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Bob Stupak and me a sentimental journey
By Ed Koch, Mary Manning
Published Friday, Sept. 25, 2009 | 2:53 p.m.
Updated Friday, Sept. 25, 2009 | 6:49 p.m.
Former Las Vegas casino owner Bob Stupak announces plans to build a $1.2 billion hotel-casino modeled after the ship Titanic in Las Vegas during a press conference on Thursday, April 8, 1999. The plans include a hotel-casino which resembles the Titanic and an attached Launch slideshow »
Bob Stupak, a Las Vegas legend who developed the Stratosphere and called himself the Polish Maverick, died today at Desert Springs Hospital after a long battle with leukemia.
He was 67.
The Stratosphere released a statement Friday afternoon saying Stupak will be remembered for his contributions to Las Vegas.
“Bob Stupak was a true visionary and he will be sorely missed. He was instrumental in developing the Stratosphere Casino Hotel and Tower – an icon in Las Vegas, as Mr. Stupak was himself. He will be remembered for his many community initiatives and his many innovative projects within the gaming industry," the statement said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
After an unconventional boyhood in Pittsburgh he came to Las Vegas, where he survived a motorcycle crash and sparred with gaming regulators. He eventually built the tallest hotel-casino in Las Vegas.
In his early days, Stupak delved into pop music and motorcycle drag racing before he began selling coupon books. His father, Chester Stupak, was a major player in Pittsburgh gambling rackets from before World War II until his death in 1991.
After Bob Stupak dropped out of school following the eighth grade, he bought a Harley-Davidson and began an odyssey that would lead to Las Vegas.
Stupak's interest in gambling drew him to Las Vegas in 1964. He then took a detour to Australia for seven years, where he continued selling coupon books and got married twice. Stupak stayed in Las Vegas for good in 1971.
In 1973, Stupak opened the Million Dollar Historic Gambling Museum & Casino, which burned down under mysterious circumstances. Rising from those ashes, Stupak built Vegas World in 1974, an outer space-themed casino with a display of cash Stupak had won in some of his most notorious gambling bouts, including poker games and big Super Bowl bets.
Media from around the world came to the April 29, 1996, opening of the 1,149-foot-tall Stratosphere. A bronze statue of Stupak was displayed at the resort north of Sahara Avenue on Las Vegas Boulevard.
Stupak had envisioned an 1,800-foot tower, but the Federal Aviation Administration intervened and prevented him from going that high. Less than three months after the Stratosphere opened, Stupak, a 14 percent owner, resigned as chairman and the bronze statue disappeared. Stupak said later he had never authorized it.
On March 31, 1995, Stupak was nearly killed when the Harley-Davidson motorcycle he was driving collided with a vehicle on Rancho Road, leaving him in a coma for five weeks.
Stupak had attempted to enter the political arena by running for mayor of Las Vegas. He also helped his daughter, Nicole, with a failed bid for a City Council seat in 1991.
"It seems like he was always playing it right to the edge -- good, bad or indifferent," said former United Press International Bureau Chief Myram Borders, who covered Stupak during the years of his greatest contributions to Las Vegas history. "He had a good sense of humor. He was a funny man. Bob seemed to enjoy life very much."
In 1989, Stupak won the World Series of Poker $5,000 buy-in no-limit deuce-to-7 world championship at Binion's Horseshoe, earning a purse of $139,500. He had placed third in that same event in 1984 and would go on to place fourth in that game at the 1991 and 1993 World Series of Poker.
Famed Las Vegas oddsmaker Lem Banker called his longtime friend "a visionary."
"Bob was a decathlon gambler -- sports bets, propositions, poker -- everything at once," Banker said. "He had a lot of heart and a lot of brains."
Sen. Harry Reid said in a statement that he was saddened to learn of Stupak's death, adding that they had been friends for 35 years.
"Las Vegas has seen many visionary people come and go throughout the years, but few personified the town like Bob did. He was a genuine Las Vegas character," Reid said. "My thoughts and prayers go out to Bob's family and friends during this difficult time."
Someone asked me about the history of Bob Stupak and Vegas World the other day and it got me to thinking about the good old days. I put together this remembrance of Vegas World and the time I spent in it. It is my memories and I can't say for sure if I have all the facts straight, but I thought others interested in the grand Vegas World hotel and casino might like it.
Bob Stupak is the son of Chester Stupak, a man who operated the longest running floating craps game in Pittsburgh. Once Bob reached legal age, he moved to Vegas and started a coupon book scam. He sold books full of two-for-ones and the like and made a tidy profit. He also went to Australia and did the same thing, only to be asked to leave the country for questionable business practices. What Bob really wanted was to own a casino, and so at the first chance, he opened one. He opened a small dump just outside of downtown which was a restaurant with live blackjack. To draw people in, he made screwy rules for his blackjack games, and quickly got beaten by the professionals.
He then bought into a few Fremont Street properties. I believe the Coin Castle or Glitter Gulch was once his. He sold those once he bought a piece of property on the "Strip." Well, he thought it was the Strip, but technically it wasn't; it was too far north. And, many people think he got ripped off on the price. His dream was to open "Bob Stupak's Million Dollar Gambling Museum... and Casino." It was much more casino than a museum. Typical of Stupak, he nickeled-and-dimed the new joint. Because he thought it was classy, he plastered the walls with dollar bills, and when it opened, he didn't even have enough money in reserve to prove to the gaming commission that he was solvent. So, he shortchanged all the machines, putting in fewer coins for payouts than was required, leaving enough cash in hand to keep the Commission from shutting him down.
The museum was not a success, and after a few years, it mysteriously burned to the ground. Stupak collected a load of insurance money. He also made his employees go and remove the drywall from the building. On the day of the fire, Stupak's employees could be seen on the sidewalk in front of his casino, stripping wet dollar bills off the drywall.
With his insurance settlement, Stupak opened "Vegas World," a modest casino with a 100 room hotel. Stupak was a master of promotion. He invented double exposure blackjack, where the player saw both of the dealer's cards. The player also lost all pushes, and got 1:1 on blackjack, thereby making the game an even worse bet for the gambler. He invented crapless craps, where 2, 3 and 12 are points on the layout. He created "dealt to the bottom blackjack", where all cards are in a single deck dealt before they are reshuffled. He again set the rules up to screw the player.
It was after this that Stupak invented the "VIP Vacation Package." This was a deal where the "VIP" gave Stup (as we called him) $396 in advance and he gave him a room for two nights, a free drink card good in all casino bars, a certain amount of non-negotiable playing chips and slot tokens and a really cheap gift with a hyper-inflated estimated retail value. Of course, most people after playing their chips, found themselves with two days left in Vegas and a bunch of cash in their pockets. Bob was more than happy to relieve people of that cash.
The packages were such a success, that he built a new hotel tower. This is the hotel tower that now exists as part of the Stratosphere. In fact, the big tower is Stup's tower, and the short tower in the front is the original Vegas World building. We once asked a bartender at Vegas World how many people in the hotel were on VIP packages and he said 80%. Why else would anyone else go there?
A little on the decor of Vegas World: If you've ever been to Space Mountain at Disneyland, you have an idea of how it looked. Except, Vegas World was as though a 3rd grader had tried to replicate Space Mountain. There were huge Styrofoam balls painted gold rotating over the "Space Pod Check-In". There was a small case with a piece of the moon in it that Stupak had bought from the Nicaraguan government (who received it as a goodwill offering by the US after the first space walk). The rock was there for a while, but then it disappeared and the case was empty. Then, in the last year, there was a dirty, empty cocktail glass in the case. The Moon Rock Buffet, which was by far the worst in Vegas, had a huge space shuttle dangling over the bare, shabby dining area. An astronaut hung from strings over the casino alongside a small rocket with "Stupak" printed on the side. The "Big 6" wheel was 30 feet tall and shaped like the Skylab. Mounted in the floor were rockets with mirrors underneath them. When you looked down at the mirrors it looked like infinite space because the black ceiling with the fake stars reflected off the mirrors. On the front of the hotel tower was a giant mural of a spaceman and he was connected to a giant roulette wheel in space. All over the casino were acrylic columns with colored liquid in them. Bubbles slowly rose up through the liquid. The walls had twinkly stars on them. The rooms had silver wallpaper and mirrors everywhere.
Everywhere, the smell of smoke and vomit was overpowering. In one corner, near what we called the Hall of Mirrors, there was an untended case containing $1 million. Most of the million was in Vegas World chips, which cost Stup very little. Stupak's picture was everywhere. Big portraits under the slogan "The Polish Maverick." His name was in the carpet. It was on the cocktail napkins. His picture was on funny money the casino printed. He was ugly as sin.
The VIP packages were such a success that Stupak bought the motels around his place, and converted them into overflow facilities. They were the Vegas World Manor, Vegas World Chalet, and then, farther up Las Vegas Boulevard, among adult motels and pawn shops, the Thunderbird. Across the street was the Sulinda. The Sulinda was the first place I ever stayed in Vegas. My friends and I drove out to Vegas for a weekend thinking there was no way all the casino-hotel rooms would be full. They were and we ended up at the Sulinda. Our room was broken into in the night by someone with a crowbar. We were out on the town, and the thief didn't take anything because we didn't have anything. But that night, I had to sleep with my feet against the door to keep it shut.
That first trip to Vegas mesmerized me. The overload of sights and sounds was all new to my friends and me, but Vegas World cracked us up. No matter how cheesy Circus Circus or the rest were, it was Vegas World that we thought was the funniest. However, even though we were across the street from it, it scared us. It looked dark and dangerous. And the people hanging around it were not attractive or healthy. We did not go in.
Stupak was a master of promotion. Besides his screwy games designed to fleece the unsuspecting, and his very carefully worded VIP Package ads, he had huge billboards all over town that boasted his sneaky craps and blackjack variations. He once hired a man to jump off the top of his tower. He promised the guy $1 mill for doing it. Then, he charged the guy a $990,000 landing fee. He appeared on 60 Minutes as the world's greatest gambler. He was on the show "Wise Guy." He ran for Mayor and came in second place. He started an alternative newspaper when the other papers ignored him. He wagered a million dollars on the Super Bowl and won. He financed the creation of a board game called "Stupak" and challenged Donald Trump to a game for a million bucks. He advertised himself as the "Polish Maverick" and early on advertised his gaming as beatable because he was polish and too stupid to know better.
After our first trip to Vegas, my friends and I were hooked on the city. Once we got familiar with the city and were no longer petrified by it, we ventured into Vegas World. We discovered the diarrhea smell by the main bar. We saw the lounge act cramped onto a small shelf above the bar. We tried Stupak's $50 free offer, which was $20 in non-negotiable chips and $30 in worthless slot tokens distributed in small increments over three hours. We decided that Vegas World was going to be home for us.
One day, I saw an ad in "Parade" in the Sunday paper. It was for VW's VIP Packages. It was for a "virtually free Las Vegas vacation." For $396, you got a room for two nights, two free drink cards, a free gift (you had a chance of winning one of five: four were nice, the last was absolute junk), $400 in non-negotiable table chips, $400 in slot tokens, and $200 you could get as table or slot action. The non-negotiable chips were good for one play, win or lose. If you won, they took the chips and gave you your winnings in real chips. If you lost, you got nothing. They were only good for even money wagers, like red and black at roulette, or pass and don't pass at craps. You could not bet a single number at roulette, only something that paid even money, like red or black. My friends and I sat down and worked it out. If we took the $600 in table action, we could put $300 on red and $300 on black, plus $10 real money on the zeros, we would be guaranteed to get at least $280 back. Then, we figured, even if the slots were rigged, we'd get $100 for our $400 in slots. A weekend would only cost $20 for a room and drinks. Plus, we'd get a free gift.
After some research, we discovered we could do better still at craps than roulette. We could put $300 on pass, $300 on don't pass, and $5 on hard 12, and we were guaranteed $295 back. Four of us bought one package, took a weekend and checked into Vegas World. The craps worked just like we planned. The slot machines you could use the special tokens on were worse than we expected. We only got $44 back from them. Our free gift was a crummy watch that we auctioned among ourselves. I ended up being the highest bidder, I paid each of my friends $2. So, the first VW weekend cost us $57 ($396-($295+$44. Not bad for a room for two weekend nights and all the drinks four college kids could put away. And the room, besides being tacky, wasn't bad. We also spent an extra $4.95 to watch the dirty movie "Pretty Peaches 3." To this day I can safely recommend you avoid the entire Pretty Peaches series. We did not gamble at VW, instead choosing to try our luck at Little Caesar's, the Peppermill and the Horseshoe. Well, I guess a lot of people were disappointed by their VIP packages, because the gaming commission fined Stupak several hundred thousands of dollars for misleading advertising. Also, Stupak didn't get a lot of people repeating as VW customers. He upped the ante to get us back into the joint. In direct mail, he sent me an offer for $800 in table action, plus $200 in slot action. If the slots gave us at least $7, we would net a profit. We signed up again. This time, with a profit expected, we splurged and got two rooms. It was on this trip that we decided to thank Bob for letting us enjoy Las Vegas for free. Once in town, we bought a three pound beef tongue at Smith's Food King and left it in the Vegas World hotel elevator. If you have never handled a huge beef tongue, you should. The tastebuds are enormous and it's very sticky, especially once it's gotten warm and stinky. When we dropped it in the elevator, the tastebuds stuck to the carpet. We got out of the casino before we could see anyone's reaction.
Stupak announced his plans to build the world's tallest observation tower. He figured it would cost $50 million to build a 1600 foot tower. My degrees are in civil engineering and his plan of building a tower that tall out of reinforced concrete in a mild earthquake zone sounded dangerous to me. To save money, Stupak announced he would serve as his own general contractor. Construction began and so did the nicknames: "Stupak's Folly," "Stupak's Shaft," and others I can't repeat in polite company. Stupak himself said he was partial to the name "Stupak's Shaft." Shortly into construction, Stupak had to stop because one of the three tower legs was crooked. It still is. If you look, you can see where one leg has a straight segment in it, about 50 feet up. This was put in to correct the early mistake. Then, construction went in fits. Stupak fired himself as general contractor. He ran out of money many times and had to halt construction.
A few months after the tower began, Stupak once again upped his offer to us. Now he wanted us back bad enough to offer $1000 in table action and $200 in slots. This was an expected value of +$112 per room, it was too good to refuse. We each of my friends got his own room. We were nervous that there would be some catch. We discussed how to thank Bob this time. The options were: 1. Releasing live chickens into the casino (required buying chickens). 2. siphoning the rooftop pool off over the side of the building during the night (required a garden hose or two). 3. releasing thousands of ladybugs into the casino (required buying ladybug eggs from a store specializing in food for lizards). 4. clogging the public restrooms with clear Jell-o. We chose number four.
Our VIP packages worked like a charm. Although the pit bosses did not like us playing our money on pass and don't pass, they didn't stop us. Even though we had firgured out a way to beat Stupak, we were in the minority. Most of the people in the casino were just frittering away their VIP packages plus more, and many asked us what the hell we were doing. When we explained, they became interested and got angry that they didn't think of that.
About two in the morning, we all headed up to the room to prepare for our prank. We filled the tub with hot water. Poured in tons of Knox flavorless gelatin to make a strong mixture. Our heads were filled with visions of people relieving themselves only to find their crap sitting on a wobbly bowl full of gelatin. We filled up baggies with the hot mix. Then, we filled other baggies with ice cubes, because once the hot mix is put into its mold, ice cube would be used to chill it. We stuffed these inside our jackets, hot on one side, cold on the other. One friend made signs to put on the stalls we clogged. They were computer print outs with the Vegas World log in the corner and a space-age font announcing "Our of Order." We scurried down to the main casino bathroom, waited for the janitor to leave, then put up our signs and got to work. All went like clockwork and five minutes later we were back up in the room, laughing ourselves to sleep.
At six the next morning, we went to see how our handiwork turned out. When we got to the bathroom, we were crushed to discover none of the stalls we attacked got clogged. However, the janitor stood in the middle of the bathroom holding our "Out of Order" sign and examining it.
The Strat was becoming too expensive for Stupak to afford. He offered his regular VIP package guests a chance to become members of the Stratosphere Club. The package cost $2000, because he needed that cash right away. In exchange, you got free access to the tower when it was built, free access to the Stratosphere Club room, five VIP packages with $1000 in table action for each one, and a bunch of other worthless crap. The net from the deal for the buyer would be $500, but you could only take one package every six months. As a college student, Strat Club membership was out of my league, and I was already getting $1000 table action packages any time I wanted. Bob Stupak sent me a beautiful brochure with his life story and pictures of the tower as it would look when complete.
When he didn't raise enough cash from the Stratosphere Club, Stupak enlisted a brokerage house to initiate a stock offering for the tower. He had also cut the tower height to about 1,000 feet and he planned on installing swings on the outside of the top. You would sit in a swing and spin around the outside of the observation deck.
I was back in Vegas six months later, right around Labor Day, 1993. My parents were Sam's Town, so I drove out to visit them. That weekend, the Strat Tower caught fire. It was no secret that Stupak was spending more money than he could afford and some thought he had started it. The same suspicions surrounded the fire at his previous, money-losing museum and casino. I stopped by Vegas World to see the damage for myself. Las Vegas Boulevard was blocked off. The Aztec Casino next door was selling "StratosFIRE" T-shirts. I entered the casino and the most exciting thing happened. I saw Bob Stupak. He was an ugly man in a hideous shirt and he was picking at his teeth with a toothpick. He was speaking with a floor supervisor. I sidled over to hear the conversation. A woman walked up and told Bob how sorry she was about the tower fire. Stupak shrugged, picked his teeth and said, "Business is good. Business is good."
The fate of the Tower was in question in my mind and many others. It was now obvious that Stupak could not build a giant tower for $50 million, at least not a safe one. The casino was looking more threadbare than usual. Duct tape was showing up. Many devices weren't working. Corners were definitely being cut. I was becoming a bit depressed thinking about old Bob going for broke and losing it all. My spirits were lifted, though, by something I saw near the diarrhea bar. It was our "Out of Order" sign, or a photocopy of it. I looked around some more and discovered that Vegas World had adopted our sign and put it on slots, toilet stalls, and bartop video poker machines. My faith in VW was restored.
The $1000 VIP package offers kept pouring in. And when they didn't, others on the Internet would tell me what the current code number was, so all I had to do was call in and say I was a guest of someone with the package. My friends and I got greedy and cocky. We would reserve two packages each for Friday night. One each in our first names, and one each in our middle names. Then, we would get two more for Sunday check-in. We would show up Friday night, cash in two packages, screw around all weekend, cash in two more packages Sunday morning and go home $400 richer. Sometimes, we would do a quick hit and run. We'd rent a car, drive out Sunday night, cash in two packages and drive home, $200 richer for eight hours of driving and an hour in the casino. Good pay for dumb college kids.
The tower was making Stupak so cash hungry that he was selling more packages than he had rooms. He put people at the Sulinda, the Thunderbird and wherever else he could get room. The hotel was quickly declining into decay. The tower out front was a gray, concrete mess. We were visiting about once a month, pulling down $400 a trip. I started inviting other classmates, offering them a free room in Vegas in exchange for the package goodies. They thought they were getting a great deal, a free room and drinks, and I was making out like a bandit.
My biggest score was $700 over one weekend. I almost got busted that time. I spent so much time at the craps table that the pit bosses gathered around and watch like hawks. I had to switch, finally, for the last two packages, to the roulette wheel, just to get the heat off. I played my last $2,000 in chips $25 at a time on black and ended up making $1100 for it. On this trip I almost got busted another time. When I checked in for one of my packages, the woman that helped me gave me the one in my middle name when I thought she gave me the one in my first name. So, when I went back, the clerk couldn't find a package for the name I gave. I told her some lie about my father possibly picking up my package and to look for his. Okay, she said, she found it. She pulled out both packages (the one already redeemed and the new one), and started doing her paperwork. It was at this moment that she realized both packages had the same driver license number and she said, "you can't have the same driver license as your father." I made up a story about how my dad was visiting the Grand Canyon on this day and had asked me to pick up his package.
I was sweating. She glared at me and called over a supervisor. I apologized for the mixup and said I would have my father come in later. Okay, she said, but that's the only way I get the other package. I protested. My father's package was in his room now and I couldn't get it, and I wanted to play with mine today. The supervisor and clerk glared at me some more, and the clerk finally said, "Okay, you can have the chips, but you can't use your father's free drink cards." Fair enough. Especially since I had about 8 drink cards in my wallet already.
After that weekend, I returned to California with $3500 in cash on me, and almost $2800 in debt to Vegas World on my Discover card (another $28 profit in rebate). I swore I wouldn't be so greedy in the future. I lied. I kept going back until the packages disappeared. I think too many people figured out how to cash them in without spending a dime, and so Stup withdrew them. He still offered the crummy packages, just not the $1000 ones. The way the casino was falling apart, nobody would want to gamble there anyway.
We scored two more pranks on our many trips. One was putting police tape up over random elevator doorways, so that people would get on an elevator and then ride to their floor, only to find they could not get off because of police tape. The last and greatest was our funbooks. We produced our own Vegas World funbooks and distributed them at all the visitor centers around Vegas. They had incredible offers in them, such as free space nachos and ice cream, free keno crayons, and so much more. We could only imagine the looks on Vegas World employees' faces when these crazy coupons were thrust at them by tourists.
Shortly after that trip, Stupak announced that Grand Casinos would become a partner in the tower. They bought Stupak's stock and then they bought the casino. It was shuttered and gutted. Grand pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the tower and finished it. They remodeled the hotel and casino and added a statue of Stupak to the tower lobby. They reopened a year plus later and immediately started bleeding money. At first, Stupak was on the Stratosphere board of directors, but he clashed with the corporate attitude of Grand Casinos and they booted him from any involvement. They removed the big statue of him and pretended they didn't know who he was. Grand finally bailed out of the Stratosphere because they couldn't run it profitably. Stupak always had managed to, until he started messing with the tower.
Stupak was in a major motorcycle accident in 1995 and he almost died. His face was completely reconstructed. He continued to live in Las Vegas until 2009 when he died of Leukemia. My friends and I now avoid the Strat. It has no charm or personality compared to Stupak's strange personal vision. As much as I still enjoy Vegas, it will never be as great as it was when Stupak was giving away free money.
And that's as much my history as Vegas World's.