Turn­ing 50, Las Ve­gas’s Trop­i­cana Gets Juiced Up

The Washington Post Sunday - - The Reliable Source - By Ryan Nakashima

LAS VE­GAS — Soon af­ter the Trop­i­cana Re­sort & Casino opened 50 years ago, it was dubbed the “Tif­fany of the Strip” be­cause of its man­i­cured lawns, bal­conied rooms and el­e­gant show­room. And years un­der mob con­trol earned it a sto­ried place in Ne­vada gam­bling lore.

Its 60-foot tulip-shaped foun­tain and trop­i­cal land­scap­ing set the Trop­i­cana apart from the cow­boythemed El Ran­cho and the space-age New Fron­tier, said long­time em­ployee Rudy Spinosa, 82, who helped open the re­sort to 500 VIP guests on April 4, 1957.

“Def­i­nitely noth­ing came close to it,” he said.

But years of mob skim­ming, runins with gam­bling reg­u­la­tors, and mul­ti­ple man­age­ment changes have taken their toll on the ag­ing casino on what is one of the busiest cor­ners of the Las Ve­gas Strip at Trop­i­cana Av­enue.

Even as it cel­e­brates Trop­i­cana’s golden an­niver­sary this week­end, new owner Columbia En­ter­tain­ment is plan­ning an up­grade that will cost up to $2.5 bil­lion and rip up most of the ex­ist­ing re­sort. The com­pany, based in Fort Mitchell, Ky., and an af­fil­i­ate of Columbia Sus­sex Corp., ac­quired it in Jan­uary through a $2.1 bil­lion takeover of par­ent Az­tar Corp.

“It’s a relic of the past we ad­mire and re­spect, and we would like to see it work out go­ing for­ward, but I don’t think it will,” said Rich Fitz­Patrick, Columbia’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent and chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer. “It needs to be up­dated, it needs to be fresh­ened.”

It’s a long-over­due up­grade for a casino whose grand open­ing was soon over­shad­owed by links to or­ga­nized crime.

An as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on mob boss Frank Costello in New York in 1957 ex­posed his Las Ve­gas count­ing room ties. While Costello was hos­pi­tal­ized, po­lice found a note in his pocket de­tail­ing the Trop­i­cana’s gross win for $651,284.

“It was a pub­lic em­bar­rass­ment for ev­ery­body in­volved,” said David Schwartz, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Gam­ing Re­search at the Univer­sity of Ne­vada, Las Ve­gas. The au­thor­i­ties, he said, “qui­etly forced the peo­ple con­nected . . . to sell it.”

Other own­ers moved in, but hid­den mob con­trol con­tin­ued through a dif­fer­ent fam­ily, the Civel­las, ac­cord­ing to John L. Smith, au­thor of “Sharks in the Desert.”

“For the two decades that fol­lowed, and while other mob-owned joints showed record-high prof­its even af­ter the skim, the Trop­i­cana un­der­per­formed like a poo­dle in a vaudeville dog act who for­got why he was on stage,” Smith wrote.

In 1959, the casino brought in the “Folies Berg­ere” show­girls show “di­rectly from Paris.” That’s now the long­est-run­ning pro­duc­tion show in the United States.

The Trop­i­cana opened a golf course next door in 1961, and a lounge room in 1965 that hosted the likes of Count Basie and Guy Lom­bardo. From 1973 to 1975, such big names as Sammy Davis Jr., An­nMar­gret and Jack Benny drew crowds.

“It was a fun time,” said Donna Hart, who be­came an ac­ro­bat in “Folies Berg­ere” in 1974. “In the old times, they used to get all dressed up in evening gowns and mink stoles, and peo­ple re­ally made it an event to go to the Folies. Now peo­ple come in Levi’s and shorts.”

To clear the Trop­i­cana of its mob con­nec­tions, gam­bling reg­u­la­tors forced the casino to be sold to Ramada Corp. in 1979. Ten years later Ramada spun off its casino op­er­a­tions as Az­tar, a pub­licly traded com­pany.

The Trop­i­cana up­graded with new ho­tel tow­ers, a theater and a pool known for its swim-up black­jack ta­ble. But by the 1990s the main at­trac­tion of the ag­ing prop­erty was its prox­im­ity to the Ex­cal­ibur, New York-New York and MGM Grand.

As a sign of its fad­ing com­pet­i­tive­ness, Az­tar stopped book­ing rooms past mid-April of last year as it pre­pared to an­nounce it was go­ing to de­mol­ish the Trop­i­cana and start over, spokes­woman Lisa Keim said.

Las Ve­gas-based Pin­na­cle En­ter­tain­ment Inc. tried to buy the com­pany for $1.45 bil­lion, but lost out in a bid­ding war to Columbia.

Now Columbia is plan­ning to re­vamp the prop­erty, de­stroy the lowrise mo­tel wings and build new tow­ers that will ex­pand the room count from 1,880 to more than 10,000 by 2010. “One-armed ban­dit” slot ma­chines are be­ing re­placed with the

its

first 24 days: latest coin­less mod­els, and the com­pany is ex­pand­ing con­ven­tion and casino space.

But at least one thing will re­main: the Folies, and prob­a­bly the Tif­fany Theatre, where the show­girls per­form, Fitz­Patrick said. “It’s a great link to the past.”

Spinosa said he plans to re­tire be­fore the changes hap­pen. But he said he’s grate­ful for a ca­reer that out­lasted many of the crooks who roamed the casino — like Johnny Roselli, whose chopped up re­mains were found in a 55-gal­lon drum off the Florida coast in 1976.

“That’s why I say, when I thank the peo­ple that hired me, ‘God bless their body parts, wher­ever they are.’ ”

A planned $2.5 bil­lion up­grade will rip up most of the ex­ist­ing Trop­i­cana.

PHO­TOS BY JAE C. HONG — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Au­di­ences “used to get all dressed up in evening gowns and mink stoles,” says for­mer show­girl Donna Hart. “Now peo­ple come in Levi’s and shorts.”

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