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Arnold M. Knightly

Tropicana manager recalls opening 50 years ago

4 April 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Rudy Spinosa has been at the Tropicana so long that he remembers when one of the biggest problems facing its owners was keeping the property clear of tumbleweeds that would blow in from the desert.

Traffic congestion would come much later, joked the Tropicana's longtime beverage manager.

Spinosa was hired as the Tropicana's head bartender two weeks before the property opened 50 years ago today. The Queens, N.Y., native has been the property's beverage manager for the past 21 years.

Although many of the Strip resorts that were constructed during the postwar building boom are now gone, the few that remain -- the New Frontier, the Riviera, the Sahara -- are at the center of rumor and speculation about their sale and redevelopment.

"It makes you feel sad," Spinosa said. "There goes the old days, right out the door."

Spinosa harkens back to the old Las Vegas that Hollywood tries to recreate in stylized movies and television programs. He comes across as too gentle, too kind to ever be cast as anyone else besides the man at the door of the casino who welcomes new visitors and old friends with a hardy handshake and a broad, inviting smile.

When asked about the early days of the Tropicana and its ties to reputed mobsters Frank Costello or Johnny Roselli, Spinosa glosses over the subject and moves right into talking about how the property was the classiest casino on the Strip when it opened. His eyes widen when he discusses Old Vegas and how things used to be.

"It was the biggest and the best at the time," he said of the Tropicana. "It was the 'Tiffany of the Strip' and I looked forward to working here."

The customers were people back then, not a just anonymous numbers for a large corporation to count.

The properties were small. The employees all knew each other and used to hang out together after work.

Spinosa recalls the entertainers who would sit at his bar and share stories: Don Rickles, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Henny Youngman.

One longtime friendship who continues to this day has been with nightclub comedian Shecky Greene.

"We were good friends, we were like family," Spinosa said. "It was no big deal back in those days to leave for a week or two and go on the road with him."

Spinosa said he met Greene in 1956, when the comic was closing for Elvis Presley during the singer's run at the New Frontier. Spinosa started working at the New Frontier, then called the Last Frontier, when he first arrived in 1954 from New York.

Greene's act eventually landed at the Tropicana, where Spinosa would sometimes join his friend on stage for bits. Soon he traveled the nightclub circuit across the country acting as Green's road manager. He would even "throw a line in here and there" into the act, he added.

At 82, Spinosa is no museum piece kept around to entertain customers and co-workers with stories of yesteryear. He still works 40 hours each week overseeing a staff of nearly 100 bartenders and barbacks.

One of the things he is not able to do as much as he would like, though, is golf.

A longtime member of the Tropicana Country Club golf course that used to sit across the street before the MGM Grand opened, Spinosa said he once played golf with Sammy Davis Jr.

"I had a locker there for 30 years," Spinosa said. "When they tore up the golf course they wanted to give me my locker but it would bring tears. I told them I didn't want it."

Spinosa is excited about the property's new ownership and its plans for a $2 billion makeover. Kentucky-based Columbia Sussex Corp. bought the parent company of the Tropicana, Aztar Corp., in January for $2.75 billion.

"They're doing what should have been done a long time ago," Spinosa said. "They've really got a beautiful thing going up on the corner. It will be the biggest and hottest thing going."

While he has been around to see the transformation of the Tropicana to the 1,878-room hotel, 61,000-square-foot casino, he added that he probably won't be around for the new 10,000-room Tropicana when it is finished because he'll "either retire or croak."