Hotel Histories

History of the Tropicana

Opened April 4, 1957


Ben Jaffe bought 40 acres of land in Las Vegas to build the 12th resort on the Strip. Co-owner of the resort was Colonel Charles Baron.

The resort was designed by Miami architect M. Tony Sherman and built by the Taylor Construction Company of Miami. The décor of the lobby and casino was created by Margaret Kastel, wife of "Dandy" Phil Kastel. The theme for the new resort was tropical.

The $15 million, 34 acre, 300 room, Tropicana, called the "The Tiffany of the Strip" by publicist Harvey Diederich opened on April 4, 1957.

Opening night festivities were provided by Monte Proser's "Tropicana Revue", a $250,000 musical starring Eddie Fisher in the Theatre Restaurant later renamed Fountain Theatre.

The Tropicana's roadside sign consisted of large and small petals of a 60 foot tulip shaped fountain which flashed in opposite directions with rose and aqua neon which measured 110 feet in diameter. The porte cochere was built to enter a sprawling casino with two and three story room wings around the garden pool. The hotel was designed in a "Y" shape to maximize efficiency. More than one employee per guest was provided to assure that patrons received prompt service.

Jaffe leased the casino operations out to Phil "Dandy" Kastel, but Kastel was denied a gaming license because of his past association with known mob figure Frank Costello. Jaffe then obtained the service of Louis J. Lederer in charge of the casino. J.K. Houssels was Casino Manager, and Robert O. Cannon was General Manager. Entertainment Director Lou Walters (father of newswoman Barbara Walters) imported the "Folies Bergere" from Paris, at an estimated $800,000, for the main showroom and the Tropicana was a success.

The Tropicana contained formal gardens surrounding a scalloped-edged Olympic-size pool in the center courtyard. Tastefully appointed guest rooms with individual lanais looked out across the lush, private tropical setting.

In 1957, mobster Frank Costello narrowly escaped assassination. A handwritten note was found in his pocket, noting "gross Casino Win as of 4-26-57 . . . $651,284", the exact Tropicana take on that date. Because of this, Nevada authorities ordered Lederer removed from the gaming industry.

Houssels supposedly bought out Jaffe in either 1958 or 1959.

In 1961, the Tropicana added the 18-hole Tropicana Golf Course and Country Club across the street and an additional 150 room wing.

In 1962, Tropicana added another 116 room wing which surrounded the pool and gardens.

The Blue Room Lounge opened in 1965.

Deil Gustafson bought the Tropicana Hotel in 1971, when it was so run-down that he described it in the Wall Street Journal as "an old elephant that needed a stab in the rear". Gustafson contracted J.K. Houssels senior and junior at the resort for two years.

In 1972, The Casino Lounge was extended to incorporate a vast area behind the bar. The two service bars in the Blue Room were removed to expand the seating area to 800, the La Fontaine Lounge was terminated, and the barber shop and beauty salon was moved to the main level of the resort. Alan Lee had invested money in the resort and had taken over as Entertainment Director.

In July of 1973, the new 1,150 seat Superstar Theatre was constructed to answer the need for a large showroom. Designed to the specifications of Sammy Davis, Jr., it became his showcase as well as for other Strip performers for the next two years.

In 1975, the Tropicana dropped its headliner policy and reopened the Superstar Theatre under a new name, the Tiffany Theatre.

Gustafson sold 51% of the stock to chemical heiress Mitzi Stauffer Briggs Smith.

Gustafson and Smith were forced to sell their remaining stock by gaming regulators in 1979, after FBI tapes revealed they had allegedly allowed mobster Joe Agosto, while serving as the Tropicana's entertainment director, to make management decisions and divert funds to mobsters in Kansas City.

September of 1979 marked the first-phase opening of the $20 million 600-room Tiffany (now the Paradise) Tower. The addition of this tower brought the Tropicana's room count to 1,150.

In December of 1979, Ramada Hotels bought the Tropicana for $80 million and added another 22-story wing. The Tropicana later won a $34 million judgment against Ramada in a breach-of-contract lawsuit.

Ramada Inns, Inc., hired architect-designer Tony DeVroude which redecorated the resort in the European motif of Art Nouveau, showing elegance and beauty.

Included in the renovation was a leaded stained glass ceiling, running a full extension across the main blackjack gaming area which was valued in excess of $1 million. Swirls of brass railing and polished marble floors surrounded the casino, the front desk registration area and the opulent Atrium Shopping Plaza. Even the carpeting in the new Tropicana was so unique in design that the British and European press called it the most important technical event in the manufacture of carpet in this century.

In November 1985, a ground breaking signaled the conversion to "The Island of Las Vegas" concept, including a breathtaking five-acre water park and the new 22-story Island Tower with 806 luxury rooms and suites.

In 1989, Aztar Corporation was formed to operate the former Gaming Group of Ramada, Inc.

Aztar Corporation completed the Tropicana's outer island in 1991 which included two 35 foot tall Aku Aku gods, Polynesian long house with tiki carvings which was all done by hand; a unique sound system featuring in-ground speakers; a large tiki called Kalanui, the "God of Money"; and tropical landscaping.

In 1993, the Tropicana created "Wildlife Walk", nine habitats on the walkway linking the front of the Paradise and the back Island towers.

In 1996, Tropicana added a new look to its entrance, along with a $1.4 million Baccarat room, premium slot area, and Atrium Lounge.

In April of 1997, Tropicana's wildlife department grew to approximately 105 animals.

On February 3, 1999, Aztar obtained an 18-month option to acquire the Jaffe family's 50% interest of the Tropicana for $120 million.

On February 4, 1999, the Hall of Fame in the Tropicana's Casino Legends Hall of Fame inducted about 30 living/dead celebrities and leaders who helped create Las Vegas. The 5,000 square foot hall contains over 10,000 items.

On May 17, 2000, Westmont, Illinois based Ty, Inc., sought an injunction to stop Phoenix based Aztar Corp's "Beanie Babies Giveaway Slots." It awarded the wildly popular plush toys as awards to its slot machine patrons.

On June 8, 2000, Aztar sought dismissal of the injunction as it claims were moot because it had already stopped the promotion.

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