The Italian ocean liner S.S. Rex.
The Los Angeles gambling ship S.S. Rex.
The other S.S. Rex – a gambling ship off Santa Monica, California in the 1930s and early 1940s.
Besides the fabulous Italian ocean liner S.S. REX launched in 1931, there was another S.S. REX. The far lesser (but profitable) SS REX was operated as a gambling ship off Los Angeles by Anthony Cornero. Gary Grant made a movie in the early 1930s based on the gambling boats.
During his varied criminal career, he bootlegged liquor into Los Angeles, ran gambling ships in international waters, and eventually operated casinos in Las Vegas.
Los Angeles Times advertisement.
In 1938, Cornero decided to open a shipboard gaming operation off the Southern California coast. Sailing in international waters, Cornero would be able to run his gambling dens without interference from U.S. authorities or the Cosa Nostra.
Gambling aboard Cornero’s off-shore ships.
Cornero purchased two ships (more like barges) and converted them into casinos at a cost of $300,000. He named the ships the SS Rex and the SS Tango.
The S. S. Tango.
Cornero’s premier cruise ship was the SS Rex, which could accommodate over 2,000 gamblers. It carried a crew of 350, including waiters and waitresses, gourmet chefs, a full orchestra, and gunmen. Its first class dining room served French cuisine exclusively.
Another gambling ship – S.S. Lux.
The two ships were anchored outside the ‘three mile limit’ off Santa Monica and Long Beach. The wealthy of Los Angeles would take water taxis out to the ships to enjoy the gambling, shows, and restaurants.
The success of Cornero’s floating casinos brought outrage from California officials. State District Attorney Earl Warren ordered a series of raids against his gambling ships.
Gambling aboard the S.S. Tango.
The Rex foreshadowed the approach that Las Vegas would later adapt. It focused, not on high rollers, but on the middle class. It offered clean, delightful places for gambling and entertainment, with free or subsidizing food and transportation to and from the ships. Cornero deliberately and dramatically portrayed the Rex as free of the often rumored rigged games. He offered anyone an immediate $100,000 cash payout if they could find any game on his ship that was illegal or rigged.
Despite efforts to frustrate public interest in the new gambling ship, the Rex was a success from the beginning. It operated 24 hours per day with normally between 1,000 to 3,000 gamblers aboard at any one time. It did not take long for anti-gambling ship forces to take notice. Just months after the Rex opened, Los Angeles District Attorney Buron Fitts attempted to shut down the ship. With Los Angeles County Sheriff Biscailuz and Santa Monica Police Chief Dice (no kidding) in tow, Fitts commandeered several of the water taxis servicing the Rex and sailed out to arrest Cornero. After a brief standoff, Cornero submitted to arrest so as to challenge the issue in court.
Gambling Ship – early 1930s film with Gary Grant.
Fitts argued that Santa Monica Bay constituted an “inland” body of water and therefore, the coastline was not the true coastline of the State of California. For a true state coastline, one had to draw an imaginary line between Point Vicente and Point Dume. Consequently, the Rex would have been required to anchor itself many miles out to sea, a proposition that would have required an inconvenient and unattractive seafaring trip to visit the ship. Cornero, for his part, countered that Santa Monica Bay was not in fact a bay. It was a bight, a large coastal indentation. Cornero proclaimed that Santa Monica Bay was more accurately called Santa Monica Bight. Although the court sided with the District Attorney, it was overturned upon appeal. Cornero returned to operating the Rex.
In 1939, State Attorney General Earl Warren proposed a new legal argument against offshore gambling ships. He called them “a great nuisance” because they drew millions of dollars from legitimate purposes and would inevitably lead to the appearance of floating narcotics dens and houses of prostitution. He reasoned that states had the power to abate a nuisance even if it lies outside state jurisdiction.
After failing to comply with a state order to cease and desist, all but one of the gambling ships were seized by law enforcement. The Rex, however, gated off its landing platform and turned a fire hose on raiding law enforcement vessels. Thus began the siege of the Rex. Since the Rex had no engines of its own and thus could not sail off, Warren figured that the ship would eventually have to surrender or starve. After eight days, Cornero surrendered, he said, “because I need a haircut.” Law enforcement officers swarmed the ship, tossing all of its gambling equipment into the water.
Although the seized gambling ship operators maintained that their operations were legal and, consequently, acts by law enforcement upon raiding their ships amounted to piracy, the courts upheld Warren’s legal arguments. The California Supreme Court finally agreed that Santa Monica Bight should once again be known as Santa Monica Bay. Cornero himself, however, escaped facing any charges.
Cornero returned to Las Vegas where he opened the Stardust Hotel.
CALIFORNIA: Misunderstood Man
Tightlipped, hard-eyed Anthony Cornera Stralla, “admiral” of the Long Beach gambling ship Lux, has lived a life devoted, in a manner of speaking, to public service. He also has great respect for laws, is always trying to keep from breaking them. But for two decades both state and federal officials have been baying after him like bloodhounds, continuously balking his efforts at aiding the masses.
An Italian-born ex-coal-passer, Tony Stralla entered rumrunning in Prohibition days “to keep 120,000,000 people from being poisoned to death.” He generously invested a small fortune in a steamship, brought vast supplies of liquor from Vancouver, B.C. to the arid California coast.
Furthermore he seldom resisted arrest unless the cops stole his whiskey. His reward? The Feds got him indicted, arrested, and yanked off to the Federal Penitentiary at McNeil Island like a common criminal.
Outpointed. At liberty in the 1930s, determined Tony bought the gambling ship Rex, operated her off Santa Monica to give Los Angeles citizens a chance for sea air and recreation at their own expense. He carried on his work for five years. But a Los Angeles judge decided that Santa Monica harbor lay between two coastal headlands, ruled that the Rex and three other gambling ships were not outside the three-mile limit. They were seized and Tony all but dropped out of sight.
Last spring, however, his obligation to relieve Los Angeles’ citizens of more money became too obvious to be ignored—there wasn’t a professional crap game west of Reno. Tony raised money from some “investors,” bought a 386-ft. Navy mine layer, the Bunker Hill. He had her towed to Long Beach, painted the name Lux (short for Luxury) on her side, began converting her into a gambling ship.
As usual he complied with all the laws he could find. He carefully incorporated his enterprise under Nevada statutes as the Sevenseas Trading & Steamship Co. In deference to sound sanitation practices he had 150 gleaming new toilets installed aboard the ship. Finally he had the white, neon-decorated floating casino towed 7.8 miles to sea—well past anybody’s three-mile limit.
Plungers & Necklines. Triumphantly, last week, he opened for business. Thousands of suckers who had queued up at shoreside water-taxi landings stood shoulder to shoulder all night long on the Lux’s casino deck. The ship’s bingo corner, its 14 crap tables, 150 slot machines, twelve roulette wheels, five poker games, were busy until dawn. Order was kept by 26 polite, tough “masters-at-arms,” i.e., seafaring bouncers. A band played and lush ladies with plunging necklines wandered about selling cigarets. Tony expansively predicted that nobody could touch him.
But two days later deputy sheriffs touched him hard. They arrested the operators of his water taxis. Hundreds of people were marooned all night on the ship, had to lean dismally against the walls because there were few chairs. Stralla, unruffled, gave himself up, stood chewing grapes while being charged with criminal conspiracy. He hoped the judge would restrain his tormentors. But the judge ruled against him.
Tony planned to press the court fight on grounds that his water taxis were engaged in foreign commerce, thus were outside Los Angeles County jurisdiction. But at week’s end it looked as if Tony Stralla would never be able to convince an unsympathetic D.A. that he lived and worked only for the community good.