LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The coffee would be ready for Moe Dalitz, one-time mobster and prominent Las Vegan, nearly before he hit the door of the card room.
Geraldine Burpee saw to that.
“My grandmother knew just the right amount of sugar he liked,” Samantha Beck says. “She’d have it there for him, and every time he’d throw down a $20 tip.”
For more than a decade starting in the mid-1970s, Geraldine Burpee ran the exclusive Las Vegas Country Club card room — the men’s only back room where so many of the city’s dealmakers like Dalitz met. And when she died Aug. 26 at 86 she took with her memories of crooks and crooners, stories about some of the most influential men who shaped what Las Vegas is today.
Shortly after the Mob Museum opened in 2012 family took Burpee for a visit.
“She’d point to all the displays and say, ‘I met him. And him. And him,’ ” Beck says. “She knew everybody it seemed.”
Dalitz was a favorite. The one-time bootlegger migrated from Detroit’s Purple Gang after World War II to become Mr. Las Vegas to many, and he cut deals that built the Country Club, the Desert Inn, the Stardust, The Boulevard Mall and Sunrise Hospital.
Family says in the card room Burpee rubbed elbows with entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra and powerful Las Vegans like Judge Joseph “Big Joe” Bonaventure and Herb Tobman. But Dalitz and “Burpee,” which is what the guys called her, built a special bond.
“He was the only one allowed to swat my Mom on her butt,” Mike Burpee, 58, says.
Beck, 32, who grew up in Las Vegas and now lives in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, says her grandmother had heard all the stories about Dalitz and his mob connections. “She’d say, ‘I don’t care what everyone else says about him, he was a sweetheart,’ ” Beck recalls.
Mike Burpee, Beck’s father, is a rigging foreman for trade shows at the Las Vegas Convention Center. As a kid, he spent time in the snack bar connected to the card room, watching his Mom interact with celebrities and some of the city’s most influential personalities of the time.
Sammy Davis Jr., for example, was known for his impatience. Mike Burpee recalls sitting at the counter one day after his Mom had just made a milkshake for a kid.
“Sammy came in and wanted a milkshake, and, well, he just didn’t want to wait for my Mom to make another one,” Mike Burpee says. “So Sammy gives the kid $20 for his milkshake.”
Mary Cservenyak says her mom was more than a storyteller. She was an avid church-goer who gave so much to others. And there was something of a hardscrabble period after her divorce in the mid 1970s, trying to provide for four kids and opening her home to a fifth child.
Cservenyak was homeless at 15 after her biological mother, an alcoholic, burned down their mobile home. Geraldine – Geri or Ma to family – took her in after they met at an Alateen meeting.
Cservenyak says she was working a graveyard shift at the Golden Nugget, going to high school and staying with an Alateen sponsor when Ma Burpee said, “Why don’t you come out and live with us?
“Single mother, four kids of her own, and this woman offers me her home,” says Cservenyak, 60, who lives in Las Vegas with her brother, Mike, and works at a Sprouts store. “I was shocked that anyone could care about me like that. … She took me in without even blinking.”
To this day, Cservenyak is family. Beck calls her aunt. Mike Burpee calls her sister.
Geraldine Burpee was 6 in the early 1940s when she came to Las Vegas with her family from Oklahoma. At that time, her parents’ home on Franklin Avenue, east of Maryland Parkway and north of East Oakey Boulevard, was second to last on the block. She hunted rabbits in the marshland that led to the foot of the Sunrise Mountains.
Her father was an engineer on a train run from Oklahoma to California, with Las Vegas as a water stop.
That’s how family ended up in Las Vegas, Cservenyak says.
Mike Burpee said engineers at the time had devised special signals on the train whistles to let family know they were almost home. “My mom said when they heard Dad’s train whistle the family would run down to the train station and meet him,” Mike Burpee said. The kids would play in the park there, near where today sits the Plaza Hotel-Casino on Main Street and East Fremont Street.
Perhaps seeing Las Vegas grow from such a small town to a bright lights resort city gave Burpee insight to the movers and shakers in the card room.
“We trust Burpee,” Dalitz once told Cservenyak. “We can say what we need to, and we never have to worry about it.”
She took care of their secrets. And sometimes they took care of her.
Cservenyak tells of one instance when Ma Burpee needed to buy a car. She saw a “cute Toyota,” and she was trying to figure out how she could pay for it.
Burpee was at a counter off the card room when a man came in looking for a sandwich.
“I’m sorry,” Burpee said. “We’re closed.”
The man lingered just a bit before asking what she was doing.
“I’m trying to find some zeros in my checkbook to make the numbers bigger,” she told him, adding that she was trying to figure out how to buy a car.
“Well, if you make me a sandwich I’ll find you the zeros,” he told her.
Burpee relented, came back with a sandwich.
The man paid with a $2,000 check, made out to her, Cservenyak recalls. And Ma Burpee bought that Toyota.
It’s unclear who the man was, but Cservenyak remembers the signature on the check matched the name of the bank.
“Those guys in the card room, they loved her,” she said.
Burpee is survived by five children, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Family and friends will meet Saturday at Mike Burpee’s Las Vegas home for a celebration of life.
About 50 people are expected to attend. Stories are sure to be shared.