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Casino Legends Hall of Fame


Chip Dabbler
Today we say goodbye to the Tropicana but also say goodbye to the one and only casino to really embrace the idea of preserving Las Vegas Casino history. Thanks again to Steve Cutler for allowing us to share his story and pictures about the birth and conclusion of the Casino Legends Hall of Fame. In case you missed it this story was run as a 10-part story on Facebook with the last part being posted today. Thanks again Steve.


Part 1 (The Pitch)

The Tropicana in Las Vegas had been a client of mine for the past year, and I had a great relationship with them. I had pitched my idea regarding the relocation of the Nevada Gold Museum to the Tropicana and there was no interest. I then dug into my old playbook and found a suitable area that was currently losing money and suggested it would be better served with an attraction that would bring patrons into their building that weren’t already staying there. Apparently, that got their attention, and they contacted me the following week and asked for a meeting. This was the first time I met with the President of the Tropicana, Jonathon Swain. Up until this point all my dealings have been with Todd Moyer, V.P. of marketing. They told me they had an idea and they hoped I would be amicable to it. Of course, I was anxious to hear their thoughts as my attraction would soon be homeless. They did not like the name of the attraction and asked if I would consider a new concept. There was no problem there, as I didn’t like it either.

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Part 2 (The Casino Legends Hall of Fame is born)

They laid out a well thought out plan and said we would re-brand the attraction as “THE CASINO LEGENDS HALL of FAME. Their idea was to create Las Vegas’s version of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or The Baseball Hall of Fame. It would be a ticketed attraction 365 days a year and we would hold periodic induction ceremonies that would honor Las Vegas legends in various categories. These events would be invited guests only and would include the Who’s Who of Las Vegas including local politicians, legendary entertainers, and the casino’s best customers. The ceremonies were held in the Tiffany Theatre, home to The Follies Bergere. Attendance for these events was standing room only and numbered around 1100. Needless to say, I was excited as this was an opportunity to create an institution, something that would be around long after I was gone. I told them that this was a brilliant idea and by getting celebrities involved we would get an incredible amount of free advertising because of the positive press and all other forms of media. There was one problem here, I had assembled a world class collection of Nevada gaming artifacts, but it didn’t include the entertainment related items I believed were needed to tell the story. After sharing this thought with them they assured me the artifacts I currently possessed would work.

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Part 3 (The Deal is Signed)

The focus would be on Las Vegas and my thought was to always have ten to fifteen thousand artifacts displayed at any one time. I knew there was no way anyone could possibly absorb everything and that would ensure return visits. Remember my job was to bring bodies into the building. I was still very concerned about my lack of entertainment content. Nevertheless, we entered into contractual negotiations at this time. By this time, I had done many contracts and waived having an attorney to represent me. When we reached an agreement, their attorney would draw up the document. That move saved me $10,000 dollars and a lot of aggravation. I was told going into this venture that this would be a year-to-year deal as they planned on imploding The Tropicana and rebuilding a mega resort in the future. This would be a partnership, different from any deals I have done thus far. They would own all the intellectual property, provide security, public relations, marketing, housekeeping, ticket sales and virtually all maintenance.

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Part 4 (VIP treatment)

My obligation was to make my entire collection available to them, work with their marketing and public relations departments closely, change displays at my discretion (at least quarterly), head up the selection committee for future inductees, work closely with the production of all induction ceremonies and any other special events related to The Casino Legends Hall of Fame. In addition, my agreement was exclusive and precluded me from offering my services to any other gaming companies. I was also required to make myself available to all forms of media and act as a spokesman for The Casino Legends Hall of Fame. I was not an employee of The Tropicana; I was an independent contractor who entered a business relationship with a large gaming company. I knew I would be entertaining inductees and media at some point, so I requested the ability to sign for whatever I needed. They gave me a comp number and at this time, I probably became the first non-employee to ever be extended this privilege. They even provided me with Tropicana business cards and stationery. My monetary compensation was very generous as the one-year deal turned into seven. My first multi-million-dollar deal and it wasn’t dependent on having chips made. After mutually agreeing to all these terms their attorney drew up the paperwork and we all signed.

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Part 5 (Space for Legends)

The space that was provided was around 7500 Sq. Ft. About 1000 Sq. Ft. would be devoted to a food outlet called “The Legends Deli”. I covered the walls with framed pictures of legendary Vegas entertainers and displayed vintage Vegas restaurant menus. All the food had celebrity names attached such as “The Liberace Reuben” or “The Rat Pack Club”. This restaurant became the most profitable in the building per Sq. Ft., it was always packed. This restaurant belonged to the Tropicana, they owned and operated it, I only assisted with the theming. Attached was The Casino Legends Hall of Fame gift shop, it was also about 1000 Sq. Ft. This was my store as it was part of my compensation package. I operated it for a brief period but found it to consume too much time and I had nothing to spare. It was open seven days a week and ten hours a day. Fortunately, I put a clause in our contract that allowed me to sublet it and become a landlord. The store did amazing, it sold authentic memorabilia as well as manufactured souvenirs, it received “Best of Las Vegas Awards”. You entered The Casino Legends Hall of Fame through the gift shop and that is where you purchased your admission ticket. The space was about 5500 Sq. Ft. I purchased all of the custom-made display units and the Tropicana was responsible for the construction of pony walls, flooring, lighting, painting and the production of all interactive video displays throughout the attraction.

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Part 6 (The Hunt for More)

During the three months that the display units were being built and the space was being converted into The Casino Legends Hall of Fame I went out into the entertainment community and solicited artifacts for the attraction. The results of my efforts were beyond belief as I came up with everything from Liberace costumes to Tempest Storm’s g-strings and pasties. Over a seven-year period I would build the largest collection in the world of gaming and entertainment artifacts related to Las Vegas. In addition, I met with the selection committee that was comprised of prominent individuals from the Las Vegas community. We made up a list of about 200 legends in various categories and began the process of seeing who would be available for the inaugural induction ceremony. We gave ourselves six months to put this production together.

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Part 7 (Grand Opening)

The Casino Legends Hall of Fame had a soft opening in September of 1998 and the first induction ceremony and official ribbon cutting grand opening ceremony took place in February of 1999. The first induction ceremony was large and included about thirty inductees from various categories. They included The McQuire Sisters, Kenny Rogers, Leroy Neiman, Benny Binion, Louis Prima, Keely Smith, The Rat Pack, Bob Stupak, Siegfried & Roy, Harry Reid, Jay Sarno, Hank Greenspun and many others. The production included set changes, a full orchestra, showgirls, and celebrity guest presenters. If the person being inducted was an entertainer, they would have about ten minutes to share a Vegas experience and give a short performance. If it was someone being inducted into the Builder and Visionary category they would share their Las Vegas story. If someone was inducted posthumously, we would get someone very significant to except the award on their behalf. This first ceremony was large as we wanted to give it a jumpstart. There were six different categories that one could be inducted into. Those categories included Headliners, Builders and Visionaries, Las Vegas in the Movies, Gamblers, Showgirls and Good Guys. Future ceremonies were generally limited to six or seven inductees and never more than one posthumously. All these ceremonies were filmed, and the hope was a major production company would produce these award shows for network television. We had an opportunity once with Dick Clark Productions, but they wanted a commitment one year in advance. The Tropicana, unsure of its own future, could not make that commitment. These ceremonies became very successful over the years, and it became one of the most sought-after invitations to receive. Everyone from the Governor to Jerry Lewis would attend.

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Part 8 (Do the Math)

After the first two years of operation, I was called into the President’s office and was shown renderings and blueprints for the new Tropicana. They had carved out a space more than double in size for the new Casino Legends Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame would be their signature attraction. The original attraction was low budget and low tech, after all it wasn’t meant to be there for very long. The new attraction would utilize 21st century technology and it would be a sight-and-sound experience from the moment you entered. I would also have a chance to display rare items that were never put out for various reasons.

One of the things I learned from working with their marketing department was, someone not sleeping in the hotel is worth $20 every time they enter the building. Of course, that number was unique to The Tropicana as every hotel has its own customer value. The Casino Legends Hall of Fame was bringing in about eight hundred people daily and five hundred were not sleeping there. Do the math, that was a lot of money back then. The value of the free press and publicity from the ceremonies was priceless. We had a great partnership, and everything was working better than any of us ever hoped for.

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Part 9 (Intellectual Property)

Another two years went by, and it was becoming clear that redevelopment was not going to happen. The Tropicana in Atlantic City was having problems as they overspent and overbuilt in an overbuilt market. I started to hear rumors that the Tropicana in Las Vegas was going to be sold. I flew to Atlantic City and met with Dennis Gomes, he was the President of Aztar. I had only met him once in the past. He and Paul Rubelli, Chairman of the Board for Aztar, met with me prior to signing my initial contract. My concern was if the Tropicana in Las Vegas was sold all the branding value would become worthless in the event they severed their relationship with me. My request was simple, I would continue my contract with The Tropicana with one stipulation. If The Tropicana ever terminated its relationship with The Casino Legends Hall of Fame for any reason, all intellectual property would revert to me. That included all trademarks, patents and virtually anything relating to the Casino Legends Hall of Fame that they owned. All files, photos signage etc., etc. Dennis was reasonable as I explained to him it would have no value without the attraction. He agreed and I signed on for another year with that new stipulation added in. The Tropicana attorney in Las Vegas was not happy as he felt they were giving up too much. He put huge value on that intellectual property as they had spent millions of dollars developing it over the years.

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Part 10 (Great Seven-Year Run)

A couple more years passed and sure enough they did sell the property and I was asked to vacate as the new owner saw no value in The Casino Legends Hall of Fame. Shortly thereafter The Follies Bergere, who was there for 50 years, was shut down as well and the resident performer Rick Thomas was also not re-signed. The new owner spent almost two hundred million dollars putting lipstick on a pig and sold the property for a huge loss a couple of years later. The property has been sold two more times since and the new plans are to implode it and build a baseball stadium. By the time The Casino Legends Hall of Fame closed we had inducted 100 legends and the collection had grown to over 500,000 artifacts. It was a great seven-year run!

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Some time in 2002 or 2003 I had been receiving my (free) Las Vegas Advisor when I saw Anthony Curtis touting the excellence of the Casino Legends Hall of Fame. Only getting to travel to Vegas maybe once a year (from Oklahoma) I informed my wife that this was now a bucket list item for me! Our next trip not only met my expectations (established by Anthony's detailed review), but managed to exceed them in every way. For me, it was everything I loved about Vegas. The costumes, photos, detailed descriptions/stories with the exhibits, and well laid out memorabilia only enhanced my wonder and appreciation for the history on display. I was also incredibly envious that someone could actually have met and acknowledged the contribution of so many that create the legend and mystique of Las Vegas.

Walking back through the gift shop after trying to absorb everything, I was struck by the variety of obsolete cheques and chips for sale. I have long forgotten the single cheque I purchased, but I remember Lou Lucci who took my money! He was so entertaining to speak with, and had several stories himself. After some conversation about my love for the history of Vegas, he invited me to join the CCGTCC. Having no idea what it was, he was the perfect introduction for me. I signed up on the spot. As a token of appreciation, he gave me a lanyard with about 30-40 player's cards to start my journey (addiction!)

My finding the CCA may have happened anyway, but I will always acknowledge Steve and his Casino Legends Hall of Fame and Lou Lucci specifically for my entry into, and love for, this hobby.

Thanks for the stories Steve. I appreciate them!

James Love