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Wingy and the days we thought wouldn’t end!

May 20, 2003 11:22 PM

THOSE WERE THE DAYS! It seems as if the more Las Vegas changes, the more people want to know about how it was.

Newcomers continue to request stories of the so-called good old days. I like that. Historians abound who write about Boulder Dam, etc. But, who’s around to tell about the gamblers, the rounders and the entertainers who came here to have fun well into the wee small hours of the morning?

To some degree, I can. And it’s always a delight to search the back roads of my mind to recall many happy days and nights gone by.

Here’s one for openers. It goes back to the 70s and 80s ”” the heydays of the Valley of Dollars. It took little effort to recall one of the town’s greatest casino characters. He worked for the house. That’s what his business card read. However, in reality Bert "Wingy" Grober spent most of his time on the player’s side of the line. Big and small, Wingy befriended them all. He worked at Caesars Palace since it opened in 1966. Everyone said that Wingy had a few points in the joint. I believe it.

He moved to town about a year before Caesars opened. He sold his well-known Park Avenue restaurant in Miami Beach and never looked back.

Wingy was always dressed to the nines, with a fresh carnation in his lapel. I never saw him out of a suit and tie. All of his suits and shirts had to be tailor made. He was born with a short left arm. That’s how he got his nickname, Wingy.

His stories are everywhere. It’s tough to come up with only a few. Peanut butter might be good for openers. The man had a love affair with peanut butter. He also was very high on Kentucky fried chicken.

"He would eat only the legs," recalled Eddie Gennis, also a native Miamian who worked side by side with Wingy for nearly 25 years.

"We would order KFC and send it to the coffee shop. Wingy was always the first one at the table. He would tell stories about gamblers and entertainers. They were better than the chicken. But, not to Wingy.

"As for peanut butter ”” jars of Skippy were in nearly all the executive offices. Wingy wanted it that way. He would cram a jar under his bad wing, unscrew the lid and lick his fingers clean," recalled Jessie Lenz, another of his Caesars sidekicks.

Generosity? Wingy was hip high in being generous. He kept plenty of money in a safe deposit box at the cage. Employees ”” or even players in need of a touch when their credit ran out ”” often called on Wingy. On paydays employees would form a line at the cage. He would stand behind the window and collect his just dues ”” interest free, of course.

"He lent money to the high and mighty and even little guys who needed bullets," explained Gene Kilroy, a Wingy admirer and longtime casino executive now at Binion’s Horseshoe. "Wingy often volunteered to pump up a player for one more chances to take another shot.

"His bark ”” beyond any doubt ”” was worse than his bite. He didn’t want anyone to know he was really a pussycat. I always said God gave him a bad arm, but a good one, too, so he could reach in his pocket to help."

On his 80th birthday Caesars tossed a party for Wingy and his friend at the Bacchanal room. All his gang came, including his pal Frank Sinatra. Wingy had a charm with Cheech. He could make him listen ”” truly a gift.

It is said that Wingy loved all the customers. There was an exception. He was a little sour on a high roller who went by the name of C.B.G. Murphy (Howard Hughes?). C.B.G. played in a bathrobe with slippers and no socks. He often slept in the coffee shop. Even though he bet millions, he wasn’t Wingy’s cup of tea.

One of Wingy’s favorite players was a Korean. He was head of the Korean police force ”” a heavy. One night the top cop tapped out. His credit was beyond its limits. Wingy to the rescue. The Korean put the bite on Mr. Groper who came up with $2,000. The money proved lucky. By morning he had run it into $1 Âí­million.

As age caught up with Wingy he surrendered his pad at Caesars.

Here was a guy who spent most of his life in a ground floor room just off the cage at Caesars. In the winter of his life Wingy moved south ”” to the old Dunes hotel. Thanks to Gene Kilroy, Morris Shenker, another colorful casino character of the past and owner of the Dunes, told Kilroy to make sure that Wingy had a top suite overlooking the Strip. Wingy loved it and rested comfortably until he reached the finish line.

At 84, Bert Groper signed off. Another giant of the past went on to better things.

Stay tuned; there’ll be more. I’ll tell you about C.B.G., whom many thought was really Howard Hughes in the days before he bought into the Las Vegas hotel business. But that’s another story.