The Tropicana Hotel History: The Tiffany of the Strip

Despite the Cold War, America in the early 1960s was an optimistic place and Las Vegas was no different. Before the advent of current technology, entertainment choices were not nearly as plentiful. You could watch your favorite entertainers on television variety shows, go their movies, listen to them on the radio, buy their albums and if you really wanted to live large, go to Las Vegas and see them on-stage.

People came from around the world to see Frank, Sammy, Dean, Judy Garland and many, many more. Driving the old highway which was now just called the The Strip, the marquees were ablaze with the best and brightest names in entertainment, every night. It was a mythical time in Las Vegas history that had started in the 1950s and was showing no signs of abating in the new decade.

Successful hotels could afford to pay the ever increasing salaries of the top draw entertainers. Financially struggling properties had to get off that merry-go-around and find other entertainment that would bring customers in. The Tropicana was no exception.

With the creation of the Folies Bregere, the Trop now had a show that didn't require big-name superstars but because the show concentrated on leggy showgirls and beautiful dancers, the customers kept the theater packed. Photographers were lining up to shoot pictures of the girls in costume or for a day in the life spreads. Since many of the girls were new to America, they were language difficulties but everyone seemed to work around them.

In 1961, the hotel opened an 18-hole, Par 7 golf course. According to publicist Harvey Diederich, "It had a beautiful colonial style Country Club. The PGA was interested in using the course for a yearly tournament with a $125,000 purse going to the winner. Unfortunately, negotiations could never be worked out satisfactorily.

The Tropicana Golf Course and Country Club was located across Bond/Tropicana Ave from the hotel. There was also a 150 room motel called the Golf Club next to the Country Club.

The Saturday Evening Post ran an article critical of the Strip but did single out the Tropicana for a postive review calling it "the Tiffany of the Strip," according to publicist Harvey Diederich in a 2003 interview. The hotel would capitalize on that name for the next decade.

The Tropicana spirited Shecky Greene away from the Riviera under the condition that J. Kell Houssels name one of his race horses after Shecky. Shecky G. won his first race at Pomana Park in September, 1961.

The Mary Kaye Trio opened in the Lounge at the Trop in May, 1962 and recorded a live album during their run.

The hotel added another 116 rooms to the hotel by building the Jaffe Wing, a garden-style wing, around the pool. Another wing, the North Wing, added in 1964, would add another 132 rooms to the property. This four-story wing would be the last room additions made to the property for the next ten years.

For the record, there was a Tropicana Shopping Center but it was not connected to the hotel or part of the hotel. It was located at the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Paradise Road. There was a Mayfair Market, along with retail shops, a bakery called "The Taste of Paris" and a Macayo Vegas Mexican Restaurant.

The Mary Kaye Trio was playing the Lounge at the Trop in 1964 when Frankie Ross, who supplied the comedy for the show, had to quit the trio. His wife had been badly injured in a car accident in San Bernardino, California. The trio had been together since 1948. When their contract with the Tropicana ended a year later, the Trio officially disbanded. Their final performance, sans Ross, was on January 12th.

In June 1965, Houssels made a fateful decision. He hired jazz promoter Maynard Sloate to be Entertaiment Director of the Theater Lounge. One of Sloate's first suggestions was to remodel and expand the lounge. Houssels agreed.

When the lounge reopened it was called the Blue Room and offered some of the best jazz entertainment in the city. Sloate, who had booked jazz clubs in Hollywood and on Central Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, brought Mel Torme, Jerry Lester and the Si Zenter Orchestra to play the Blue Room. In the next few years, the Benny Goodman band, Pete Fountain, Perez Prado, Julie London, Al Hirt, Johnnie Ray, Joe Williams and many others would grace that stage.

Sloate was so successful that Houssels ultimately made him Entertainment Director for the resort and show producer of the Folies.

Vassili Sulich had come over from Croatia in the mid-1960s to be a dancer in the Folies. World War II had decimated his homeland and Sulich, who had always been interested in dance, knew that was his ticket out of Croatia. He studied at the Ballet Opera House in Zagreb before winning a scholarship to study in London. From there he danced in Paris before heading to America to study ballet at the Martha Graham school in NYC. He joined the Folies in 1964 and found himself soon dancing on Broadway before being tapped to join the Folies production in Las Vegas. He arrived in Las Vegas via plane at night. The next day when he awoke he opened the curtains "to see the most blue sky I'd ever seen since leaving home." Sulich interview with author, 2003. He took that as an omen of good things to come. By 1968, he was the principal dancer, the Ballet Master and the choreographer for the show. He taught dance, especially ballet on the side. He would later start the Nevada Ballet Theater as a result of his teaching.

In 1967, Sloate faced a problem when one of the specialty acts in the Folies show, the Baker Twins, decided to break up their act for good. Sloate hired an illusionist team, Siegfried and Roy, to take their place. Siegfried and Roy would only stay with the Folies for a short time before spirited away by Donn Arden for the Lido de Paris at the Stardust and ultimately is extravaganza, Hallelujah Hollywood!

J.K. Houssels son, Kell, Jr., joined the hotel as president in 1968. Shortly thereafter, the Houssels' sold their majority interest in the hotel to International Inc. which was a subsidiary of Trans-Texas Airways. The Houssels remained in their management roles for another two years before leaving to concentrate on their latest endeavor with other partners, the Union Plaza on Fremont Street.

As the 1960s came to an end, the Folies opened a new revue. It was a 90 minute production that was staged nightly, the 8:00 dinner show (with seating beginning at 6:00 with dinner served and cleared before the show started at 8:00) and the late show which had a two drink minimum and started at 11:30. There were three shows on Saturday, including the Late, Late Show which started at 2:30 am. The cost of the show was $750,000 and included a cast of 100 dancers, singers, principals and semi-nude mannequins. The dancers in the show did not appear topless. That distinction fell to the tall, leggy, buxom showgirls called mannequins for their ability to parade across the stage in heels, feathers and spangles while wearing enormous feathered and beaded head-wear. It was not a job for the faint of heart and required strength as the head-wear alone was heavy to wear.

By the mid-1960s, Perino's was no longer in charge of the Gourmet Room. It was now known for its Royal Epicurean Adventures in dining.

The Brazilian Room was bright and colorful. Next door the Peruvian Room was available for private meetings.

The Theater Restaurant was home to the Folies.

The La Fontaine Lounge offered seclusion and muted music while the Blue Room offered the finest in Jazz entertainment.

The Country Club offered 18-hole championship golf and a fully maintained pro shop and restaurant.

Tennis Courts were located near the pool, were professionally styled and were lit at night for guests enjoyment.

The Health Club was remodeled and still offered a solarium, steam and massage rooms, exercise machines and a weight room.

In 1971, Minneapolis banker Deil Gustafson began negotiations with Texas International to purchase the hotel. The purchase became final in 1972 and Gustafson's company, Tropicana Holding Company, took over. He had purchased the hotel for $1.82 million. The Jaffe family remained in control of the property and remained so with this deal. They were the landlords, leasing the hotel and the casino operations to companies such as the Tropicana Holding Company.

Gustafson may not have had a high opinion of the state of the resort when he came on board but he did very little to stop the downward spiral that had started when the Houssels left the resort.

Louis Armstrong ended his contract with the Tropicana on Jan. 8th, 1971. He played the Blue Room one last time. Surrounded by friends and fans, Armstrong played to a crowd that included Bruce Cabot, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Bill Miller, J.K. Houssels, Maynard Sloate, Nancy Austin and Pete Fountain.

A month later, the TV news show "60 Minutes" had a report on Las Vegas and Howard Hughes' legacy. The news piece was not complimentary to either Hughes or Las Vegas. The Tropicana had cooperated with the news crew and were less than thrilled that the show had such a derogatory slant on the Strip and the City as they had thought it would be more of a promotional piece.

In a nod to the shifting musical tastes of traveling Americans, Tiffany's, the ultimate in discotheques, opened in June, 1972. It featured contemporary music and dancing from midnight to dawn.

Less than a year after Gustafson had taken control of the hotel and casino operations, the Nevada Gaming Control Board discovered that one of Gustafson's holding companies, the Hotel Conquistador, Inc. had loaned money to well-known Detroit mobsters. The Gaming Control Board forced Gustafson to sell his majority share in the hotel. He could remain as a partner but not the majority owner. Gustafson convinced Mitzi Stauffer Briggs, heiress to the Stauffer Chemical fortune, to become the majority stockholder.

One of the first things she did was to announce that a 22-story tower would be added to the property. By 1972, many of the original hotels on the Strip had long gone vertical as it was the one way to accommodate more guests and the luxury they were accustom to receiving at other resorts. The Blue Room was expanded to seat 800 people. This was accomplished by removing two of the service bars. The La Fontaine Lounge was closed and the Beauty and Barber Shops were moved to the main level of the resort.

In 1973, the Gaming Control Board denied applications from James Sheehan and his brother John to each receive 5% of the profits of the Tropicana Holding Company. The Board said that the Sheehan brothers presented false and misleading information on their application regarding business deals in Minnesota. The brothers were forced to admit that they didn't tell the Gaming Control Board about the Minnesota bank account where money from the Tropicana was being deposited.

Also in 1973, a new Superstar Theater was opened. It would seat 1,500 people and was designed for Sammy Davis, Jr who would be showcased there for the next two years. Other performers who appeared on that stage include Mitzi Gaynor, Ann-Margaret, Jack Benny, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller and the Osmond Brothers.

The hotel also had an indoor tennis pavilion which was said to have been financed by "Godfather" author, Mario Puzo. Bobby Riggs was the tennis pro in residence.

Deil Gustafson began pressuring the Clark County Commissioners for an overhead bridge that would span Tropicana Avenue and allow guests easy access from the hotel to the Golf Course.

In 1974, Gustafson began talking to the Doumani Brothers, Ed and Fred. The Doumanis were local gamers who owned the La Concha Motel next door the Riviera. The Doumanis bought an interest in the hotel and became co-owners. However, they were dogged by talk of mismanagement of funds. In 1976, investors such as author William Peter Blatty of "The Exorcist" fame would file suit against them.

In 1975, the owners decided that the headliner policy wasn't the right approach, so they moved the Folies Bergere into the Superstar Theater and renamed it the Tiffany Theater (which is not to be confused with the Tiffany disco).

Another group of investors, called the Associates of the Tropicana, came on board in 1975. Representing the investors, Joe Agosto became Entertainment Director and began making management decisions. According to author Jeff Burbank, Agosto "began secretly sending cash from the casino to organized crime chief Joseph Aiuppa of Chicago and other mobsters in Kansas City and Milwaukee.".

The Nevada Gaming Control Board stepped in. The Justice Department and the Feds set up Operation Strawman with wiretaps on alleged organized crime figures in Kansas City. They quickly discovered evidence of a conspiracy to skim money from the Tropicana.

This was the era of "Casino". The Tropicana wasn't the only hotel under investigation by the Feds. The Dunes and the Stardust were also being scruntized.

In 1977, the resort held a ground-breaking ceremony for their 22-story tower addition. J. K. Houssels, now in 80s, was invited to do the honors. He was joined by baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio.

In 1979, the 22-story that Stauffer Briggs had invested in six years earlier was finally opened. It included 600 rooms with 45 suites. It featured a one-of-a kind atrium lobby and a three level shopping arcade that included over 100 high end shops and restaurants.

But the hotel still found itself struggling. Gustafson hired architect and designer Tony Devorude. The hotel got a make-over emphasizing an European Art Nouveau motif. But it wasn't enough.

Ramada Inns of America completed negotiations to buy the hotel in late 1979 for $80 million. It was the hotel firm's first venture into Las Vegas. They announced plans to build another tower to handle all the requests they were getting for rooms. They fired Devorude and finished the make-over on the cheap.

They did keep the leaded stain glassed ceiling which ran the across the main blackjack area. It alone was valued at $1 million and had appeared in "The Godfather, II". More than 4,000 square feet of actual leaded glass was used in the ceiling. Johnson Studios of Pasadena created the effect which was modeled on a bank in San Francisco from the 1880s. An elaborate pneumatic shock absorbers system had to be designed to keep the ceiling from cracking due to the vibrations of the heating and cooling systems.

J.K. Houssels died on March 2, 1979. There was a moment of silence for him on the casino floor.

As the 1980s dawned, the Tropicana was being marketed as "The Island of Las Vegas". Artists renderings show that Ramada planned to over haul the Tropicana Hotel to the tune of $55.5 million. It would include an expansion that would keep the hotel on footing with the other hotels on the Strip and become a "Super Resort". There would be 10,000 square feet of convention space, another 22-story tower with 805 rooms, four new restaurants, a new health spa and an exotic tropical theme throughout the resort. They would add a five-acre waterpark that would include 3 swimming pools, waterfalls, water slides and the first year-round swimming facility.

By 1984, there were five restaurants, chic shops and boutiques, a 55,000 square foot sports complex with eight indoor tennis courts, five racquetball/handball courts as well as the Country Club.

In 1985, Ronn Lucas, a well-known ventriloquist, joined the Folies as did a young magician from the Hacienda, Lance Burton.

In 1989 the Ramada formed a new company, Aztar Corporation, to run the Tropicana along with gaming properties it owned in Atlantic City and Laughlin. The Aztar Corporation and the Jaffe family were co-owners of the property with the Jaffes owning the land. The Jaffes were often approached about selling the land both by Aztar and other companies. They held tight.

With a new logo, "Paradise Found", the "Island of Tropicana" began to take form. The outer island was completed in 1991 and brought the resort to the edge of the property line. It included two 35 foot tall Miori gods, one said to have come from the famed Aku-Aku Restaurant at the Stardust but that is the myth. That carving is at Sunset Park. In addition, there was a Polynesian long house with hand-carved Tiki gods, a sound system that included in-ground speakers, the "God of Money", Kalanui and lots of tropical landscaping.

The original swimming pool where Jayne Mansfield had froliced long ago while performing there before the days of the Folies now included a swim-up blackjack table. There was a wedding chapel, more restaurants and a new buffet.

In 1993, mimicking what the Flamingo had done, the Tropicana created a "Wildlife Walk" that included nine habitats featuring parrots, cockatoos and lovebirds. African cranes and Mandarin ducks were also advertised. It was located along the walkway linking the front, older tower with the two newer ones.

In 1994, the pedestrian walkway across Tropicana Avenue was completed. However, the Golf Course and Country Club were no longer there having been sold to Kirk Kerkorian so that he could build the new MGM Grand. Kerkorian also bought the Marina Hotel.

In 1995, the Folies celebrated its 35th year on the Las Vegas Strip. The show still included dancers and leggy showgirls. It had a light curtain that contained 13,000 miniature bulbs and was controlled by a computer making it the first on the Strip using that technology. It cost $250,000 when installed. There were 62 backdrops and over 33 tons of theater sets stored behind and above the stage.

There were more than 110 costumes, 4,00 custom pieces and even more accessories. Some dancers had less a minute for costume changes.

By 1996, the Tropicana had reworked its front entrance again and added a Baccarat Room that was said to have cost $1.4 million, premium slots and the Atrium Lounge.

They added the Comedy Stop Theater for up and coming comics.

"The Illusionary of Rick Thomas", complete with bengal tigers, opened in 1997.

Steve Cutler opened his Casino Legends Hall of Fame at the resort and inducted 30 entertainers who had helped create the Las Vegas Strip. On display in the 5,000 square foot hall were film clips, wardrobe, dressing room pieces, menus, ashtrays, check stubbs, all sorts of memorabilia from Cutler's own collection that he had been amassing for years.

In 2000, Aztar was sued by Ty, Inc. for its Beanie Babies Giveway promotion that awarded the wildly popular plush toys to its slot machine patrons.

In 2002, the Jaffe family, one of the last family-owned landlords on the Strip, sold their rights to the Aztar Corporation for $117 million. Aztar now owned the land and the resort.

In 2003, Aztar announced it would spend $500 million on renovations to the hotel and to the resort property. Nothing came of all the talk.

Aztar sold the 34-acre property to Columbia Sussex Corporation for $2.8 billion (yeah, you read that right) in 2006.

In early 2007, Columbia Sussex announced plans to spend $25 billion a remodel that would include demolishing most of the original structure and add an additional 10,000 rooms to the property.

But the downward change in the economy makes that very unlikely to happen anytime soon. The Tropicana continues its downward spiral from the once beloved "Tiffany of the Strip" to "bottom feeding casino".

The new owners have, to their credit, kept the Folies Bergere and the Tiffany Theater. The Folies Bergere is said to be the longest running production show in history.

 

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Casino Legends Hall of Fame

 

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Tower Room

 

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The Pool at the Tropicana

 

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UP NEXT:

THE STARDUST HOTEL:

HOW IT BEGAN AND HOW IT GREW!

THE GALAXY ON THE STRIP!!! 

 

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