BY BYRON CRAFT
His father was the reigning king of the South Side gambling rackets at a time when the mob muscled the action and, for a relatively few bucks, most of the cops and politicians looked the other way. When he was still in knee pants, he began to appreciate the importance of making friends and influencing people – a resume that led him to become perhaps the greatest huckster in Las Vegas history. He defied all the odds. His name: Bob Stupak.
Robert E. “Bob” Stupak was born on April 6, 1942, in Pittsburgh, the son of longtime illegal floating craps game operator Chester Stupak and his wife Florence. When Bob Stupak wasn’t hustling a buck or hanging out on a street corner, taking in movies or getting kicked out of school, he watched his father’s every move. “Little Chester” Stupak remained a big man on the streets of Pittsburg’s South Side from just after World War II to the early 1980’s. His dice games were so open that every cop in the precinct knew the names of every player.
After Bob Stupak dropped out of school, he bought a Harley-Davidson and began an odyssey that would lead to Las Vegas. He pursued several interests simultaneously. He roped gamblers and ran his own illegal card games, bought and sold watches, raced motorcycles and even became a nightclub singer cutting several singles while under a brief recording contract as “Bobby Star.” He also served in the National Guard. While in the Guard, he ran craps games in the barracks at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He figured out he could also make money with something as simple as a raffle. “I realized that people were prepared to gamble a little if they had a chance to win a lot,” he said in a 1989 interview. “I understood the principles of gambling and the greed factor, which everyone basically has.”
“I never had a steady job,” Stupak once said. “All the jobs I had were self-inflicted.”
At the age of 22, Stupak, who hadn’t attended school beyond the eighth grade, arrived in Las Vegas and started a thriving business selling two-for-one coupon books for restaurants.
The coupon books took him all the way to Australia, where he developed a lucrative telemarketing operation, but was evicted from the country amid allegations of questionable business practices. With his own cash and dollars raised from his father’s friends, (a total of $300,000), Stupak returned to Las Vegas in 1971. He bought a restaurant, discovered that wasn’t his calling, and got a state gaming license instead.
Stupak purchased a 1.5 acre parcel of land north of Sahara, in a seedier part of town where Todkill/Bill Hayden Lincoln Mercury Dealership once stood for $218,000. The address was 2000 Las Vegas Boulevard. Stupak thought he finally made it to the Strip when some guys added, “You stupid schmuck. You’re not on the Strip! The Strip starts at Sahara Avenue.” What rose in its place and opened on March 31, 1974, was a small slot joint absurdly named Bob Stupak’s World Famous Historic Gambling Museum. “The name was about 10 ft. longer than the casino,” Stupak recalled years later. One of his quarter slots offered a $250,000 jackpot and a nickel machine teased a $50,000 payout. He promoted it around the world as a high-end resort, only to disappoint tourists who on the occasional Las Vegas rainy day would find buckets catching drips from the leaky roof.
Unfortunately, two months later, an air conditioner caught fire and the building burned down. On the same site he built his space themed Vegas World, a casino known for its promotions and new twists on games. At its peak in the mid 1980’s, Vegas World grossed over 100 million per year.
Rising from those ashes was Stupak’s outer space-themed casino. Vegas World was a testament to Bob Stupak’s persistence in the financial marketplace. By the late 1970’s, the Las Vegas casino culture had become populated with college graduates and experienced hoteliers who dressed more like bankers than pit bosses. With his wild sport coats and nonstop patter, Stupak was a brother from another planet. Yet he managed to persuade Valley Bank legends Ken Sullivan and E. Parry Thomas to part with more than one million dollars to get Vegas World, a 20-story tower, off the ground.
Vegas World opened on a Friday the 13th, 1979. Stupak not only suffered from a mediocre location and a scrawny bankroll, he was neither downtown nor on the Strip, and the cost of construction had eaten up all his reserve funds. The only thing his club offered the curious was his unique personality and his gift for promotion. Bob Stupak’s motto was plastered across the building, “The Sky’s the Limit.”
“Don’t come to the big place with the small bankroll,” Stupak was fond of saying, echoing the Horseshoe patriarch Benny Binion. “Come to the small place with the big bankroll.” For the next decade, that would be enough. Stupak developed quirky and interesting angles on traditional games such as blackjack and craps. Double Exposure 21 and Experto became well-known to avid players and card counters. There were Crap-less Craps and Polish Roulette. Vegas World featured the world’s largest mural. It was also known for having 1 million dollars in cash on display in the casino. The showroom featured an Elvis impersonation show, with E.P. King and Terry Presley as performers.
“The Polish Maverick”, a nickname he bestowed upon himself, accepted high-limit wagers at the tables and in his sports book, where he sometimes recklessly shifted the odds in order to generate action. His most successful promotion was his direct-mail coupons offering value packages. The coupons eventually would return to haunt him and generate big fines and reprimands from Nevada gaming regulators, but in the meanwhile they brought tens of thousands of customers to town for Bob Stupak’s Vegas World Vacation.
Stupak constantly promoted himself. He even appeared in many movies and TV series and once starred in a 1987 episode of “Crime Story.” Many of his wagers appear to have been made as much for promotional reasons as for profit. In 1989, Stupak won a widely publicized million dollar wager on Super Bowl XXIII. Later that year, he won the Deuce to Seven Lowball championship bracelet at the World Series of Poker.
Bob Stupak also used politics as a promotional tool. In 1987 he ran for mayor of Las Vegas, surviving the primary with 33 percent of the vote, but losing in the general election to incumbent Ron Lurie. He went so far as to start his own newspaper and ordered his reporters to investigate his loss in the mayor’s race. His next big political push was in 1991, running his daughter, Nicole Stupak, for City Council against Frank Hawkins. Despite plenty of dirty tricks and thousands of dollars spent, Hawkins pulled out the victory. Stupak also financed much of the 1999 campaign for his son, Nevada, to unseat incumbent Councilman Gary Reese in Ward 3. Reese won by a handful of votes.
Always the gambler, Stupak began devising a way to make an even bigger mark in Las Vegas. All he had to do was risk everything he owned.
The idea for the Stratosphere Tower began after a heavy windstorm blew down the sign in front of Vegas World. With the huckster genome encoded his in DNA, Stupak determined that the best way to attract attention for his casino was to erect the world’s tallest sign. A trip to Australia to visit his daughter, Nicole, found him within sight of the Sydney Tower, and he was hooked. Upon returning to Vegas, he began researching observation towers and found that, throughout history, they not only had redefined the skyline, but also attracted a crowd…but they weren’t cheap.
Stupak began building his dream project out of the cash flow at Vegas World while attempting to round up investors and stage an initial public offering of stock in the Stratosphere Corp. Persuading a skeptical public to trust the Bob Stupak who gave it Vegas World, who gave the voters fits with his outrageous campaigns, and who also gave the Gaming Control Board headaches with his complaint-generating two-for-one coupon vacations, was going to be a long shot.
At the conception of the project, one of the planned rides was to be a giant ape that would carry riders up and down one of the tower’s columns. The ape ride idea was eventually scrapped. The original plans envisioned the Stratosphere exceeding the height of the CN Tower at 1,815 ft, making it the world’s tallest freestanding structure at that time. However, due to interference with nearby McCarran International Airport, and any possible flights that come through Las Vegas, the Tower’s proposed height shrank to 1,149 ft., making it the second tallest freestanding observation tower in the Western Hemisphere.
By August of 1993, the tower was only 510 feet high. The finances were similarly stunted. With a deadline looming, there were still millions to raise. A fire on the construction site that month ruined Stupak’s chances for a late rally. Although no structural damage was reported, few people were willing to invest in a project that had been labeled a “towering inferno” by the press. At the time of the fire, Stupak was trying to carve out a partnership in the project with Lyle Berman of Grand Casinos Inc. Berman was on a roll in the casino industry, and when he agreed to take on the project it meant two things: First, Stupak would see his dream tower completed; second, that he would no longer be in charge of the deal. He would become just an investor, albeit a major one.
That’s the way it went until the night of March 31, 1995, when Bob Stupak and his son, Nevada, were involved in a devastating motorcycle accident on Rancho Drive. Bob had broken every bone in his face and he was in a coma. “It was the worst-looking thing you’d ever seen,” Stupak’s longtime friend Eddie Baranski said. “There was no way he could live. His head was swollen to the size of a basketball.” The initial prognosis was that he would not survive, but Stupak recovered, and with daily assistance from doctors, he continued his rehabilitation as the Stratosphere moved toward completion. The tower’s costs had skyrocketed. Its debts were mounting. By the time that Stupak was back on the street, he began selling stock and cutting checks to charity. The huckster was clearly grateful to be alive. Then, reality set in.
The tower opened in late April 1996 at a cost of $550 million, the third most expensive hotel casino in the history of Las Vegas, but it was a financial disaster. Many tourists came to see it, but few stopped long enough to gamble, dine or shop. Stratosphere’s stock price dropped from $17 a share to a few bucks in a matter of weeks. Then the Stratosphere went bankrupt three months after its opening. It changed management hands, and was later purchased by Carl Icahn, the takeover magnate. Icahn gained control through one of his companies by buying a majority of the outstanding bonds. Bob Stupak rarely set foot in the place after that.
Stupak continued to plan Vegas projects; in the spring of 1999 the Las Vegas City Council nixed his plan to build a huge time-share, shaped like the “RMS Titanic”. He also attempted to purchase the Moulin Rouge Hotel, but this endeavor never bore any fruit either. There is a beautiful painting, an architectural rendering of the one-time proposed “Titanic” project and, when looked upon, it leaves the viewer with feelings of remorse for a dream that never came to fruition.
Bob Stupak survived the biggest challenges of his life. But as the years passed him by, he was not optimistic about making a comeback. “The days of those characters are gone,” Stupak once said. “There’s no more Jay Sarno’s around. There’s no more me’s around. It’s all over.”
Bob Stupak defied his critics at every turn and seemed at times to succeed in spite of himself. He largely disappeared from the public eye over the years as his health deteriorated. On September 25, 2009, at Desert Springs Hospital, Bob Stupak passed away after a long battle with leukemia. He was 67 years old. He will always be remembered for the flair he brought to the gaming industry and other endeavors.
“There will be a big hole without Stupak,” said Sandy Blumen, his former wife and the mother of two of his three children. “Nobody’s creating mischief. Now it’s just boring.”
The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft, chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.