After the Tropicana Resort & Casino opened 50 years ago, it was soon dubbed the "Tiffany of the Strip" because of its manicured lawns, balconied rooms and elegant showroom. 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 cowboy-themed El Rancho and the ultra-modern Riviera, 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, run-ins 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 organized crime links.
A May 2, 1957, assassination attempt on mob boss Frank Costello in New York 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 its first 24 days: $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. "(Authorities) quietly forced the people connected ... to sell it."
Other owners moved in, but hidden mob control continued through different entities.
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, Sammy Davis Jr., Ann Margret, Jack Benny and others headlined.
"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 low-rise 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 latest coinless, ticket 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.’"