LAS VEGAS -- A one of a kind art show is set for Friday night at a downtown Las Vegas gallery. Chances are, you've never heard of the artist, but Rita Scaglione was immensely popular with a very selective clientele. In effect, she was the artist to the mob.
The Chicago outfit which dominated Las Vegas casinos back in the 70s trusted Rita Scaglione with valuable information, and she produced dozens of portraits of casino bosses, entertainers, and a Mafia kingpin or two. Now, her remaining art is being put up for sale.
John Scaglione, Rita's son describes a typical holiday dinner. "Oh, family dinners at my house when I was a little kid, half my family was mobsters and half were cops and they sat across the table at Thanksgiving. The joke was, you know, 'if I catch you, I have to clip you.'"
Veteran Las Vegas nightclub operator John Scaglione grew up around the Chicago men who would one day run Las Vegas. Though his father was a police captain, his uncle Leo Guardino, worked for rackets boss Tony Spilotro and became part of the "Hole in the Wall" gang. His family vacationed in Las Vegas every year, often when Frank Sinatra was in town. They had a suite at the Sands and their money was no good.
"There was no pay. We never paid for nothing our entire lives when we came to this town," Scaglione.
Even as a 10-year-old kid, he said, he had the power to sign for anything he wanted at the hotel. And in return, his mom, Rita, would make sketches of the casino honchos who came to their suite. She would later turn the sketches into portraits with the help of family photos supplied by her subjects.
"For them to give photos of themselves and their families, that is a really big deal. Oh, it was a real big deal. It was a real big deal," Scaglione said.
Among the portrait subjects were the men who ran the mob-tainted Stardust -- guys from the old neighborhood like Al Sachs and Gene Cimorelli -- or the man suspected of overseeing a massive skimming operation, Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal and the front man he worked for, Allen Glick.
When the work was finished, Rita would return the photos with the painting, but not always. One painting was commissioned by the head of the Chicago mob Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo sitting at a cafe with Nick Nitti, nephew of Capone gunman Frank Nitti. Accardo, not known for having his picture taken, sent the photo to Rita. There's a reason Scaglione still has both the painting and the photo.
"This was the picture he gave my mom to paint for him and he passed away before this picture was done, so that's why we have it."
His mother added a special touch and painted herself into the background. She also painted some of the big name entertainers of the time: Sinatra, Liberace, Louis Armstrong and Lena Horne.
Sometimes Rita would paint and keep a second copy of the ones she really liked, which is why her son still has close to 40 pieces. Although his mother was mostly self-taught, John says she could paint anything.
He said she developed a reputation for near perfect duplication of a scene. She spent two years painting her own Renoir.
"'She said, I can't afford a Renoir so I'll paint one myself.' Now, the only difference was if you saw that actual Renoir, was the signature on it," Scaglione said.
If the neighborhood guys had ever seen the Renoir, they might have had ideas for Rita.
"I told her,'Ma, maybe you should have forged paintings.' But I'm sure if they would have saw it, they would have come up with that right away."
The art sale is being held one night only, Friday, at the Brett Wesley Gallery downtown, from 4 p.m. until 9 p.m. A portion of the proceeds will benefit St. Jude's Ranch for Children.
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