my finger every time I wear it.

It's funny, but when I first got to the party everyone looked--well, ten years older. But by the end of the night all those years had peeled away. For one magical night, we were still working at the Dunes, waiting for another junket to land.

They're talking about making the reunion an annual event. I've got a better idea. We could all pool our money, borrow some more, buy the Bellagio, tear it down, and rebuild the Dunes. I bet it would be the greatest casino in town. And who knows, we might even hire George Duckworth back.

Barney Vinson

Barney Vinson is one of the most popular and best-selling gaming authors of all time. He is the author of Ask Barney, Las Vegas: Behind the Tables, Casino Secrets, Las Vegas Behind the Tables Part II, and Chip-Wrecked in Las Vegas. His newest book, a novel, is The Vegas Kid.

Books by Barney Vinson:

> More Books By Barney Vinson

Barney Vinson
Barney Vinson is one of the most popular and best-selling gaming authors of all time. He is the author of Ask Barney, Las Vegas: Behind the Tables, Casino Secrets, Las Vegas Behind the Tables Part II, and Chip-Wrecked in Las Vegas. His newest book, a novel, is The Vegas Kid.

Books by Barney Vinson:

> More Books By Barney Vinson