Las Vegas Legend Bob Stupak Passes Away

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By ALEXANDRA BERZON, The Wall Street Journal

Though he was a Las Vegas impresario and master of publicity ploys, Bob Stupak never saw some of his grandest visions come true, such as constructing a giant King Kong on the side of a tower, or building a casino in the shape of the sinking Titanic. Expensive efforts to achieve political office also faltered.

But the casino operator and fixture in the local media did realize his dream of building the Stratosphere tower as a giant monument to himself and to the city that at once embraced and derided him. Mr. Stupak died Sept. 25 after struggling with leukemia. He was 67 years old.

He was a flamboyant throw-back to the casino mecca's anything-goes early days, though he operated at a time when corporations were entering the casino business and working to transform it into something more respectable. He stayed in the public eye in part because of the stunts he reportedly staged over a three decade career. He spent $150,000 to play basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters. He challenged Donald Trump to a million dollar bet over a board game, though Mr. Trump didn't take the bait. He placed a $1 million 1989 Super Bowl bet (and won). In a press release, he announced that he had sent his female friend 1,001 bouquets of roses.

His crowning achievement was the Stratosphere, which transformed the burgeoning city's skyline and featured thrill rides at the top of a 1,149 foot tower.
 "If ever there was a guy beyond the rim of reality, there was Bob. But somehow he made reality happen," said John Woodrum, the owner of the Klondike casino and a longtime friend of Mr. Stupak's.

Mr. Stupak grew up in Pittsburgh and spent most of his life surrounded by gamblers. His father operated a floating illegal craps game for 50 years. A high school dropout who began operating gambling ventures in army barracks, Mr. Stupak later led a business selling dinner coupon books in Australia.

He brought that to Las Vegas in 1972 and not long after bought a parcel of land on Las Vegas Boulevard in a downtrodden area between the resort casinos on the Strip and older casinos downtown. He said later that he didn't realize it wasn't the Strip.

Gifted at superlatives, he opened Bob Stupak's World Famous Historic Gambling Museum. There, according to local historian Michael Green, he advertised that customers could see a $10,000 bill. (It was a fake.)

After the museum burned down under mysterious circumstances, he built Bob Stupak's Vegas World in 1979 with a $1 million loan. With a vague outer space theme, Mr. Stupak filled the casino with such oddities as moon rocks, a tic-tac-toe-playing rooster that always won, and new house-friendly casino games such as "crapless craps."

Vegas World advertised "Virtually Free" Las Vegas vacations through schemes that later came under the wrath of regulators. It generated $100 million in revenue at its peak, and Mr. Stupak continued to promote its most notorious asset: himself.

By the time Mr. Stupak ran for mayor in 1987, his carnival-like flamboyancy wasn't always welcomed by other operators and establishment figures.
"We were an off-colored industry to start with in most people's minds, and we worked very, very hard over the years to try to legitimize ourselves," Mr. Woodrum said. "We didn't want somebody giving us a black eye. But Bob was out there by himself. I liked him because he made me laugh. He was one of those crazy guys who did off-the-wall things."

Mr. Stupak refused to use the word "gaming," as others in the industry preferred, according to the Las Vegas Business Press, and instead stuck with "gambling." He was a fixture in the poker rooms and sports books of casinos around the Strip and downtown, and said he gambled every single day of his adult life.

"Honey, you're talking to a sucker," he was quoted as saying in "Winner Take All," a book about the casino industry. "Gambling is a vice... You can't sell the poison unless you're willing to take it yourself."

Year after year, Mr. Stupak was voted the "most annoying Las Vegan" or "community's biggest embarrassment" in a poll in the local newspaper.

Mr. Stupak's image improved somewhat following a nearly-fatal motorcycle crash in 1995. The Las Vegas City Council dubbed him "Mr. Las Vegas." He turned some of his stunts into good deeds, opening a community center in a poor neighborhood and offering a $100,000 reward for the killer of a murdered seven-year-old boy.

By the end of the 1980s, as developers began to build larger resorts on the Strip, Mr. Stupak realized that he needed something more to entice gamblers to his out-of-the-way casino. The idea for a $550 million sky-high tower and casino grew out of more modest plans to build a really big sign. He originally financed the Stratosphere through time-shares and Vegas World revenues, but the construction was foiled by a fire and eventually ran out of money.

Locals doubted it would ever be complete, and began calling it Stupak's Stump.

The construction was rescued by Grand Casinos, run by fellow poker player Lyle Berman. Mr. Stupak's involvement in the final completion was limited. He said he wasn't happy with the way the casino was laid out -- not even the statue of himself erected in the entrance way, according to later interviews.

Its opening in 1996 was a disaster and within a year the Stratosphere filed for bankruptcy -- the largest in the history of the state at the time.
Carl Ichan bought the debt and turned it into a profitable venture. Despite the foibles, its completion was Mr. Stupak's "lifetime achievement," he and others said.

"You never see skyline picture of Las Vegas where you don't see the Stratosphere," said Jan Jones, the former Las Vegas mayor who is now a Harrah's Entertainment executive. "It rises above everything."

Mr. Stupak regretted that aviation regulators didn't let him build an even taller tower.

"Not having the tallest structure in the world is heartbreaking," he told a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 1996. "It was right there within grasp."


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