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Saying goodbye with a look back at the Tropicana in Las Vegas

Tropicana at dusk, 1963.
Tropicana at dusk, 1963.

The Tropicana almost made it to 67 years old. On April 2, two days before the anniversary of its opening, it closes. It will be imploded to make room for a new resort and the ballpark where the Oakland A’s are supposed to end up playing. We baseball fans will set that part aside for a moment and talk about the Tropicana’s history. It is intertwined with a lot of Las Vegas history.

Start with the fact that the man behind it originally was involved with a hotel whose name is newly prominent in Las Vegas today: The Fontainebleau. In this case, it was the co-owner of the Miami one, Ben Jaffe. He bought the land and started construction, planning the best hotel in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, he ran low on funds. He had to sell his stake in the Miami hotel. He brought in nearly thirty investors, some of whom didn’t pass muster with the newly created Gaming Control Board. Jaffe also leased the casino to “Dandy Phil” Kastel, who had a history of his own. He had worked in New York for Arnold Rothstein, then Frank Costello. Kastel moved to New Orleans, still tied to Costello, but also working with the crime family there. Kastel sold his interest. Instead, the licensed casino operator would be J. Kell Houssels, Sr. That was reassuring to state officials. Houssels had come to Nevada as a mining engineer in 1923, left Ely for California, and came back to Las Vegas just before gambling became legal in 1931. He owned all or part of several casinos by the late 1950s, including the Las Vegas Club, the El Cortez, and the Showboat.

But he wasn’t really the boss. His son, J. Kell Houssels, Jr., recalled that mob guys exerted control, so his father left. Hotel president Ted Schimberg didn’t have much power, either. In the meantime, the Tropicana was ready to open and did on April 4, 1957.

Lieutenant Governor Rex Bell turned the key. The Tiffany of the Strip cost $15 million to build. It had a sixty-foot high, tulip-shaped fountain in front. In two three-story wings it had 300 luxurious rooms, all considered luxurious, in French Provincial, Italian Renaissance, Far East, or Drexel style. The Tropicana Revue filled the showroom, starting with singing star Eddie Fisher., who was then married to another star, Debbie Reynolds. Management brought in Alexander Perino, whose Perino’s restaurant was legendary in Los Angeles, to run the restaurants. It had a Ronzone’s, then the leading Las Vegas department store.

Despite all this, the Tropicana had problems. The rooms and restaurants were too expensive for many people’s tastes. Mobster Johnny Rosselli had the gift shop concession, Kastel still maneuvered behind the scenes, and the casino wasn’t well run.

Then it got really interesting. On May 2, 1957, Frank Costello was shot in New York City. Vincent the Chin Gigante was later tried for it and acquitted. But the police found a slip of paper in Costello’s pocket with a number on it. It was the amount of money that the Tropicana had made in its first weeks, in the handwriting of Lou Lederer, who was supposedly running the casino with Mickey Colahan. Then, early in the morning on August 17, Colahan closed the casino because, he said, they didn’t have enough money to pay off any big winners. Schimberg fired Colahan. That night, J. Kell Houssels, Sr., returned with half a million dollars he personally brought until money from stockholders arrived. The mob was on its way out of the Trop … for a while.

A few months after it opened, Houssels, Sr., took over and was able to push out the mob ownership and operators, starting with reworking the contract that Rosselli had to run the gift shop.

From there, the Tropicana became a success story. It added a country club. It nearly doubled the number of rooms in six years. Its casino was a success, with a floorman named Frank Fertitta going on from there to start the Stations Casinos empire. The entertainment in the revue was great, with performers ranging from Ernie Kovacs and Dick Shawn to the columnist Walter Winchell. But when the Stardust opened in 1958 with the Lido de Paris production show, the Tropicana decided to follow suit. Kell Houssels, Jr., went to Paris and negotiated the deal to bring the Folies Bergere to the Tropicana.

Wolf Wergin/Las Vegas News Bureau
Joyce Grayson, Folies Bergere dressing room at the Tropicana, Las Vegas, July 21, 1970.

The name on the marquee, the producer, was Lou Walters, who had the Latin Quarter in New York as well as a daughter named Barbara. To show you how everything comes back to Las Vegas, she later was married to Merv Adelson, who was part of the Paradise Development Company with Moe Dalitz and Irwin Molasky.

The Folies Bergere was a production show without big stars. A variety of acts came through, including Phil Ford and Mimi Hines, the Black Light Theater of Prague, and a couple of young German illusionists. Siegfried and Roy had a short run there—one of their leopards fell into the orchestra pit and the conductor wasn’t pleased. Another act was Szony and Claire, who were adagio dancers. Claire was Nancy Claire, and she married Houssels. She has been instrumental in the Nevada Ballet Theater, as was a Tropicana dancer, Vassili Sulich.

The Tropicana had another venue, the Blue Room, that expanded from 150 seats to more than 600. It came the top spot for jazz in Las Vegas. Maynard Sloate, a longtime musician and manager, ran it. The performers there included Mel Tormé, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Joe Williams, Al Hirt, Julie London, and Rosemary Clooney. The lounge featured a variety of acts, including, for many years, the legendary comedian Shecky Greene.

But by the late 1960s, Kell Houssels, Sr., was having health problems, and his investors liked the idea of cashing out. They sold to Trans-Texas Airways but the same group still pretty much ran things. Then, in 1972, Trans-Texas sold to Minnesota investor Deil Gustafson. When he had financial problems, local hotelmen Ed and Fred Doumani put in money to keep the Tropicana open, but soon chemical heiress Mitzi Stauffer Briggs bought into the hotel. And things would go downhill. Briggs invested millions in the property but knew nothing about gaming. She began to rely on the wrong people.

Joe Agosto was part of an intertwined group that included his allies in the Kansas City mob, led by boss Nick Civella, and the Teamsters Union, whose pension fund had been a bank for several Las Vegas operators. Agosto became the producer of the Folies Bergere, though he was really in charge of keeping Briggs and other investors in line. Agosto and his Kansas City friends brought in casino executive Carl Thomas, who had a reputation as a clean straight-shooter. That view of him was wrong, and it would go downhill from there.

In the late 1970s, the Kansas City mob was skimming there through show producer Joe Agosto and casino executive Carl Thomas. The FBI’s Operation Strawman investigation wiretapped a lot of phones and managed to get the goods. They caught Thomas explaining how to skim from a casino. They caught Agosto claiming to have juice with Nevada politicians. I was the state attorney general when all this began coming out. Believe me, it wasn’t fun.

They all became part of a much larger federal operation. They linked the Kansas City mob with two other families, the Chicago group led by Tony Accardo and the Milwaukee mob headed by Frank Balistreri. They were all tied to the Teamster Union, led by Roy Lee Williams, and the Teamsters Pension Fund, controlled by Allen Dorfman. Several of those involved went to prison. Dorfman died in a mob hit. And Briggs and Gustafson, who still had part of the Tropicana, were going to lose their gaming licenses because they had let Agosto run the casino without being licensed. In late 1979, Ramada Inns bought the Tropicana. And that brought true corporate ownership to the hotel for the first time. A decade before, the state had changed the licensing laws to make it possible for corporations to own casinos.

Tropicana Hotel. Las Vegas, c. 1981-85
Las Vegas News Bureau
Tropicana Hotel. Las Vegas, c. 1981-85

Ramada took a different approach. In the mid-1980s, they added a new hotel tower and a five-acre pool designed to look tropical. So the Tropicana began a new marketing campaign as “the island of Las Vegas.” Ramada soon restructured and put its casino properties under the Aztar Corporation. Aztar tidied up some business that matters a lot now: ownership of the land the Tropicana is on was split between the various ownership groups and the family of Ben Jaffe, the original builder. Aztar bought out the Jaffes in 2002.

Then it announced plans for a five-hundred-million-dollar expansion. It didn’t happen. Instead, Aztar expanded its Atlantic City Tropicana. Then in 2006 it announced a plan to tear down the Tropicana and build a new, billion-dollar resort. Before that could happen, Aztar became part of a takeover bid. The new owner was the privately owned Columbia Sussex hospitality corporation. Its gaming arm went bankrupt during the Great Recession. It was sold, remodeled, and sold again. Then came COVID in March 2020. Bally’s Corporation bought it and made plans for a rebranding.

Along the way, the Tropicana’s operators tried a few different things. They had a wildlife habitat and a beach club. The Trop housed the Casino Legends Hall of Fame and the Las Vegas Mob Experience. They closed the Folies Bergere just before its fiftieth anniversary in 2009. Since then, the entertainment has ranged from Las Vegas legends Wayne Newton and Rich Little to illusionists and comedy clubs.

FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2015, file photo, sunlight illuminates a sign at the Tropicana hotel and casino in Las Vegas. The Tropicana Las Vegas Hotel and Casino is being sold. Bally’s Corp. announced Tuesday, April 13, 2021, it will acquire the iconic Las Vegas Strip property from Gaming and Leisure Properties Inc. for about $308 million.(AP Photo/John Locher,File)
John Locher
FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2015, file photo, sunlight illuminates a sign at the Tropicana hotel and casino in Las Vegas.

But soon the Tropicana will be history. With the A’s now headed this way, there’s a partnership with the A’s getting nine acres for a new stadium and Bally’s the rest of the 35 acres for a new resort. The Strip always has been evolving. The Tropicana was part of the evolution. Sometimes it evolved with the Strip, sometimes not. Think about it: When the Tropicana opened in 1957, pro athletes had to stay away from Las Vegas.

The times have changed, indeed.

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