The Tropicana was dreamed off long before it was built. Ben Jaffe was the Chairman of the Board of Miami's famed Fontainebleu Hotel. He owned Guarantee Reserve Life Insurance company and was reportedly involved in punchboard gambling and other promotions in Mexico.
He traveled to Las Vegas in the mid-1950s to buy some property. The 40 acres at the corner of the Los Angeles Highway and Bond Road caught his eye. Real estate executive Leon Stoller handled the transaction and Jaffe organized a company called Bond Estates to develop the property. He envisioned a Havana-style hotel with a casino. Noting that he did not have much casino experience, he leased the casino operations to "Dandy" Phil Kastel. Kastel, of New Orleans, was rumored to have ties to organized crime figure, Frank Costello.
Jaffe hired architect M. Tony Sherman out of Miami. Taylor Construction, also from Miami, would be the builder of record. The Taylor Construction company had also built the Riviera. The hotel sat out on the far end of what was becoming the Las Vegas Strip. The Hacienda was just being completed and the Stardust was being built.
Jaffe ran into difficulty almost immediately.
Tony Cornero was building the Stardust at the same time and tied up many of the masons needed by paying them double the going rate. Jaffe ended up having to sell his interest in the Fontainebleu for $3 million and his interest in the insurance company for another $2.8 million to help finance the costly over-runs.
"Dandy" Phil Kastel was a frequent visitor to the construction site. He loved to tell his guests that the Tropicana's air-conditioning system could "cool over a 1,000 Death Valley homes in mid-summer, that enough concrete was poured in building to create a 40-mile long freeway and that the paging and music system could be heard underwater in the resort's pool." George Stamos article, 1979.
Due to his affiliation with organized crime figure Frank Costello, Kastel was denied a gaming license by the Nevada Gaming Control Board. Jaffe tapped Louis Lederer to take over the casino. The Gaming Control Board okayed his license.
There are articles that say the Tropicana cost somewhere between $3 million to $15 million to build. We believe the $15 million is a typo and should be $5 million. For arguments sake, we will go on the record as saying the property cost $5.5 million as that was the amount of money that Jaffe had to sell his other business interests for to continue building the resort.
Jaffe envisioned it, according to Alan Hess, as "the Tiffany of Strip Hotels." (They don't call them visionaries for nothing.). It would have a "Y" shaped structure, luxurious landscaping and be plush. the hotel had what was called "Peacock Alleys" that ran from the mahogany panelled lobby straight back to the elegantly decorated rooms that surrounded the pool. These rooms each had lanais and the pool was Olympic sized and scalloped edged. Visitors could by-pass the casino in this manner which was anathema to other owners. The casino area was screened off from the lobby by live plants.
Frank Reber who had worked at the Hotel Last Frontier and the El Rancho Vegas, was head of landscaping. The landscaping had cost $800,000 and covered 24 acres. It had been designed by Robert C. Schmutzer of the local Garden Center nursery.
Inside there were massive chandeliers, an elongated serpentine bar, mosaic in-laid tiles around the front entrance and a special television room for children. There were four room designs: French Provincial, Far East, Italian Renaissance and Drexel. Room rates started at $12 a day and went up as high as $50 which was high for 1957. It is estimated that the builders spent $1,265,000 in furnishings for the resort which did not include the gaming equipment.
The centerpiece was the massive, 60-foot high fountain in front. The fountain became a landmark almost overnight. As part of the refrigeration system, the cascading water was functional as well as decorative. At night the fountain was bathed in blue and rose light and trimmed by neon.
The hotel opened on Friday, April 4, 1957 with Lt. Governor Rex Bell cutting the ribbon along with Miss Tropicana, Dee Sharon. Later that evening Bell would be denied entrance to the hotel's gourmet restaurant because he wasn't wearing a tie.
The party lasted all week-end with Eddie Fisher starring in Monte Proser's "Tropicana Revue" in the main showroom. The show set in the "mystical isle of the Tropicana" featured songs by Gordon Jenkins and Tom Adair, choreography by Earl Barton, sets by Glenn Holse and music by the Nate Brandwynne Orchestra.
On opening night, Debbie Reynolds,also known as Mrs. Eddie Fisher, handed two-year old daughter, Carrie, up to Fisher to hold while he sang a ballad. Two years later when Fisher returned to play the Tropicana he was in the middle of a very public divorce from Reynolds and brought his then girlfriend, Elizabeth Taylor, said to be resplendent in white silk and diamonds, with him.
Within the month the hotel was engulfed in a scandal. On May 2, 1957, Organized crime figure Frank Costello was gunned down in New York City. Luckily, Costello was only wounded but police found a slip of paper in his coat that listed cash amounts from the Tropicana which were to be distributed to other organized crime figures. The uproar started almost immediately. According to published reports, the note had the amount of $651,284 on it and that was rumored to have matched exactly the revenue that the Tropicana had brought in during its first 24 days of operation. The note included handwriting attributed to Lederer. (We'll let you figure out that one.).
In the wake of the scandal, the Nevada Gaming Control Board revoked Lederer's license to operate the casino. Lederer was also forced out of the Fremont Hotel where he owned points.
Jaffe was able to persuade two well-respected local gaming operators to operate the casino, J. K. Houssels, Sr and Robert Cannon Houssels owned the Las Vegas Club on Fremont Street and had originally come to Las Vegas back in the 1930s. He had been an assayer for a mine in Ely and he moved to Las Vegas to join a crew providing surveys for the construction of Boulder (Hoover) Dam. He left in the late 1930s but returned in the early 1940s and opened the Las Vegas Club and had an interest in the El Cortez. He owned the first bus and cab company, Lucky Cab, as well as several bars and a restaurant.
Houssels agreed to be the casino manager for a 6% interest in the hotel. Less than a year later, heavy losses forced the casino to close. Within a few hours, Houssels arrived with enough cash and his personal assurances to reopen the cage.
By 1959, he was the majority stockholder of the operating company leasing the hotel from Ben Jaffe.
"Kell was one of the best, if not the finest hotelmen around. He was a fine gentleman who was so knowledgeable about gaming." George Stamos interview, 1979. "The Tropicana was the best laid out hotel and the most beautiful hotel in the world."
The Trop advertised herself as "the new multi-million dollar hotel on the Las Vegas Strip that was designed to top all of the fabulous hotels that have made the city famous. A stroll through the plush corridors, beautiful casino and the semi-tropical gardens is an experience long to be remembered."
One of the facets that helped the Tropicana's meteoric rise was its emphasis on good food.
The Gourmet Room that had refused to seat Lt. Governor Rex Bell on opening day was operated by famed Los Angeles restaurateur Alexander Perino. He promised "Regal service and dining" under his personal supervision amid a setting of continental charm and beauty. Cocktails started at 5:00 pm with Dinner served from 6:00 pm until midnight.
The coffee shop was called the Brazilian Room and offered reasonable prices and the high standards that made the Tropicana famous from the day it opened.
The Showcase Lounge was an open lounge that featured Bernie Nero who would become better known as Peter Nero.
Retail Shops included Men's and Women's Apparel by Ronzone's, a local family owned company that had their main store on Fremont Street. The Fur Shop was run by William Baer of Beverly Hills, the Drug and Gift Shop was located in the hotel lobby along with the Floral and Candy Shop. There was a Beauty Salon and Barber Shop. There was a Health Club by the pool that had licensed chiropractors on staff as well as steam rooms, a masseuses, a solarium and slumber rooms. The hotel also had a convention facility that could accommodate 550 people and exhibit space.
In 1959, Houssels made a fateful decision regarding entertainment at the resort. He reasoned that the big-names that all the other hotels were chasing was only going to escalate costs and there were only so many big names to go around. He invited show producer and nightclub owner, Lou Walters, to visit. They discussed various options and decided on a path that would bring hotel plenty of publicity and glamour.
Walters envisioned a stage show similar to the Minsky's Revue at the Dunes but much more French sounding. He suggested bringing the Folies Bergere over from France. It wouldn't be cheap. It cost $750,000 to bring the production to Las Vegas and that included the sets and the director. Everything was shipped from Paris.
The Folies Bergere debuted in 1959 with staging by Michel Gyarmanthy. The show was large by Strip showroom standards. It took full advantage of the Theatre Restaurant that was to become its home. Technical equipment for the theater included an unique "Bodde" rear-screen projector, one of only three available in the world at that time. It allowed producers to create special scenic effects. There was a special lighting system, the "Izenour" that created special lighting effects. Claudine Longet, who would go on to marry crooner Andy Williams, was one of the principal dancers. Other girls in the show married well too. Casino executive Ash Resnick's wife Marilyn, performer Sonny King's wife and Orchestra Leader Nate Brandwynne's wife were all dancers in the show.
Despite the costs, the Folies Bergere show was a rousing success.
With Houssels at the helm steering the hotel towards an financial keel, the 1960s looked bright and promising for the hotel that would become known as "the Tiffany of the Strip" and become world famous for its jazz room, the Blue Room.
Special thanks to RoadsidePictures and Maynard Sloate for letting us use these images.
The Tropicana in the 1960s:
Jazz, Folies and the Tiffany Rose!