Tahoe’s good fellas
March 8, 2006
Even though it’s far from the New Jersey stomping grounds of “The Sopranos,” Lake Tahoe has its own connections to the Mafia – from the fictional “Godfather” series to the bigger-than-life persona of Frank Sinatra.
Most of the ties are now historical: Sinatra has passed away and the Homewood estate where the beginning scenes of “Godfather II” were filmed has mostly been demolished and replaced by multi-million dollar houses and duplexes.
But the interest is still there. A BBC radio crew was at Sinatra’s former casino, the Cal-Neva Resort Spa and Casino at Tahoe’s North Shore, in November interviewing people for a biography on the crooner with gangster friends.
Rob Evans, general manager of the Fleur du Lac Estates, the 15-acre estate portrayed as a Corleone compound in the 1974 sequel, said people still flock to the property even though it’s private and gated.
People have snapped pictures from the lake (many boats include the waterfront house in sightseeing tours) and adjacent beaches even though most of the structures of the Henry J. Kaiser estate are no longer standing, Evans said. Only the boathouse, yacht club and two caretaker structures exist from the original estate, built in 1939.
“They come right by, sure,” Evans said. “It’s a great stop for them, to point out a movie was filmed here.”
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Owners of units within Fleur du Lac Estates haven’t mentioned whether they were motivated to buy because of the association with the famous mobster movie, Evans said. They are typically high-end customers wanting easy access to the water and surrounding ski resorts. One duplex on the market is listed at $4.9 million, Evans said.
Evans was asked if the body of Fredo Corleone, the bumbling brother of Michael Corleone in the “Godfather” who was shot and dumped into Lake Tahoe for his betrayal, has been discovered.
“No, he hasn’t,” Evans said.
Old Blue Eyes red
Not far from the estate is the Cal-Neva Resort Spa and Casino, once owned by Sinatra. Besides Marilyn Monroe, another notable guest of Sinatra’s was Sam Giancana, a Mafia boss in Chicago.
“Clearly that was a mobbed-up situation,” said Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha.
Guy Farmer, a Carson City resident who was once the press spokesman for the Nevada Gaming Commission and State Gaming Control Board, listened to and transcribed a heated 1963 discussion between Sinatra and Edward Olsen, chairman of the gaming board.
“Sinatra was really mad because he wasn’t getting his way,” Farmer said.
An incensed Sinatra spoke to Olsen in an obscenity-laced phone call about “harassment” from the board regarding visitations to Cal-Neva by Giancana, blacklisted from Nevada casinos because of his Mafia status.
“‘It’s you and your goddamn subpoenas which have caused all the trouble,’ we heard an angry Sinatra tell Olsen,” Farmer said. “‘I’m never coming to see you again,’ (Sinatra) continued. ‘You just try and find me, and if you do, you can look for a big, fat surprise . . .'”
Soon afterward, “despite the bluster and the threats,” Sinatra relinquished his gaming license, Farmer said.
Obscenities were not the only thing that stuck in Farmer’s mind about the heated exchange.
“In the phone call I overheard on Sept. 1, 1963, Sinatra clearly implied that his friends in the Kennedy administration would persecute (then-Nevada) Gov. Grant Sawyer and the state of Nevada if we pursued our case against Sinatra,” Farmer said. “Much later we learned that Sinatra made one of his many girlfriends, Judith Campbell, available to both President (John) Kennedy and Giancana. The president and the godfather shared the singer’s former mistress for several months until powerful FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover warned JFK about Ms. Campbell and Giancana. To his credit, Kennedy eventually dumped Sinatra, who switched parties and became a conservative Republican.”
South Shore has little history with gangster types. Two questionable murders, one at an old casino near Kahle Drive called Tahoe Village, was the site of the 1949 killing of Harry Sherwood by “Russian” Louie Strauss, said those who remember the slaying.
Sherwood was a partner in the casino, as was Strauss, according to Joe Snyder, who spent more than five decades in Nevada’s gaming industry with his first job at the Tahoe Village.
Snyder said Strauss might have been enraged by Sherwood possibly skimming money from the casino. Strauss was later absolved of the murder, claiming it was selfdefense. He then left Tahoe for Vegas. Accounts state Strauss was whacked by Mafia hit men.
“He just disappeared,” Snyder said. “He’s probably buried out in the middle of the desert somewhere.”
Years later, in the early 1960s, Dick Shartran, an owner of Barney’s Casino (now Bill’s Lake Tahoe Casino), died in a car bomb in Skyland.
Snyder believes Shartran reneged on loan. The bomb activated when Shartran put his car in forward gear.
“They not only wanted your money, they also wanted your life,” Snyder said.
“Nobody really knows (who did it) and it was never solved,” said Dwayne Kling, a longtime casino executive and gaming historian. “He owed somebody I’m sure something.”
Kling said the Shartran’s murder is not known to be Mafia related.
Tahoe’s good fellas
Tahoe proved a burden for mobsters, Kling believed, with its inclement weather and small size. It also had two “straight-arrow guys” who pioneered gambling at South Shore, Bill Harrah and Harvey Gross, Kling said.
Some temporary casinos would be erected around the Tahoe area between Memorial Day and Labor Day but didn’t have much staying power.
“There wasn’t a lot of room for the Mafia to get involved in,” Kling said.
On the fictional front, there is room. Last fall a film crew making “Smokin’ Aces,” a mob-related movie starring actors of past Mafia movies such as Ray Liotta and Andy Garcia, focused most of its cameras inside Caesars Tahoe.
In a 2004 book, “The Godfather Returns,” a book by Mark Winegardner on the story and characters by Mario Puzo, references were made to Tahoe and the Corleone family.
And in a New York magazine article this month, Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher Moltisanti in the HBO series, “The Sopranos,” was reportedly at Lake Tahoe when a fan asked him if he could be in the show.
The response? Fughetaboutit.