The S.S. Rex, a brainchild of mobster Tony Cornero, floated off the Santa Monica coast in the late 1930s, allowing people to gamble, drink and dance without fear of being arrested. (photo by Photo Courtesy Santa Monica History Museum)

In 1929, an odd flotilla of motorless ships began to appear off the coast of Santa Monica. These strange vessels were not built for speed, power or maneuverability. They were constructed for only one reason: gambling. Although gambling had been outlawed in California, the state’s jurisdiction only extended 3 miles offshore. And since there was nothing in federal law that prohibited gambling, these casino ships could set anchor just outside the 3-mile line in federal waters and be able to legally run their operations.

By the late 1930s, those ships had become wildly popular, and crowds of people eagerly waited at the end of the Santa Monica Pier for water taxis to take them to the boats for 25 cents apiece. The most lavish and largest of all these ships was the S.S. Rex, a former grain ship and floating cannery that had most recently operated as a giant, foul-smelling bait barge for the local fisherman who trolled the Santa Monica Bay for halibut, sardines or mackerel.

The Rex was the brainchild of Las Vegas mobster Tony Cornero, who had come to Los Angeles to avoid dealing with the crime families in Nevada. Born in Northern Italy, Cornero migrated to the United States as a child after his father had lost the family farm in a card game.

In 1923, with prohibition choking off the legal supply of alcohol, Cornero began smuggling Canadian whiskey into Southern California using a shrimping business as a cover. His small fleet of freighters would unload the liquor onto speedboats, which would then hand off the contraband to waiting vehicles on the beaches. Soon, the prized cargo would be unloaded at the many illicit speakeasies that dotted Southern California. This endeavor proved to be quite profitable, so profitable that Cornero had become a millionaire by the time he was only 25. But in a few years his operation was shut down and he was sent to prison after his freighters were intercepted cruising up from Mexico filled with clanking bottles of rum. Once out of prison, Cornero saw unlimited financial possibilities in these popular floating casinos and wanted in on the action.

In 1938, at a cost of roughly $300,000, he purchased a bait barge, totally renovated it, and in May 1938, towed the Rex just over 3 miles off shore and began operations. It has long been rumored that fellow mobster, Bugsy Siegel, helped finance the deal.

On its opening, Cornero bombarded the Los Angeles newspapers and radio airwaves with advertisements, and offered a $100,000 reward to any visitor who could prove any of his games were rigged. He even hired skywriters to spray messages in the skies above Santa Monica enticing locals to “experience the world’s largest and most luxurious casino!”

The Rex was an immediate success and entertained more than 2,500 daily visitors. The converted bait barge didn’t look like much from the outside, but once inside you entered a world flush with opulence and style. Along with the many glittering gambling tables and gold-plated fixtures, the casino also housed a large and lavish dance floor where patrons could swing to the sounds of some of the big-name orchestras of the day. Its stylish dining area served carefully seasoned and prepared delights concocted by well-paid and imported chefs and was delivered by the more than 300 staff of waiters and busboys.

Cornero spared no expense because he understood the large profits he would earn if he kept his patrons happy, distracted and gambling. To add to the experience, he ordered his staff to make sure no glasses were empty and then he strategically positioned attractive ladies around the casino and its games. And the final touch to the S.S. Rex was Tony himself, a charismatic and chiseled-faced promoter, who gracefully walked through the casino shaking hands and introducing himself as “The Admiral” of the ship. He became so fond of his new name so much that he began to insist that staff and visitors alike refer to him by his new self-appointed title.

The Rex was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and could hold up to 2,000 visitors at one time. Gamblers could choose from a number of their Vegas-style casino games, including roulette, craps, blackjack and poker. The casino also featured 100 slot machines, a 400-seat bingo parlor and offered race track betting where results were received via shortwave radio. During this time it was reported that Cornero netted an astounding $300,000 per month.

But The Rex and all the other gambling boats had caught the attention of Earl Warren, the state’s district attorney, who was determined to shut them down. In 1939, after a number of failed legal attempts, Warren brought a new legal argument against the offshore gambling ships by labeling them a “great nuisance” and claiming that they would eventually become havens for narcotics and prostitution. Whether he actually believed any of this is somewhat doubtful, but Warren felt it offered him the best “moral” argument against these derelict barges, regardless of how beloved they were by the public.

Ultimately he successfully argued that nuisances could be “abated” or “eradicated” even if they were outside of California’s jurisdiction. Warren then seized and closed all the gambling boats except The Rex, where law enforcement vessels were met with high-powered fire hoses and armed gunman who had gated off the ship’s landing platform. A tense eight-day standoff ensued with each side unwilling to budge. But Cornero, his vessel now low on food and booze, finally surrendered, reportedly quipping, “because I need a haircut.” Law enforcement then boarded the ship and tossed all of its gambling equipment into the Santa Monica Bay.

Incredibly, Cornero would not face any charges and eventually resurfaced in Las Vegas where he opened the Stardust Casino. The S.S. Rex would live on and humbly serve its country as a cargo barge for the Navy during World War II.

Tom is a longtime Santa Monica resident who enjoyed a 10-year career with the Santa Monica Red Cross. Tom currently is a writer and disaster management and recovery expert. Send him some of your favorite pictures of Santa Monica and its landmarks. Maybe he’ll write a story about them. He can be reached at tomviscount@yahoo.com.

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