The Tropicana gleams white and bright, inside and out, the result of its first major renovation since 1986. Fortunately, brightening the joint up hasn’t chased away the ghosts of good times past, before it began its downward spiral.
In my recent walk-through, I brought my own memories as well as the memories of my lunch partner, District Attorney David Roger.
He remembered his family moved to Las Vegas when he was 14 and he and his dad got their monthly haircuts there together. Even as a teenager getting a haircut 35 years ago, Roger felt the ever-present sense of excitement at the Trop.
The Tropicana opened in 1957 under mob control and stayed that way for decades. Gaming officials forced more than one unsavory owner out.
Many of my memories involved writing news stories about the mobbed-up years of the Tropicana in the 1970s and 1980s. Part of that time, mobster Joe Agosto was “entertainment director” of the “Folies Bergere,” a cover for his real job — sending skim money back to the mob in the Midwest. Agosto died in 1983 before he could tell all he knew about evil doings at the Tropicana.
Memories of the elegance at the Trop remain. The entryway with the million-dollar Art Nouveau ceiling, which is still there, along with the lovely marble flooring at the check-in desk. It was a special place then.
By the 1990s, it needed to keep up with the Joneses, but didn’t. Later, the property took on the ambiance of a rundown downtown property, but kept the friendliness of old Las Vegas, where dealers remembered customers and talked to them.
Before my recent stroll, the last time I was there was in 2006. It was listless, shabby and sad. Various owners bought it with big plans but failed to keep their promises of major upgrades.
In July 2009, it sold again to the current owners, an investment group headed by Onex Corp., a Canadian private equity firm, which pledged a $180 million renovation. That already has been cut to $147 million.
The CEO and part owner is Alex Yemenidjian, who gets credit, if there’s a successful turnaround, and blame if not. A 30 percent drop in revenues for 2010 was blamed partly on the disruptive renovation, which is still a work in progress.
There are signs everywhere declaring, “We’re changing everything.” The pool area is half torn up to make way for the mandatory nightclub. The “Folies” became a historical footnote under the previous owners.
The Las Vegas Mob Experience is scheduled to open Tuesday , so a different kind of ghostly memories will haunt the Tropicana.
At $30 a head, it’s supposed to give you an experience. Hope it does. The gift shop is already open, and I’m guessing a big seller might be the ladies panties with the words “an offer you can’t refuse.” What women wouldn’t want to send that message via her knickers?
A few of the 1,000 mobster artifacts are already in the gift shop, ensconced in glass cases, such as Anthony Spilotro’s baby shoes. Nearby is his gun and the Mass cards from the service after his murder in 1986. Spilotro’s living room is one of the featured rooms of the experience.
Sam Giancana’s greeting cards, pepper grinder and key chain are under glass. So is a selection of Meyer Lansky’s colorful bow ties. Bugsy Siegel’s handwritten letters to his wife (not his mistress) are displayed.
The experience is designed to be high-tech and interactive, with the visitor making choices along the way. Maybe you get whacked, maybe you don’t.
Can’t help but wonder what the mob guys themselves would think of having their things on display as part of the ongoing effort to turn around the Trop.
Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.