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Tropicana, the Las Vegas casino once associated with the mob, closes its doors

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA LAS VEGAS")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Bright light city gonna set my soul, gonna set my soul on fire.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The bright lights of Sin City fade a little this week when one of Las Vegas' classic hotel casinos closes. The Tropicana opened back in 1957. And through the years, Liz Taylor was a regular. The Rat Pack's Sammy Davis Jr. owned a share. And Elvis shimmied next to the casino's famous dancers in this hit movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA LAS VEGAS")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Viva Las Vegas. Viva Las Vegas.

RASCOE: The Tropicana is being shuttered, eventually imploded, to make way for a new baseball stadium for the Oakland A's move to Nevada. And before this chapter draws to a close, we reached out to Professor Michael Green, who specializes in Las Vegas history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Welcome to the show.

MICHAEL GREEN: Thank you for inviting me.

RASCOE: So what made the Tropicana special back in the day?

GREEN: Well, when it opened, they called it the Tiffany of the strip because it cost more to build it than it had ever cost any other strip property. In 1957, it cost $15 million.

RASCOE: And so how glitzy was it compared to the rest of the strip?

GREEN: I would say that it ranked with the others in glitz. It had a couple of other things going for it. When it opened, it had a great gourmet room. They had two three-story wings with about 300 rooms, and this was considered incredibly luxurious. They had French Provincial, Italian Renaissance, Far East, etc. And their showroom - they called it the Tropicana Revue. And the opening night star was Eddie Fisher, who at that time was really big.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH! MY PAPA")

EDDIE FISHER: (Singing) Oh, my papa. To me, he was so wonderful.

RASCOE: So what are some notable performers and events that happened at the Tropicana?

GREEN: They brought in an assortment of people, but in 1959, they added the Folies Bergere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The Tropicana Hotel is proud to present...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...The 14th edition of...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...The Les Folies Bergere.

(APPLAUSE)

GREEN: ...Which was imported from Paris, and one of the acts in the Folies Bergere, actually, was Siegfried and Roy. That's where they made their Las Vegas debut, and they go on to be big names here. But where they really had a niche was that, in the '60s, they had a second showroom called the Blue Room. You name the big-name jazz act - it played at the Tropicana Hotel at a time when jazz wasn't necessarily in all the showrooms. So we're talking Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Al Hirt. It was an all-star cast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) To spend one night with you in our old rendezvous...

GREEN: Later, the Tropicana has had a variety of people, production shows and so on. It's also where they filmed part of "Diamonds Are Forever," the Bond movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER")

SEAN CONNERY: (As James Bond) I hear that the Hotel Tropicana is quite comfortable.

RASCOE: We have seen rumors of connections to the mob when it first opened - not now, obviously. But was there any truth to that?

GREEN: Oh, there was a lot of truth to that. The guy who was building it, Ben Jaffe, had owned the Fontainebleau in Miami. And very often in the Miami hotel business back then, there were some connections. But the guy he was bringing in to run the casino was named Phil Kastel, and they called him Dandy Phil probably because if you were in the mob, you had to have a nickname. It was just the way it was. And he was tied to Frank Costello in New York. So about three weeks after the Tropicana opened, someone tried to kill Frank Costello or at least send him a warning. And when they got to him, he had in his pocket a piece of paper that showed the revenues from the Tropicana, and he wasn't supposed to have that information. So when it opened, there was some mob involvement, and there would be again later.

RASCOE: Well, what does the closing of the Tropicana say about Sin City of today?

GREEN: It means we have changed a lot. And the idea that a Major League Baseball team is moving here speaks to the growth of Las Vegas. It speaks to how Las Vegas has really just become a lot like anywhere else, truthfully. Maybe they've caught up with us, or maybe we've caught up with them.

RASCOE: And so what does it mean, or what does Vegas lose when it loses the Tropicana?

GREEN: We do lose a chunk of our past - in this case, one of the last two strip hotel casinos from the '50s that still have part of the original property there. But one of the things we have had to reconcile ourselves to is that people do not come to the Strip looking for that past. They come here looking for all of the bells and whistles that tourists look for these days.

RASCOE: That's UNLV history professor Michael Green. Thank you so much for joining us.

GREEN: Glad to. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VIVA LAS VEGAS")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Viva Las Vegas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Shannon Rhoades is NPR's senior editor for interviews.
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