Dancing With The Law on the S.S. Tango

TangoBoat

The S.S. Tango, years after its post-Prohibition heyday.

America’s Great Depression spawned an amazing assortment of infamous criminals. Some, like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger, secured their legendary status through armed robbery and murder. Others, like Al Capone, functioned with one foot “on the legit” and the other in the murky depths of the criminal underworld. For a short time in the late ’30s, the waters off the coast of Long Beach played host to one of these characters–Mr. Tony Cornero, a former Prohibition-era rum-runner who ran a floating casino called the S. S. Tango. 

Cornero emigrated to San Francisco from northern Italy in the early ’20s and achieved his nautical prowess on merchant ships bound for the Far East. By 1923, with Prohibition in full effect, he was running illegal booze from Canada and Mexico into Los Angeles with his small fleet of freighters, using the shrimping business as a cover. Mooring the ships in international waters, three miles off the coast, he used speedboats to drop off prodigious amounts of liquor at deserted local beaches.  

A millionaire by 25, Cornero got caught in 1926 returning from Mexico with 1,000 cases of rum. A man of self-proclaimed “high principles” who never used profanity, Cornero justified his rum-running by explaining that he was keeping 120 million Americans from poisoning themselves to death with poorly made, low-quality hooch.  

SSTango100blueThe diminuitive Cornero, who was also known as “The Admiral” and “Tony the Hat,” escaped from the train that was transporting him to prison, and he hid in Europe for three years, eventually returning to the States and turning himself over to the authorities in Los Angeles. Upon his release three years later, he immediately began a large-scale bootleg operation in Culver City, producing 5,000 gallons of liquor a day. 

In 1931, gambling became legal in Nevada, and Cornero seized the moment, opening The Meadows Casino a few miles from Fremont Street in Las Vegas. His establishment was one of the first “classy” casinos in Vegas, and he was soon raking in huge profits, which attracted the unwanted attention of New York crime boss “Lucky” Luciano. Cornero refused to submit to the extortion attempts of the Luciano crime family and The Meadows was soon burned to the ground. 

Returning to Los Angeles, Cornero quickly realized his vision of floating casinos which would operate in international waters, beyond local jurisdiction. He and a couple of business partners purchased an aging steamship, fitted it with gambling equipment, and re-christened it the S.S. Tango.  

Soon, water taxis were leaving the dock at 7th Street and the Los Angeles River every 15 minutes, shuttling gamblers on the three-mile cruise out to the Tango. A Life magazine pictorial, shot aboard the Tango in 1937, shows well-heeled “squirrels” (as Cornero affectionately called his patrons) indulging in games of chance like roulette, blackjack, stud-poker, and chuck-a-luck. Cornero was back in the chips, pulling in $300,000 per cruise.  

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Success bred dissatisfaction aboard the Tango, and Cornero was soon involved in a management dispute with his fellow owners. He ended up losing his share of the ship on a single cut of the cards, but resolved to continue his offshore gambling enterprise. Within months he had converted another old ship, which he named the S.S. Rex, and opened her for business 3.1 miles off of Santa Monica.  

By now, local lawmen were furious with Cornero: Los Angeles District Attorney Buron Fitts began a battle with Cornero, first by redefining the three-mile international waters boundary, then by raiding the Rex. Eventually, Tony moved the Rex 12 miles out to sea, which kept Fitts away but also made the “squirrels” seasick, and business dropped off dramatically.  

Not to be deterred, Cornero moved the Rex closer to the coast, off Redondo Beach, which set up an epic confrontation with State Attorney General Earl Warren. Warren led raids against all the offshore gambling ships (including the Tango) in which the gaming gear was destroyed with axes. Cornero made his last stand on the Rex, successfully repelling the invaders with high-pressure water hoses. But the writing was on the wall: a ruling by the State Supreme Court put the waters off L.A. under state jurisdiction, and Cornero finally conceded defeat—for the time being. 

tango sign

Photo by Paul Dorsey

Cornero waited out World War II, purchased an old minesweeper, re-named her The Lux, and anchored her six miles off Long Beach, after re-building her in the image of The Rex and putting in a dance floor and a 100-foot bar. The ship did brisk business for three days before the federal government stepped in and seized her.  

The final blow to offshore gambling came in 1948, when President Truman signed an act prohibiting gambling in U.S. territorial waters. But Cornero was practically unstoppable–he continued his gambling operations in Mexico, survived an assassination attempt in his Beverly Hills home, and went on to invest three million dollars in the construction of the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas. He finally “crapped out” at a gaming table in the Desert Inn casino, dying of a heart attack after a final roll of the dice. 

Nowadays in Long Beach, the only public “gambling” available (they call it “gaming entertainment”) is at a Pike relic; Looff’s Lite-A-Line, 2500 Long Beach Boulevard, where you can win $15 by winning at that old-school pinball-meets-bingo game. One would have to get out of town to find anything resembling the luxurious, forbidden gambling atmosphere that Tony “The Admiral” Cornero brought to Long Beach.

“Those people,” said Cornero of his “squirrels,” “were looking for fun and entertainment, and that’s what I gave ’em.”   

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