Location: South Strip
3801 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
What’s There Now: Tropicana
Closed: Still In Operation
Hotel opens on April 4
Folies Bergere debuts
Golf course and country club opens
Hotel is purchased by Trans-Texas Airways
Hotel is purchased by Minnesota businessman Deil Gustafson
Major remodel and expansion adds 22 story tower and now iconic leaded glass ceiling above gaming pit
Hotel is purchased by the Ramada Hotels corporation
Another major expansion with another hotel tower and swim-up blackjack debuts
Reorganization at Ramada Corp. moves Tropicana to Aztar Corporation
Aztar is purchased by Columbia Sussex
Columbia Sussex goes bankrupt
Hotel is purchased out of bankruptcy by its creditors
Folies Bergere closes after nearly 50 years
Major remodel debuts
Hotel sold to Penn National Gaming for $360 million
The genesis of the Tropicana started thousands of miles away in sunny Florida where Ben Jaffe, co-owner of Miami’s famed Fontainbleau Hotel, envisioned a tropical resort in the middle of the Nevada desert. He focused his attention on a 40 acre parcel of land on a mostly desolate section of The Strip where only the Hacienda was nearby, located where Mandalay Bay now stands. The rest of the major resorts of the time were more than a mile north up the highway, with little more than scrub brush and sand in between them.
Although not a twin of the Fontainebleau, Jaffe and his partners wanted the hotel to have a tropical Cuban theme, a far cry from the western and desert motifs that were dominating most of the design schemes at other resorts.
Who were those partners? Well, infamous mobster and leader of the Luciano crime family Frank Costello was believed to be involved from the start.
A ground breaking ceremony was held in 1955 with a plan to build a $3 million resort across 10 acres with 300 rooms. The target opening date was June of 1956 but The Trop ran into trouble before it ever opened when the building boom of the 1950s interfered with its schedule. The huge Stardust was under construction up the street and it was using up all of the available workers skilled enough to build a resort of that scale and complexity.
Undoubtedly, some of this lack of resources was because The Stardust was being backed by less than friendly mafia rivals like Moe Dalitz and Meyer Lansky.
Work slowed to a crawl or an outright stop as the price tag ballooned to more than $5 million. Jaffe wound up having to sell his stake in the Fontainebleau to finish construction.
The Tropicana finally opened on April 4, 1957 at an estimated cost of $5.5 million.
Dubbed the Tiffany of The Strip by a publicist, the design featured a concrete flower sculpture and fountain in front of the porte corchere main entrance, which is more or less where it still is today. That led into the main building with the casino, showroom, restaurants, shops, a beauty salon, barber shop, bars, lounges, and more. The hotel rooms, each individually air-conditioned and with their own balcony or patio, stretched out in a Y shape away from the main building in three-story wings surrounding a center recreation area with formal gardens and Olympic sized pool that had under water speakers playing music.
In late 1957, the operations of the hotel were threatened when someone tried to kill mobster Costello. He survived but was found with a piece of paper that detailed, to the penny, the money that was being taken in by the Tropicana’s casino. The management team was fired under pressure from authorities and new management was brought in, but it was just as “connected” as the previous ones so things were pretty much status quo at the Trop.
A bit of legitimacy was restored when noted casino magnate JK Houssels bought a share of the hotel in 1958. Houssels had been the driving force behind both the El Cortez and Showboat hotels. He tried to right the ship but was unable to do so and the casino closed briefly. According to legend, Houssels walked into the casino with giant bags of cash and the casino was back in business. Where he got that cash and why nobody bothered to ask where he got that cash is still unknown.
Another wing of rooms was added in 1958 bringing the inventory up to 450.
On Christmas Eve, 1959, a new show debuted: Folies Bergere. Based on the famed Paris cabaret of the same name, the lavish production reportedly cost nearly $1 million and had a huge cast of more than 80 people including singers, dancers, musicians, and what were billed as the most beautiful showgirls in the world. The production would last in one form or another for nearly 50 years.
In 1961 the hotel expanded north by adding a 120 acre golf course and country club across what is now Tropicana Avenue where the MGM Grand parking garage and convention facilities are located now. It featured 18 holes across rolling hills and a southern gothic inspired mansion acting as the main clubhouse. There was also a 150-room motel next door called the Golf Club, located more or less where the MGM Grand‘s main entrance and casino are located now. It was run as a separate entity from the Tropicana but managed its overflow.
Another 100 rooms were added to the main hotel in 1962 and another 130 in 1964 in wings that more or less encircled the entire pool area.
In 1968 Houssels sold his stake in the hotel to Trans-Texas Airways but the family of the late Ben Jaffe still maintained a substantial interest. They basically owned the land and leased the buildings and business to the airline. Without Houssels to manage the property, it started to decline and by the early 1970s was considered to be a lower tier property.
It was purchased in 1971 by Minnesota businessman Deil Gustafson. A year later, investigators found out that a company he was involved with had loaned money to mafia figures and he was forced to sell his majority interest in the hotel. Chemical company heiress Mitzi Stauffer Briggs came on board and bought 51% of the property.
The hotel would go through a series of complicated ownership and investor lineups over the next several years, which did nothing to help the struggling hotel despite many changes that were being made.
The Folies show was revamped, a “discotheque” opened in 1972 (probably the first major nightclub in Vegas), a new casino lounge and bar areas were added, and a new 1,150 seat theater was built. The Superstar Theater, as it was originally known, was built to the specifications of Sammy Davis Jr. and became his home stage for a time along with a rotating series of big name entertainers. That lasted until 1975 when the showroom was renamed the Tiffany Theater and Folies moved in.
The first of the two existing hotel towers debuted in September of 1979. The $10 million building was originally known as the Tiffany Tower and brought the room inventory up to 1,150. It featured a multi-level shopping and restaurant arcade at its base and the theme extended into the casino when they added the now famous Tiffany-style leaded glass ceiling above the main gaming pit.
In addition to being pretty, the ceiling was a marvel of modern engineering. When they first started to install it, they found that subtle vibrations caused by the mechanicals of the building were causing the glass to crack. So they came up with a plan to suspend it on a series of shock absorbers, allowing it to basically float free, immune the motion of the building around it.
Just a couple of months later, the owners were forced to sell their stock after more allegations of mafia involvement surfaced.
Ramada hotels bought the property in 1979 for $80 million. In 1985 they kicked off a $55 million redevelopment effort that would add another 22-story hotel tower, revamp the pool area into a lush tropical “island” with swim-up blackjack tables, add restaurants, more casino space, indoor tennis courts, and a big convention center at the back of the property. This debuted in 1986.
The hotel sort of changed hands in 1989 when the arm of Ramada Resorts that had been managing their gaming properties in Nevada and Atlantic City reorganized and was spun off as the Aztar Corporation.
Around this time, the golf course was sold to Kirk Kerkorian who would go on to create the MGM Grand on the land.
In 1996, the front of the hotel was remodeled to resemble a Caribbean beach resort.
In a nod to the hotel’s history, they added the Casino Legends Hall of of Fame attraction in 1999. it featured more than 10,000 bits of gaming memorabilia from around Vegas and honorariums to the people who helped make the town what it was. It lasted until 2005.
Around 2002 the Jaffe family finally sold the last bit of their ownership of Tropicana to Aztar. Shortly afterward, Aztar released the first of what would be many proposals to revamp or replace the Tropicana. The first was a 10,000 room mega complex of interconnected resorts on the Tropicana land. Later versions would have added new room towers, demolish the main buildings but leave the room towers, leave the Trop alone but add sister resorts on land next door, and beyond. None of it ever came to fruition.
Aztar was acquired by hotel company Columbia Sussex in 2007, right before the big economic meltdown in the United States. The Trop, which was already having a hard time competing against newer, more modern resorts, contributed to the company sinking into bankruptcy in May of 2008.
The hotel was purchased out of bankruptcy in 2009 by its creditors and led by a former MGM Mirage executive Alex Yemenidjian. Under his direction, the hotel finally embarked on a long overdue makeover, with more than $165 million thrown at a remodeling almost every square inch of the hotel. The tropical theme, which had become garish and worn, was ditched in favor of a bright and sunny South Beach look using lots of white, orange, and yellow with light wood accents. Rooms, the casino, restaurants, meeting space, the pool, the lobby, and virtually every other area of the hotel were redone. One of the oldest wings of the hotel, dating all the way back to 1957, was demolished to create a new entrance that would allow people to more easily get to the swank nightclub that was added.
As part of the reinvention of the property, the long-running Folies Bergere show ended in March of 2009, just shy of its 50th anniversary.
The “new” Tropicana debuted in 2012.
Other additions included the Laugh Factory, a branch of the famous LA based comedy club, and the Mob Attraction, an interactive museum exploring the history of the mafia in Vegas and beyond. The latter lasted about a year and then shut down under questionable circumstances and lawsuits. Several of the new restaurants, the nightclub, at least two shows (a Gladys Knight residency and a new edition of the ABBA musical “Mamma Mia) also failed and the hotel, while certainly nicer than it had been, still struggled to find an audience.
In November of 2013, the hotel announced plans to completely revamp the front of the property by adding the Shops at the New Tropicana, a massive retail and restaurant complex where the hotel’s valet entrance is now located. The three-story complex would feature dozens of stores and eateries including a food court spread across 275,000 square-feet of space. It would be fronted by a Times Square style facade covered with LED screens, lights, and windows, which would transform the corner in pretty spectacular ways.
The Tropicana was purchased by Penn National Gaming for $360 million it was announced on April 29th. The company is not terribly well known in Vegas – its only other property is the M Resort on the south side of town – but it is one of the biggest gaming companies in the United States with more than two dozen casinos and race tracks in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Kansas, West Virginia, Maine, New Mexico, New Jersey, Texas, Florida, and Canada. Most of them operate under the Hollywood Casino brand but they also run the Argosy and Boomtown chains.
The company has been fairly restrained in their discussions about what is in the Tropicana’s future, saying only that they will invest about $20 million to upgrade some of the hotel’s facilities while they take some time to figure out long term plans. Additional shopping and dining venues are a possibility but it seems like the big planned expansion that would have added a three-story mall at the front of the property is dead (for now).
It is likely that the property will keep the Tropicana name, although there are rumors that Penn might double down and bring their popular Hollywood Casino brand to Las Vegas for the first time. If that happens it probably won’t be until 2016 or beyond.