Las Vegas was halfway through a recession. It was April 1957, and two years earlier the town had still come to terms with the opening of five major resorts. The Dunes, the Riviera, New Frontier, Royal Nevada and Moulin Rouge had all fought through changes of ownership, some falling into bankruptcy, the last two never recovered. Opening the Hacienda the previous year was a low-key affair with no glamour. So it was going against the grain to open the doors of the town's most luxurious yet established hotel.
The Tropicana had been planning since 1955, and that year's setbacks did not seem to have hurt much on the grounds. This had a peculiar ownership structure: Miami hotelier Ben Jaffe (part owner of Fontainebleau in Miami Beach) owned the property the casino would sit on, but the resort would be constructed and run by Conquistador Inc.
It so happened that the owner of Conquistador, "Dandy" Phil Kastel, had a long relationship with Frank Costello, in the spring of 1957 possibly the most notorious gangster of the country. Kastel had operated New Orleans' Beverly Club (an allegedly illegal but still running casino) for Costello for years the two had engaged in a Louisiana slot machine route project which, likewise, may have been illegal on paper but which the police managed to escape before the attention of the Kefauver Committee forced them into action. And it almost goes without saying that most of the "Miami hotel men" who came to Las Vegas during this era were more than familiar with Meyer Lansky, another famous name for the gangland.
Kastel was the driving force behind the development of the Tropicana, and was excited to share his dream for Las Vegas. In an interview with columnist Gilbert Millstein from the New York Times, he revealed that while he had been "good friends" with Frank Costello for years, the reputed Mob boss had "no interest" at all in the Tropicana, since he was too busy and depressed to take on Las Vegas. "Not all of Las Vegas you could give him," Kastel explained.
It was the encounters Kastel had with the Beverly Club — and elsewhere — that inspired him to create the Tropicana. "I have seen a lot of things," he said. "I know all sorts of people — underworld, upper world, middle world — and many pretty good people. I saw that a first-class establishment was required without, you understand, knocking on some other hotel. I am one operator in particular. I like to offer some interest.
That value took the form of a $15 million hotel-casino, making it by far the most expensive resort in Las Vegas ever built — closer to the $19 million it would cost Caesars Palace nine years later than the $8.5 million high-rise Riviera. The Trop got its nickname "Strip's Tiffany."
The $15 million delivered 300 rooms in two three-story wings, sweeping back from a Y-shaped main house. Described in the Las Vegas Review-Journal as possessing "a quiet elegance," the hotel has been noted for its spacious lobby area and tiled mosaic entrance.
The 60-foot tulip-shaped fountain in the middle of the 110-foot diameter pool stood for another 20 years as a landmark on the southern end of the Strip. The mahogany-paneled casino was tastefully screened by ornamental horticulture from the lobby and "Peacock Alleys" from the front desk to the rooms bypassed the gambling tables in fact. A 15-foot curved glass wall enclosed the Celebrity Gourmet Space, illuminated by vibrant dancing fountains and huge Czech-Crystal chandeliers.
On May 2, 1957 Costello was shot and wounded by Vincent "the Chin" Gigante on orders from rival Mafia boss Vito Genovese while entering a New York apartment building. The exact gross win from the Tropicana as of April 27, 1957 was written on a piece of paper discovered by police inside Costello's coat pocket — $651,284, minus $153,745 in markers (loans to players), with the earnings from the slot machines at $62,844. The note listed $30,000 for "L" and $9,000 for "H," presumably money to be skimmed on behalf of Costello's underworld partner Meyer Lansky and possibly for James Hoffa, the union boss of Mob-connected Teamsters. This became a major news story nationally.
The Tropicana performed poorly in the 1960s against the increasing competition from the larger hotels, such as Caesars Palace, which began to appear on the Las Vegas strip. By 1968, facing growing losses, Houssels sold the Tropicana to Trans-Texas Airways and, after a series of sales culminating in 1975, the Tropicana became the property of chemical heiress Mitzi Briggs.
In the late 1970s a skimming activity by the organized crime syndicate in Kansas City was uncovered running out of the Tropicana, and Mitzi Briggs was forced to sell the hotel. In the last month of 1979 Ramada Inns Inc. finished purchasing the hotel.
The Ramada Inn Inc. owned the Tropicana until 1989 when all of its gaming assets were sold off. In 1989 the Aztar Company acquired the Tropicana Hotel and they owned the hotel until their parent company went into bankruptcy in 2008. The Tropicana Las Vegas has been broken off as a separate company while in bankruptcy. Following a series of bying and selling on Tuesday, July 28th 2020 Tropicana Las Vegas is finally on sale, the corporate owner announced, less than four months following closing its current deal.