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Vegas icon Stupak dies at 67

28 September 2009

by Lynnette Curtis

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Bob Stupak, the Las Vegas gaming entrepreneur who defied his critics at every turn and seemed at times to succeed in spite of himself, died Friday at Desert Springs Hospital after a long battle with leukemia. He was 67.

Stupak, who had largely disappeared from the public eye in recent years as his health deteriorated, will be remembered not just for owning a hotel, building a giant tower or running unsuccessfully for office, but for the flair he brought to these 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."

Stupak died at 1:15 p.m. with family at his side, a family spokeswoman said.

"Bob was an impresario, a ringmaster in the mold of the promoters who made Las Vegas the great town that it is," said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. "His ingenuity got him into trouble sometimes, but that happens to folks who try to grab the brass ring."

"I'll miss his impishness."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Stupak a friend of 35 years.

"Few personified the town like Bob did." Reid said. "He was a genuine Las Vegas character."

Stupak excelled at promoting himself and his enterprises and appeared to adhere to the axiom that even bad publicity is good publicity. His exploits made headlines over and over again.

When he found out the site of his new casino was a quarter-mile north of the Strip, he held a news conference and, by his own authority, declared the Strip had been extended to include his property.

When he lost a bid for mayor in 1987, he slapped a television reporter who asked him if he was intoxicated.

He wagered $1 million on a Super Bowl game -- and won.

He produced his own board game and then challenged Atlantic City casino magnate Donald Trump to a match.

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(photo courtesy of flipchip/LasVegasVegas.com)

He started his own newspaper and ordered his reporters to investigate his loss in the mayor's race.

He constructed his dream project, the 1,149-foot Stratosphere tower, complete with rooftop roller coaster and rocket ride.

Through it all, Stupak remained one of the most colorful and controversial figures not quite on the Strip.

"The best way to describe him is as a 20th century version of P.T. Barnum," said College of Southern Nevada history professor Michael Green. "He was a visionary, and what he envisioned, he achieved."

Stupak was born April 6, 1942. He grew up in a Polish working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh.

He made his first bet -- a penny on the numbers -- when he was eight. In the Army, he ran craps games in the barracks at Fort Knox, Ky., and Fort Sill, Okla. 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."

When he got out of the Army, he got into the restaurant coupon business, producing and selling packets of two-for-one dinners. In 1965, the young Stupak took his business to Australia, where he was hugely successful.

He also met Annette Suna, to whom he was briefly married. They had a daughter, Nicole, but soon split up.

While living in Australia, Stupak also met Blumen -- then Sandra Joyce Wilkinson -- whom he eventually brought to Las Vegas.

"He said, 'There's this place called Vegas, and it's going to be THE place one day,'" Blumen recalled. "He always had a vision of things."

The couple had two children together: son Nevada and daughter Summer.

Stupak remained mesmerized by Las Vegas, or at least the idea of Las Vegas.

"He was a young man with a pocketful of money and he fell in love" with the city, said Ralph Denton, a longtime Southern Nevada lawyer who met Stupak in the early 1970s.

That's when Stupak opened a restaurant on Desert Inn Road, promoting it as "The World's Greatest Restaurant in the World's Greatest City."

The restaurant was popular but not profitable and he soon gave it up for another stint in the coupon business.

He later returned to Las Vegas and opened "Bob Stupak's World Famous Historic Gambling Museum & Casino."

The museum burned down, and speculation swirled that arson was the cause. Nevertheless, the insurance company eventually settled the claim.

Stupak would eventually realize his dream. In 1979, he opened Vegas World.

The odds were against his success: Vegas World was on the edge of a deteriorating neighborhood and wasn't even on the Strip. He solved the latter problem by declaring the Strip a quarter-mile longer. Then he set about marketing the hotel.

The key was gimmicks: the world's first million-dollar jackpot, double exposure 21, no-limit wagering and vacation packages peddled in national magazines and through direct mail.

Vegas World succeeded in its own way and Stupak worked toward his ultimate dream: a very tall tower. The Stratosphere Tower would dominate the Las Vegas skyline, offering gambling, restaurants and even wedding chapels hundreds of feet in the air.

His plans were met with skepticism.

"They thought I was a complete, oh, for lack of a better word, fruitcake -- and maybe they were right," Stupak said in 2006, recalling initial reaction to his tower idea.

The Stratosphere opened in 1996. It went bankrupt and was sold soon after.

"He had a really big idea with the Stratosphere, but it was a little before its time," former Las Vegas mayor Jan Jones said. "Love him or not, he wasn't afraid of anyone or anything."

Jones met and befriended Stupak when she asked for his support in her first mayoral run in the early 1990s, she said. But Stupak had already pledged his support to someone else.

"He said, 'Don't take it personally, girlie,'" Jones recalled. "Bob was just Bob. He was his own personality."

Stupak nearly died in 1995 after crashing his Harley-Davidson motorcycle while going more than 60 mph. His son, Nevada, who was a passenger, also was injured. The elder Stupak broke every bone in his face. Doctors didn't expect him to live. But Stupak was a fighter and recovered.

Still, he was never quite the same and continued to struggle with his health over the years, Blumen said.

In 1999, Stupak proposed building a 15-story Titanic-themed hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard just south of Charleston Boulevard. The project, which was budgeted at $300 million to $400 million, was rejected by the Las Vegas City Council.

Stupak always aspired to political office. He also supported the unsuccessful campaigns of daughter Nicole, who ran for Las Vegas City Council, and son Nevada, who ran for several local offices.

According to grand jury testimony, Stupak secretly bankrolled part of Janet Moncrief's successful 2003 Las Vegas City Council campaign. Moncrief, a nurse, was ousted in a recall the following year. She admitted to falsifying campaign reports and paid a fine.

Stupak also was romantically linked to Moncrief. The relationship became part of his colorful romantic history that included a long-term relationship with singer Phyllis McGuire.

"He always liked the girls," Denton said. "He also smoked more than any guy I ever saw. He was pretty good on the whiskey, too."

Stupak was also a regular on the poker circuit and won a World Series of Poker bracelet in 1989. Fellow gaming executive and poker player Bobby Baldwin called Stupak someone who "forged the image and personality of Las Vegas" and was "committed to bettering the Las Vegas community which he deeply loved."

Stupak indeed had a charitable side. He once offered $100,000 to anyone who could help solve the murder of a North Las Vegas second-grader gunned down on Halloween in the mid 1990s. The case went unsolved. He contributed money to homeless programs and fed thousands of meals to the homeless. He made substantial contributions to the city of Las Vegas Chester Stupak Family Park, named for his father, and the Stupak Community Center, his family said.

And, for a $100,000 donation to the United Negro College Fund, he got to play in a Harlem Globetrotters game. He was fouled on a successful jump shot and made one of his two free-throws, according to Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith's biography of Stupak, "No Limit: The Rise and Fall of Bob Stupak and Las Vegas' Stratosphere Tower." Apart from the contribution, Smith wrote, Stupak had as much as $250,000 riding on the venture, having made large bets with poker associates on whether he could make free throws should he get to the line.

In 2006, Stupak reappeared after several years of obscurity to run unsuccessfully for Nevada lieutenant governor against Moncrief, among others.

Explaining his decision to run at the time, Stupak, who appeared frail, said, "I've been out of the public eye for a few years. I figured I had nothing else to do."

"The last thing I've ever been all my life is normal," he said. "I've accomplished what I have by being nothing close to normal."

After the loss, Stupak kept a low profile.

Blumen said he had been struggling with health problems for some time.

"He kept it to himself, and didn't want people to know he was sick.

"He had an interesting run," Blumen said. "He was never boring."

At Stupak's request, his body will be cremated. No funeral will be held.

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