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From Folies Bergere to golf course, ex-employees reflect on storied Tropicana

Updated March 28, 2024 - 10:05 pm

For three former employees who worked at the storied Tropicana during its best years, Tuesday’s shutdown is more than just a hotel-casino closure.

It’s a send-off of a family member, destined for a new and uncertain future.

Billy Andrews, a former golf pro and director of recreation at the Tropicana, Scarlett Grable, a former Folies Bergere dancer, and Rick Campbell, a former marketing director for the property, shared some of their stories from the times when the Trop was one of the best places to hang out in Las Vegas.

While they’re all sad that the Trop as they knew it is destined to become a footnote in Las Vegas history, they also recognize that the time has come for it to go and that it never could regain the status it once held as “the Tiffany of the Strip,” a reference to high-end jeweler Tiffany & Co.

Andrews, now a Boise, Idaho, resident, followed in his father’s footsteps as a golf pro at the Tropicana’s 18-hole golf course that sat where the MGM Grand now stands. He has fond memories of the many celebrities who golfed at the Tropicana and some of the shenanigans that occurred on the course and in the clubhouse.

Among his golf acquaintances: singer Paul Anka, comedian Jerry Lewis, football star Jim Brown, boxer Joe Louis, poker players Jack Binion and Amarillo Slim, daredevil Evel Knievel, and Foster Brooks, a comedian whose schtick was portraying a drunk.

He also admired Sammy Davis Jr., who helped break the color barrier on the Strip and had a special locker in the clubhouse as well as his own golf cart.

“Sammy was a lot of fun to play golf with and he’d come in three times a week when he was performing at Caesars,” Andrews said. “You can only imagine the bar and sunroof he had on his golf cart. He instructed my staff that black people could use the cart, so he put in big letters on it, F-C-P-O — For Colored People Only.”

He said the Superstar Theater was built at the Tropicana for Davis, but he never performed there.

“So instead, we got Ann-Margret and then we got the Osmonds,” he said. “The Osmonds played (golf) and they were crazy. They would go to the showroom through the kitchen and they’d play golf early in the morning and Donnie didn’t want anybody on the range when he was there.”

Grable, who stayed close to home after a 15-year career dancing in various Las Vegas shows, is a tour guide on bus trips to Grand Canyon West on the Hualapai Reservation.

As the youngest performer in Folies Bergere, Grable was rewarded for her persistence after being told she was a half-inch too short to dance with the show that became the longest-running production in Las Vegas history.

A reunion of Folies Bergere staff members is planned for Trop’s final weekend.

“It’s a big family,” she said. “It’s 50 years of showgirls and boys and the electricians and the dressers, everybody comes. It’s not just the showgirls, it’s everybody.”

Tough times

It was that family feel that helped her through tough times.

She was dancing in “Skintight,” a production show at Harrah’s in November 2002, when she had to be carried off stage.

She was 33 at the time but the cartilage in both hip joints had worn away and the pain became too great for her after dancing six days a week and completing more than 170 kicks a night.

She took on a real estate career and finally got the surgical relief she needed in 2014. She leaned on the support of her dancing family, especially those at the Trop.

“More than any other show in Las Vegas, I think the Tropicana Folies cast has like a family feel to it, because we’re all still friends,” Grable said. “From 38 years ago, all of us are still friends. Like we see each other, you know, ‘Oh, hey Scarlett,’ or we talk on the phone, or we talk on Facebook.”

Through her time at the Trop, she met numerous show biz types, including Rodney Dangerfield, Paul Anka and a reunion with Barry Manilow — who presented her with her high school diploma from Los Angeles County High School of the Performing Arts in its first graduating class.

Worldwide interest

While Campbell only served as Trop’s marketing director for two years, it was a pivotal two years.

He arrived at the Trop in 2007 — just in time for the property’s 50th anniversary, but right as the Las Vegas economy was getting hammered by the Great Recession.

“During that time, we had so many television stations, radio stations, newspapers, press from around the world reaching out to us on the history of the property, celebration news and the future of the property,” he said.

The property’s new owner, Columbia Sussex, didn’t have any experience as a casino operator and it was also under scrutiny from the New Jersey Gaming Commission.

North on the Strip, the Stardust had just closed and “there was no stopping the fact that it was the oldest property still standing on the Strip and the people of Las Vegas and the press from around the world wanted a celebration.

“There’s nothing like being in marketing for a property and every day walking in the office to messages from the press in Germany, Japan, England, and every state in the U.S. wanting a story on 50 years of the Tropicana,” said Campbell, who now lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

Many of the stars who had taken the stage at the Trop offered to perform for free to be a part of the half-century celebration. Many of them were intermission acts for the famed Folies Bergere show. Siegfried & Roy had gotten their start at Trop.

“The Osmonds were an intermission show at one point. Earth Wind and Fire were an intermission show and then so many performers that had performed there over the years, you know, the Pointer Sisters, the Supremes, you name it, it seemed like everybody had taken a trip through the Tropicana,” he said. “All these performers were calling up saying, ‘Hey, you know, we owe our careers, we had so much fun there at the Trop, we’re offering you to come in and perform.”

But Columbia Sussex, under scrutiny from regulators, didn’t want to call attention to the Trop and didn’t want to spend money on a big celebration.

“So I said, ‘Look, I’m not going to be the one to call CNBC and CNN and tell them we’re not doing an event because they’re going to make a story out of that more than of the event itself.”

To Campbell, that was the beginning of the end for the Tropicana. Subsequent owners didn’t want to make the massive investments necessary to keep the property up to what it had been.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on X.

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