In memory of the 60th anniversary of perhaps the most famous failed mob hit in history, I wrote a blog piece for the Mob Museum:
On May 2, 1957, Frank Costello thought he had problems, but he had no idea. He was appealing a five-year prison sentence for federal income tax evasion (for which he had already served nearly a year) and decided to enjoy a dinner out with his wife and a few close friends. But befitting a man the press had dubbed the “boss of racketeers,” he had pressing business, so rather than stay out for drinks he caught a cab to his apartment at 115 Central Park West.
The last of my trilogy of Tropicana birthday/anniversary pieces is this blog post from UNLV Special Collections that looks at a different era of the Strip mainstay that is celebrating its 60th:
For research into the Tropicana, one of the best resources is the Tropicana Promotional and Publicity Material Collection, nine boxes of press clippings, press releases, newsletters, and assorted other ephemera that document the Tropicana’s history. While the earliest documents date from 1969, the majority of the collection is comprised of materials generated during Ira David Sternberg’s tenure as director of advertising and public relations in the 1990s.
The Promotional and Publicity Materials collections for the Tropicana and other casinos are incredibly useful to those interested in reconstructing the past of Las Vegas–I have gotten many insights from those materials that have made it into my articles and books. And I have good news: if you are an academic researcher, Eadington Fellowships are available to defray the costs of a research trip to Las Vegas to use these–and other–collections at UNLV.
To commemorate the April 4, 1957 opening of the Tropicana, I wrote a guest blog post for the Mob Museum:
It just so happened that Conquistador’s owner, “Dandy” Phil Kastel, had a long and fruitful partnership with Frank Costello, perhaps the nation’s most infamous gangster in the spring of 1957. For years, Kastel had run New Orleans’ Beverly Club (an ostensibly illegal but still operating casino) for Costello; the two also shared in a Louisiana slot machine route operation that, similarly, might have been illegal on paper but which police managed to avoid until the Kefauver Committee’s spotlight forced them into action. And it almost goes without saying that most “Miami hotel men” who came to Las Vegas in this era were more than familiar with Meyer Lansky, another famous gangland name.
The Mob Museum is a great place to visit when you are Downtown. One of my personal highlights of this year’s VIMFP was leading a tour of the museum and sharing a few of my own thoughts on the history of organized crime, Las Vegas, and gambling. This piece goes into a little more detail about the opening itself than my Vegas Seven feature, which took in the property’s entire history.
In this week’s Vegas Seven, I take a six-decade look back at the Tropicana, which celebrates its 60th birthday next week:
However, a piece of paper police officers discovered in Costello’s pocket while he was at Roosevelt Hospital was more eloquent. “Gross casino wins as of 4-26-57,” it read. “$651,284. Casino wins less markers $434,595.00. Slot wins $62,844,” followed by a list of amounts paid to “Mike,” “Jake,” “L.” and “H.” Investigators later determined that, over its first 24 days of operation, Las Vegas’ new Tropicana casino had earned … exactly $651,284. For the next 60 years, the Tropicana would be home to some of Nevada’s most respected gaming executives, a massive skimming operation, a purloined fortune and corporate buyouts. If any single property reveals the many facets of the Las Vegas casino business, it might be the Tropicana.
The Tropicana has an incredible history–its’s right up there with Caesars and the Flamingo in terms of notoriety and impact.
But no other casino has a video as cool as “A Musical Tour of the Island.” That video makes me wish I had a time machine so I could go back in time and stay at the Tropicana. Because “on the island, the action is hot 24 hours a day.”
This week I’ve got three separate pieces in Vegas Seven. The first is a short news item comparing and contrasting two Strip casinos with similar origins and dissimilar fates:
The Tropicana and the Sahara are a study in contrasts despite some shared history; at opposite ends of the Strip, both holdovers from the 1950s managed to survive into the 21st century. Both drifted further and further down market as they faced larger and more luxurious competitors. And, as of today, they are facing profoundly different fates. One is closing, while the other has a new lease on life.
Why did they end up going in different directions? I’d say it’s equal parts decision-making and geography. Obviously, the Tropicana’s going to get much more walk-in action and attract more people who want to be around other casinos. The Sahara, as of today, is almost in a no-man’s-land. The decision making part is: the Sahara folks (SBE) wanted to go for a massive renovation project that would have aimed towards the luxury market, and missed the timing. Two years earlier, and they’d have gotten funding, no problem. The Tropicana, on the other hand, took a smaller approach, simply remodeling its rooms for the mid-market.
Yesterday I checked out the Las Vegas Mob Experience, the new attraction at the Tropicana. I had profoundly mixed feelings about it.
We start out in a line, waiting to get in for about 20 minutes. There’s a big fake ship, with what is apparently bootlegged booze being off-loaded. As I tweeted, it reminded me of the Star Trek episode “A Piece of the Action,” in which Kirk and Spock make mischief on a planet that has inexplicably patterned itself off of 1920s gangland Chicago.
Here’s a clip:
Much like the LVME, it was a fun costume romp that wasn’t long on historical accuracy. But who cares? You got to see Spock in pinstripes and Shatner talking gangster! Or, in this case, you get a tag with your “gangster name” to wear around your neck.
BTW, my gangster name was “Peanuts,” which is uncannily appropriate, given my former labors on the Atlantic City Boardwalk as Mr. Peanut.
While waiting, we had to listen to a Las Vegas native, who seemed like a nice enough guy, tell us repeatedly that the Mafia “created Las Vegas” and “ran Las Vegas.” Groan.
Pretty much everyone’s wearing fedoras and other cartoon gangster fetish stuff, and a disturbing number of employees were talking with exaggerated Noo Yawk accents.
Improbably enough, the LVME proper starts at Ellis Island, which the docent/actor/whatever told us, “Is where America begins, 1900 to 1930, where Noo Yawk started.”
At that, I can’t contain myself and roll my eyes.
“What?” she says.
“America started in 1900?” I ask.
“Well I’m not good at math.”
Plus, just looking at Wikipedia tells us that Ellis Island was open from 1892 to 1954, though a lot of the “New” immigration that they’re apparently blaming for organized crime slowed to a trickle after the restrictive immigration acts of 1921 and 1924.
When Wikipedia is kicking your ass factually, maybe you need to look at how you train your employees. I’m not saying you need someone to give a nuanced lecture on the history of American immigration, but at least don’t say stuff that isn’t true.
The whole idea that organized crime was an outside menace foisted on American society by immigrant groups during Prohibition is false. American organized crime goes back to at least the 1850s; watch the film Gangs of New York if you want to take your history from cinema; Scorsese actually got a lot of it right. And Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher Cutting (based on Bill Poole) is masterful. If you want to check out something more academic, I’d suggest Mark Haller or Joseph Albini’s work.
The LVME is divided into two sections, which overlap a bit. There is the actors doing skits part, which is fun, and the historical artifacts, which are mostly behind cases with some interpretive text. You start out at Ellis Island, talk to a guy named Tony, then a guy named Leo, then get interviewed by a cop with an Irish brogue straight out of Central Casting, and keep on running into people like that along the way. That aspect of the LVME is actually fun: it’s like a mob-themed haunted house, which isn’t the first thing I’d want to do for fun, but at least the actors were engaging.
There are also little bits recorded by famous actors (my group got to see James Caan) telling us all the “real story” of how the Mob is responsible for all that’s wonderful in Las Vegas. Towards the end you get more artifacts, most of which aren’t inherently that interesting—seeing a recreation of Meyer Lansky’s library doesn’t really tell us anything about his career.
Focusing the story on Prohibition and gambling makes it seem like organized crime had (and has) no victims, only happy customers. I wonder what the restaurant owners and garment district entrepreneurs thought about while they were being shaken down for protection money? That’s really glossed over.
One funny moment: after the “casino surveillance” section (a facsimile of a catwalk), we go to a “backroom,” where a guy with a baseball bat tells us we’ve caught a cheater. What should we do? Kill him? Maybe just break a leg or two?”
“Why don’t we call the Gaming Control Board?” I ask, recalling my own experience in casino security and surveillance. “They’ll make the arrest.”
This didn’t go over well. The guy went into a backroom behind the backroom and we heard a gunshot. So apparently a fictitious guy was murdered for peeking at the dealer’s hole card.
The funniest thing was the reaction from one of the other visitors: “There was no Gaming Control Board!” Which might have been true before 1955, but even then I’ve got to think that the idea of glamorizing a vigilante group that metes out the death penalty for theft is a bit daft. This is the biggest problem with the LVME: despite all the protestations that this is really a serious, loving look at the real history of Las Vegas, it’s just a schlocky retread of bad gangster movies.
I’m not trying to say that there wasn’t organized crime involvement in Las Vegas—clearly there was. I’m just saying it wasn’t quite so…Technicolor.
In the run-up to the opening, I heard a lot about how we’d have holograms of famous mob figures touring people around. Needless to say, that kind of holodeck technology (which even Kirk and Spock didn’t have; they had to wait until Picard and company for that) didn’t happen. The actors who appeared seemed to be a regular front-projection video. Towards the end, there was a positively grotesque series of 3-D busts of Mickey Cohen that changed their angle depending on your position. They looked almost, but not completely, inhuman–like some kind of alien embryo. Very creepy, and again it brought up the “Mob Haunted House” vibe.
If you’re looking for a theme park ride version of the mob, the LVME is for you. If you’re looking for an even somewhat-accurate historical interpretation of the evolution of Las Vegas or of organized crime in America, you’re out of luck.
On a positive note, this has inspired me to make my next project a “real” real history of the development of Las Vegas casinos. I’ve done some great interviews with people who were really there, from Allard Roen to Jack Binion, who I think deserve to be heard.
And, by the way, if you’re interested in learning a little slice of this “real” real history, I’ve got a very entertaining talk that I give called “Gambling and the Mob” that covers the story they’re trying to tell with the LVME but does so from a factual perspective that actually addresses the positives and negatives of organized crime’s legacy. If you have a convention group that’s coming to Las Vegas and want to hear it, please contact me to discuss availability.
My latest Green Felt Journal piece is out, in Vegas Seven. I get to name-drop Heraclitus to sound sophisticated before talking about the redo of the Trop:
That’s because the only thing that doesn’t change around this town is change. There are few other places where anyone would even consider spending $150 million to “relaunch” a resort that cost $1.4 billion to build a mere seven years after its opening. But when that happened at the Aladdin/Planet Hollywood in 2007, few were surprised.
A similar change is taking place at the Tropicana, and not a moment too soon. One of the oldest resorts remaining on the Strip (it opened in 1957), the Tropicana, after an increasingly parsimonious corporate stewardship over the past few years, is enjoying a renaissance under the leadership of Alex Yemenidjian, chairman and CEO of Tropicana Las Vegas, and new president Tom McCartney.
The current economy dictates nothing too ambitious—certainly nothing like the 10,000-room mega-expansion previous owners Columbia Sussex mooted back in 2006. With a recent Tropicana financial filing admitting there is an “imbalance” in room inventory, it’s not a question of trying to add capacity, it’s about competing with bargain rates at younger properties.
My much-anticipated Green Felt Journal piece about casino tweeting–which inspired me to finally claim @unlvgaming and get to work–is out, in today’s Vegas Seven:
Casinos are always looking for new ways to reach customers. So it’s no surprise that they’ve embraced Twitter, the popular social networking application that lets anyone tell the world, in 140 characters or less, “what’s happening.”
Casino tweets range from straight-up promo offers TI Suite Sale $50 F&B + 20% Off Spa / Also $61 Strip View w/free breakfast to single-sentence press releases Celine Dion is returning to @CaesarsPalace and will be back home at the ColosseumatCP 3/15/2011! to actual interaction with followers Hey #vegas tweeps, come introduce yourself this Saturday night! #stationsocials.
On one hand, it’s great that casinos are connecting with potential customers, whether it’s by smoke signals or Short Message Service. On the other, just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. Does all of this tweeting, retweeting and following actually add anything to the bottom line, or is it just sound and fury for the sake of sound and fury?
It was a fun piece to write, and I learned quite a bit from my talks with Brandie and Hunter (though to be fair, I get to talk to Hunter every few weeks on the Vegas Gang). With an Advertising and New Media Summit at the next Casino Marketing Conference, it’s clear that social media is increasing in importance for casinos, just as it is for other businesses.
As some of you know, I participated in the Las Vegas Rock and Roll Marathon this year, and I had a ball. But I’d like to share something that happened before the race that, hopefully, can make a point about what not to do with a Strip casino.
Parking at the race is always an issue. Even if you can get into Mandalay Bay (the host hotel), it’s not always easy to get out with all of the lane closures. So I usually park somewhere else. This year, a big chunk of the race was down Hacienda, and I didn’t want to chance circling around the west side of the Strip trying to find a place to park that wasn’t too far away. Last year I parked at the Tropicana and it worked out pretty well, so I figured I’d try it again. I suggested the same to my running group, adding that the casino had recently changed hands and might be a fun place to stop after the race. I haven’t been inside the hotel since the new regime took over, but I’ve read about the money and effort they’ve been sinking into it, and I think they deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Around 4:30 AM, I pulled up and parked, and was stopped by a bike security officer who said that I’d have to move, that parking was for “Tropicana guests only.” The officer was completely reasonable and polite, and said exactly what I’d say if I was in his situation. He said that it wasn’t his idea, that the management had insisted that no one going to the race be allowed to park on the lot. I told him that whoever drafted that policy was an idiot, since the property could use all of the exposure and foot traffic it could get.
(The officer actually used one of my favorite lines–“It’s really not up to me, but they’ve got me on camera and I’ve got to do this.” It worked for me and, this time, it worked on me. It’s nice to see that it’s still effective.)
I made it over to MGM Grand where I parked, passed a bunch of runners in the lobby, and headed over the Mandalay Bay. I got there about ten minutes later than I would have liked and wasn’t shy about letting people know what the Tropicana thought of us runners.
This isn’t just about sour grapes or personal inconvenience. Booting the runners from the parking lot was actually bad business, in my opinion. Here’s why:
The parking lot is already built. It represents a sunk cost. Whether someone parks on it or not, it’s going to cost the same to pay off the construction and maintain it.
That being said, having a full parking lot is a more effective use of the asset than an empty one.
At most, a few dozen runners would have parked in the lot. With acres of open spaces, that wouldn’t have prevented any guests from accessing the hotel. Most of them would be gone by noon. It’s extremely unlikely that hundreds of new guests would be arriving between 5 AM and noon on Sunday morning.
Even if only a few of the runners who parked patronized the restaurants at the Tropicana, isn’t that better than none? Particularly at a property that’s trying desperately to rebuild its image?
This is the kind of thing that irks me because it doesn’t seem to make sense. If I was running the Trop I’d not only encourage runners to park on my lot, I’d offer them a 10% discount on their buffet if they showed their finisher’s medal. The marathon’s already happening; why not capitalize on the fact that it’s happening on your doorstep? The property doesn’t boast the best rooms in Las Vegas or, from what reviews on TripAdvisor say, the best service. It’s best asset is its geography. If you’re not going to use that to your advantage, you’re not thinking about your property strategically.
Maybe the hotel had 100% occupancy that weekend and all of the restaurants were slammed and they didn’t need the business, maybe not. But this is a case study, I think, of management not seeing the forest for the trees.
This policy might have effectively ensured that the Tropicana had a few dozen more empty spaces than they usually do. Unfortunately, it might convince some people to let them stay empty.
Can anyone think of any other policies that, in the end, do more harm than good?
It’s hard to believe, but one of the oldest gambling con games is alive and well in the shadow of the Las Vegas Strip. I snapped some pictures of a shell game in action on Monday between the Tropicana and Hooters. Technically that’s not the Strip, but it’s in the Strip tourist corridor, so the headline is accurate. Click through to see indisputable photographic evidence and some homespun analysis. Continue reading “Strip shell game!”