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Hunting for history: Collectors descend on Tropicana before closure

Updated March 21, 2024 - 12:05 pm

Las Vegas resident Holly Vaughn has long been drawn to vintage Vegas elements — the design of old fonts, the glamour of famous shows and the kitschy attractions that drew in her and fellow schoolchildren on field trips to the Strip.

“Now I have to hunt through eBay to find vintage Vegas. I have to fight people for them,” Vaughn said. “To actually go get it yourself, it’s much more fun and easier to get it yourself.”

It’s what drew Vaughn to the Tropicana and Mirage for some last-minute shopping in late February before changes hit the two properties. The Mirage will be rebranded as a Hard Rock casino after the Seminole Tribe of Florida acquired the iconic Strip property in 2022. More imminently, the Tropicana will close on April 2 in preparation for demolition to make way for a Major League Baseball ballpark project.

Vaughn, a local artist, said she often searches for collectable items from former and current casinos to serve as inspiration for her business, Battle Born Pins. She was inspired to snag her own merchandise inspiration instead of regretting it after the closure or rebrand.

“I have people thank me for making Stardust pins because their grandpa worked there and they have nothing from that era,” she said. “When they leave the casino and it closes, it all disappears like it was never even there. To have something that reminds them of that time, they’re very nostalgic about it.”

Though the Tropicana has a couple of weeks left until its closure, much of the stock of collectible items is dwindling as tourists grab their free or cheap pieces of history while they’re still available. Visits by a Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter in early March found a dwindling, then lack of, T-shirt stock. A casino cage employee said they had run out of free used card decks and matchbooks.

Vaughn grabbed casino chips, lighters, card and matchbooks from the Tropicana and some Siegfried and Roy Secret Garden tchotchkes from The Mirage. She recommended that collectors going to the Tropicana soon should sign up for a player’s card to get a souvenir unique to their name before the casino closes.

It’s unclear if there will be any special items available in the property’s last days. The resort, operated by Delaware-based Bally’s, said it will preserve some of the property’s more special memorabilia through local museums.

“Through our collaboration with the Neon Museum, the Showgirl Museum, and UNLV, we are committed to preserving the heritage and items of sentimental value within the Tropicana. Through these partnerships, we will be able to document and showcase the unique history and cultural impact of Tropicana Las Vegas,” a property spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Frank Sidoris, a Las Vegas-based guitarist and owner of dive bar Hard Hat Lounge, said he plans to grab some pieces of nostalgia from The Mirage before it transitions to Hard Rock branding. (The rebrand does not yet have a public date.)

Sidoris has a door handle from the now-demolished Riviera on display at his bar because of his personal connection to the former casino. He said he and a friend sneaked onto the property after its closure in 2015 and removed two door handles. One now hangs above the women’s restroom at Hard Hat, while the other sits in the home of his mother, a former dancer in the “Crazy Girls” residency.

“It’s a shame to me that some of my favorite memories are in places that don’t exist anymore,” Sidoris said. “To display a piece of Vegas history in a historical Vegas bar, I think is special.”

Some casino chip collectors say they have been collecting $1 and $5 chips from the Tropicana for months. Collectors said the most recent batch of $1 chips from the casino were selling on eBay for $3 plus the shipping cost — but that could be rare.

Steve Cutler, a longtime Vegas memorabilia collector and founder of the Casino Legends Hall of Fame, which occupied the Tropicana for about seven years until its closure in 2007, said Tropicana and Mirage chips, especially limited edition mints, will become more valuable over time.

“The old chips are good, and a lot of the limited edition chips they did, which they did in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a lot of them were done with mintages of 100 or less,” Cutler said. Even though they’re not that old, they’re pretty hard to find.

“The mentality of collectors — they don’t want anything until they can’t get it anymore.”

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on X.

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