Bob Stupak

Bob (Robert) Stupak (1942–2009) was one of the most flamboyant and controversial casino operators in Las Vegas, a risk-taker and self-promoter whose quirky Vegas World evolved into the 115-story Stratosphere Tower, the nation's tallest observation platform, with thrill rides and a revolving restaurant.

Stupak was born in Pittsburgh, where his father, Chester, headed an illegal gambling racket. Bored with high school and impressed by his dad's antics, such as paying police to look the other way, Stupak sought to run his own racket. He became a teenaged, small-time loan shark and sold wristwatches. Stupak also began racing motorcycles, competing as far away as Florida.

But Stupak soon sought a new challenge—1950s pop singer. His ability to sing and promote himself resulted in a record contract with United Artists. Stupak renamed himself Bobby Star, played in nightclubs, and recorded a Christmas song, "Jake the Flake." Still restless, and less than successful as a singer, Stupak returned to racing but soon adopted an old idea for making money—convincing restaurants to let him sell two-for-one dinner coupons. His coupon books sold for $6.95, and promised $100 in free dinners. He pocketed the money for each book.

Stupak moved to Las Vegas briefly in 1964 to sell books with coupons from local restaurants. But after losing $12,000 gambling in a casino, he returned to Pittsburgh, where he was injured in a motorcycle accident—one of several he had been in. Still in his early twenties, he took his dad's advice and set out to find his fortune selling coupon books, in Australia. There, he started a telemarketing business, married twice, and fathered three children.

In 1971, Stupak returned to the States, pooled about $300,000 of his own and his father's money, and moved back to Las Vegas. While settling in, he introduced himself to businesspeople, lawyers, and politicians, making valuable contacts. He bought a restaurant near the Las Vegas Convention Center, Chateau Vegas, which was popular but lost money. His big break came when he bought a 1.5-acre parcel on Las Vegas Boulevard and Main Street, several blocks north of the Sahara Hotel, off the Strip and within the Las Vegas city limits.

Stupak won a state gaming license and in 1974 opened the Million Dollar Historic Gambling Museum, a small casino with a few table games and fifteen slot machines. Here Stupak developed his skills as a promoter. On a wall, he put up a $100,000 bill, which was not real, but which he advertised as an attraction on billboards: "See What A $100,000 Bill Looks Like." In another pitch for attention, Stupak promoted a slot machine with a $250,000 jackpot, much higher than anywhere in Las Vegas. He installed a nickel-bet machine with a $50,000 jackpot. He papered a wall of the casino with a so-called "wall of cash," an estimated $60,000 in dollar bills.

Less than two months after the small casino opened, a fire swept through it. Stupak, who had purchased insurance policies, had decided not to build the casino to meet fire codes. The cause of the fire was suspicious but never determined. The insurance company refused to pay for damages. His casino now closed, Stupak bought a downtown lounge, the Sinabar, with several table games and six slots. He renamed it the Vault. To draw players, he offered blackjack games with both dealers' cards turned face up for a half-hour a day.

In 1975, his chances improved when his insurers agreed to settle his fire damage claim for $300,000. Stupak sold the Vault and leased a slot casino, the Glitter Gulch, on Fremont Street, and placed what would become an iconic neon sign above it—cowgirl Vegas Vicky. He sold the lease on the slot casino for $2.2 million in 1977.

Stupak then sought to open a new hotel-casino, Bob Stupak's Vegas World, at the site of the Million Dollar Museum. He managed to obtain loans from four banks to cover the $7 million building cost. The site was beside a notoriously seedy neighborhood known as Naked City. When it debuted in 1979, Vegas World had an eight-story hotel tower, which Stupak would later expand to twenty stories.

Stupak's promotional ideas were put to the test, as his new casino was nowhere near other Strip hotels and their crowds of walking tourists. He put in games like blackjack with the dealers' cards exposed and crapless craps. He offered gamblers a chance to bet against a caged chicken. Slot machines awarded automobiles as prizes. He appeared on TV's 60 Minutes and, in the late 1980s, the show Crime Story. He adopted as his nickname the "Polish Maverick."

For the interior of Vegas World, he flouted all conventions. Vegas World's casino had an odd, space-themed interior with a life-sized space shuttle and astronaut hanging from the ceiling amid containers filled with bubbling water. A large plastic box in the casino purportedly contained a million dollars—including scattered Vegas World casino chips of various dominations.

Stupak became known as an excellent poker player and a high roller, competing in the World Series of Poker. He once placed a $1 million bet—using a phony bag of cash to fool news reporters—on the Super Bowl (and won). In 1987, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Las Vegas.

In the late 1980s, while in Australia, Stupak saw the Sydney Tower, which gave him the idea for his next project. He started making plans to replace Vegas World with the Stratosphere Tower. He created a public company to sell stock to raise building funds and dreamed up a promotion that would get him in trouble with state gaming authorities: he advertised and used phone-sales people to sell "vacation packages" to the planned hotel for $189 to $1,500 each. Buyers complained they were misled about the actual value of the packages while at the hotel. In 1991, the state fined him $125,000 over the vacation packages. Gaming authorities also questioned how he received $2.9 million in loans that he never reported to the state, but he survived that controversy.

With enough money to start on the tower, Stupak began building in 1992. When only about half of the 1,149-foot tower was done a year later, a fire halted construction. Stupak, faced with money problems, relinquished control of his Stratosphere company to Lyle Berman, a poker player and owner of Grand Casinos, Inc., to insure the $550 million tower's completion. Berman bought Stupak out for $51 million in 1994. The tower-hotel and casino, with a restaurant-bar, wedding chapel, rollercoaster, and "Big Shot" thrill rides at the observation deck, opened in 1996. The tower itself was a smashing success among visitors, who lined up in droves at its elevators. But not many stopped to gamble in the casino, and the resort quickly started losing money.

Stupak, still a thrill seeker, was badly injured in a motorcycle accident on a Las Vegas street in 1995. He hit the pavement face first, shattering teeth and facial bones, but he eventually recovered.

The Stratosphere, while a great visitor attraction and a fixture on the Las Vegas skyline, fell into bankruptcy. The price of the company's stock fell from $17 to only a few dollars a share. In 1997, while under new management and in bankruptcy, the Stratosphere was bought by Carl Icahn, a company takeover specialist. In 2007, Icahn sold the Stratosphere, and a few other local casinos with it, to an affiliate of the Wall Street company Goldman, Sachs, for $1.3 billion.

In 1999, Stupak, now out of the Stratosphere, tried and failed to convince the Las Vegas City Council to let him build a 1,200-room hotel in the shape of a 400-foot-long facsimile of the ill-fated passenger ship Titanic, on Las Vegas Boulevard outside of downtown Las Vegas. Stupak also lost in his bid to buy a twenty-six-acre parcel on the Strip, across from the Sahara Hotel, for his Titanic project.

In his later years, Stupak often played poker at the Bellagio Hotel. In 2006, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party's nomination for Nevada's lieutenant governor. He died of leukemia in 2009.

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