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Rod Smith

Stardust memories: Cornero never saw his Stardust dream come true

30 October 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Like many of Las Vegas' early casino operators, Anthony "Tony" Cornero clearly was mobbed-up when he conceived the Stardust in the 1950s.

But in the end, Cornero was little more than a Las Vegas footnote, said Bill Thompson, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor who specializes in gaming studies.

"He represented a mob intrusion into Las Vegas, and previously he ran illegal places in Los Angeles, and boats of questionable legality off Los Angeles. (But) he never lived to be a Las Vegas operator, although he may have been a minor bit owner of other mob places here," Thompson said.

An immigrant from Italy, Cornero first crossed swords with the law and went to prison for smuggling thousands of cases of bootlegged tequila in tons of shrimp from Mexico and selling the lot to restaurants in the West.

After prison, he set up and operated the Ken Tar Insulation Co. -- until the feds figured out its two operations were just giant stills.

Once quickie divorces and gambling were legalized in Nevada in 1931, he did a brief tour running The Meadows, a 24-room casino-hotel outside Las Vegas, before he turned to bigger fish.

In the 1930s and 1940s, he operated gambling ships off the Southern California coast with a revolving set of financial partners, until then-California Attorney General Earl Warren ran them off.

One of Cornero's earliest investors in the gambling ships was Wilbur Clark, who later built the Desert Inn.

Ultimately, Cornero sold his prize ship, the Rex, to Clark. In 1944 he used those proceeds to buy the El Rancho and move to Las Vegas.

Cornero also had plans for a casino in Mexico, which it seems not everyone liked.

Cornero was shot in the stomach while dining with two Mexican officials in his Beverly Hills home, but he recovered.

Cornero then leased space in the Apache Hotel in downtown Las Vegas for a short-lived casino project that was to be called the S.S. Rex, but it never got off the drawing board.

Cornero saw the Strip as his salvation, and he bought a major property near the Last Frontier for his dream project, Tony Cornero's Starlight.

Despite years of planning and initial construction, Cornero did not live to see his plans come alive.

He died of a heart attack while gambling at the Desert Inn in 1955.

David Schwartz, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' Center for Gaming Research, called Cornero the "flip side" of Clark, a sometime partner.

They came from similar backgrounds and worked together, but Cornero's connections with the mob went far deeper than Clark's, Schwartz said.

In the end, Clark saw his dream, the Desert Inn, opened and operating. Cornero died before his dreams became reality.

When he died, Cornero was still trying to hustle up the money for the Stardust, using some unconventional means, including allegedly printing his own stock certificates, Schwartz said.