Floating Casinos and “The Battle of Santa Monica Bay”

In a continuing series looking at Hollywood restaurants where some of the scenes in my ‘Garden of Allah’ novels take place:

Floating Casinos and
“The Battle of Santa Monica Bay”

During the (pre-Vegas) 1920s and 30s, the laws that most people wanted to get around were NO DRINKING and NO GAMBLING.

Prohibition was fairly easy to ignore, especially in L.A. There was no way in hell that those hedonistic revelers in Hollywood were going to let the disapproving old biddies down at the Anti-Saloon League stop them from having a good time. If you wanted booze, you didn’t have to go far or try hard to get it (especially if you worked at the studios; each one had their own (un)official bootlegger. You really didn’t think Joan Crawford, Mae West or Spencer Tracy were going to give up the hooch, did you?). In 1933, Prohibition came to a gin-drenched end so that was one problem taken care of.

Gambling, on the other hand, was a different matter.

Illegal casinos and gambling joints dotted L.A. like four-leafed clovers. There was the Melody Room and Clover Club, both on the Sunset Strip, or the Colony Club in Culver City. But places like these were routinely raided by the vice squad and getting your name listed in the paper for being arrested on illicit gambling charges wasn’t exactly a career-advancing move. You could go down south of the border to the Agua Caliente Casino and Hotel in Tijuana but the roads back then weren’t like they are now so motoring down there was, quite frankly, a pain in the ass, even in a chauffeur-driven Duesenberg.

Floating casino, U.S. Rex

Floating casino, U.S. Rex

But then a bright spark by the name of Tony Cornero realized that the jurisdiction of the local authorities only extended as far as three miles off the California coast. Cornero, a local mobster independent of the Mafioso families back east, had been a major rum-runner during Prohibition but with the 21st Amendment undoing the Great Experiment, he needed another income stream. So, he cleverly figured, what if I set up a casino past the three mile mark? The boys in blue can’t touch me!

Before the authorities knew it, there was a veritable bevy of floating casinos moored a teensy bit over three miles off the coasts of Santa Monica and Long Beach in what’s known as Santa Monica Bay. They had names like the Tango, the Joanna Smith, the Mount Baker, and the Montfalcone. (One of the scenes from my novel–“The Garden on Sunset”–takes place one particularly memorable night on board the Montfalcone.) But the most famous of these was Cornero’s S.S. Rex.

Floating casino S. S. Rex advertisement

Floating casino S. S. Rex advertisement (click to enlarge)

Comero must have figured he was onto something because he lavished $250,000 converting his vessel to what he billed in his ads as “the world’s largest, most luxurious casino.” The place was open twenty-four hours a day and boasted a crew of over 300 waiters, waitresses, cooks, and a full orchestra entertaining up to 3,000 gamblers a night. The L.A. Times reported patrons gambling “…on a unique casino in which beautifully gowned women rubbed elbows with ordinary fellows from Spring Street and squat tipsters from Santa Anita…” (I can only assume that the Times took it for granted that its readership knew what a “squat tipster” was, but it beats the hell out of me. Something to do with horse racing…?)

The enterprise was a huge and immediate success. Since the ships operated in international waters, all gambling activities were legal so nobody was breaking the law and nobody risked getting busted. What could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately for Comero, state Attorney General Earl Warren begged to differ with Comero’s definition of “three miles.” Warren, and of course frustrated local authorities, argued that international waters began three miles from an imaginary line drawn between the farthest points of the coast–from Point Dume and Point Vicente. Inside this imaginary line sat Santa Monica Bay, which was subject to California law.

If the ships were to be re-anchored past Warren’s definition, the larger swells would make gambling difficult and the (25-cent) water taxi ride to get out there too inconvenient. Moving further out wasn’t a realistic alternative so, right through the 1930s, Comero opted instead to keep his businesses alive by conducting a series of court appearances, appeals and dismissed cases. By the end of July 1939, Warren had had enough of these quasi-legal shenanigans and instead of illegal gambling, charged that Comero “contributed to the delinquency of minors by openly glorifying…gambling and the evasion of the laws of the state, and by inducing them to lead idle and dissolute lives.”

Dumping the Rex's slot machines into Santa Monica Bay

Dumping slot machines into Santa Monica Bay

On August 1, 1939, 250 local and state officers jumped into a flotilla of boats and headed towards four gambling ships. They easily boarded the Tango, the Showboat and the Texas where they threw roulette wheels, dice tables, black jack tables and slot machines into the Pacific Ocean. The S.S. Rex, however, was less inclined to surrender. Upon approaching their prize catch, officers were greeted with armed gunmen and high-pressure fire hoses. A nine-day standoff ensued, which newspaper men dubbed “The Battle of Santa Monica Bay.” (God forbid those guys should miss an opportunity to melodramatize any halfway decent news story. Some things never change, do they?) Eventually Comero gave in and continued the fight through the courts. He eventually lost–in November 1939, the California Supreme Court sided with Warren: Santa Monica Bay did fall in California’s jurisdiction.

The S.S. Rex was later re-furbished into a cargo boat for World War II and was sunk by the Germans off the coast of Africa. Warren went on to become California governor before he joined the U.S. Supreme Court where he oversaw Brown Vs Board of Education which desegregated schools, as well as chairing the Warren Commission formed to investigate the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. Cornero, on the other hand, found himself in Las Vegas, building a new hotel called the Stardust but he died under mysterious circumstances two weeks before its scheduled opening. But for a while he was L.A.’s go-to guy for those Depression-era fortunates who had the money to fritter away at roulette wheels and blackjack tables.


About Martin Turnbull

The Hollywood's Garden of Allah novels blog is by Martin Turnbull, a Los Angeles based historical fiction author writing about the golden era of Hollywood in his series of novels set at the Garden of Allah Hotel, which stood on Sunset Blvd from 1927 to 1959. Check him out at www.martinturnbull.com and Facebook: "gardenofallahnovels"
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2 Responses to Floating Casinos and “The Battle of Santa Monica Bay”

  1. Jaye says:

    Great article, Martin. I especially love the line: “…the evasion of the laws of the state, and by inducing them to lead idle and dissolute lives.” Yeah, how dare a private citizen do that. Encouraging law-breaking and dissolution is the government’s job.

    I am so looking forward to reading your novel.

    • I know! Because, as we all know, it was just so easy for 14-year-olds in 1934 to jump into a water taxi by themselves and ride three miles to a huge floating casino where 300 staff members won’t bat an eye when they see an idle and dissolute teenager at the roulette table.

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