Odd & even: the legacy of Bob Stupak

Sep 29, 2009 5:10 PM
by Frank Albano, Special to GT |

If Bob Stupak could have laid down one more bet or hawked one more promotion, he would have. That’s the kind of guy he was.

But lying unconscious in Desert Springs hospital, unaware of family and friends, the world famous poker player, wheeler-dealer, maverick, Vegas icon, entrepreneur, visionary, would-be-politician, philanthropist, husband and father, lover of the ladies, risk-taker, arrogant-tough-guy, this one of a kind human being folded and threw in his losing hand one last time. He died of cancer last Friday at the age of 67.

"Mr. Las Vegas." Former mayor Jan Jones came up with that moniker long before Wayne Newton’s publicist slapped it on a press release. And Jan should know, "You either liked or disliked him, but Bob was Bob."

Nevada Senator Harry Reid agreed.

"Bob has been my friend for 35 years, and I was saddened to learn of his passing," Reid told GamingToday. "Las Vegas has seen many visionary people come and go throughout the years, but few personified the town like Bob did. He was a genuine Las Vegas character. My thoughts and prayers go out to Bob’s family and friends during this difficult time."

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Much has been made of the life and times of Bob Stupak. Some of it is hype, but most of the razzmatazz is true. Does he deserve the "legendary" status of Steve Wynn, Sheldon Adleson, Kirk Kerkorian or the other moguls who built this city? Maybe. But if he wasn’t a legend, he did legendary things. Bob pushed and pushed and once said, "If it’s worth doing then it’s worth overdoing."

For those of us he knew him, this mogul of all things Vegas had been keeping a low profile. I last saw him a couple of years ago. Still the Dapper Bob, he knew he was sick and tried to keep it a secret from the public. "He didn’t want anyone to know he was sick," said former wife Sandy Bluman. She was at his bedside, along with family and friends, when he cashed out.

Shunning the spotlight was out of character for the once flamboyant, high profile guy who would show up anywhere, anytime like the time he plunked down a $1,000,000 bet on Super Bowl XXIII, and won.

But that was Bob, the street-smart kid that hailed from Pittsburgh. For the hustler extraordinaire, there was no scheme too outrageous, like the time he wanted to build the Titanic. The Titanic? Yes, on the corner of Charleston and the Strip, complete with mile-high smoke stacks, including a casino and time-share condos, but the Las Vegas City Council sent the plans to the bottom of the sea.

When building the Stratosphere, Bob came up with another outlandish idea – construct a replica of King Kong that would "climb" up and down the tower, doubling as an elevator. But those plans never got off the ground.

But Stupak was a hustler long before Vegas. As a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, teenager Bob ran card games, at 8 years old he played cards for a penny a hand.

For those of us who remember Stupak’s Vegas World, the crazy, space-themed casino spoke volumes of how out-of-the-ordinary Bob planned things. And it spilled over into his personal life, which he lived to the fullest, if not on the very edge. He raced motorcycles and had a terrible accident, but he went on. He sang songs under the stage name of Bobby Star. He paid the Harlem Globetrotters a cool hundred grand to play in one of their games for two minutes.

And speaking of songs, Stupak had a long relation with Phyllis McGuire, a song stylist from the 1940s and 50s, and the two recorded a Christmas ditty, "Jake the Flake."

Bob was a marketer, peddled restaurant coupons, did some TV spots, got Zsa Zsa Gabor to perform at Vegas World, went down to Glitter Gulch and put up his own counterpart to neon Vegas Vic, the beckoning Vegas Vicky.

But through all the schemes, triumphs, disappointments, winning and losing fortune after fortune, loves lost and loves gained, there is and never will be anyone like him.