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Howard Stutz

Nevada 150: The World according to Stupak

30 July 2014

LAS VEGAS -- Editor’s Note: Nevada 150 is a yearlong series highlighting the people, places and things that make up the history of the state.

Casino ownership in Las Vegas has attracted its share of characters, from the mob-backed era of the 1960s and 1970s to reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes to the publicly traded corporate titans of today.

Then there was Bob Stupak.

He owned just one casino in his gaming career, and he eventually lost it in bankruptcy.

But his impact went far beyond slot machines and table games.

Stupak was a rare combination of a carnival barker and publicity hound, but also a casino owner who thrived by catering to the lower-end of the gaming market.

“If P.T. Barnum had a hedonistic twin, Bob Stupak might have been the guy,” is how Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith described the casino operator in his 1997 biography on Stupak, “No Limit: The Rise and Fall of Bob Stupak and Las Vegas’ Stratosphere Tower.”

Stupak, who died in 2009 at the age of 67, owned the gaudy and kitschy Vegas World, which bordered the edge of downtown Las Vegas’s Naked City area but was part of the Strip as far as he was concerned.

He advertised Vegas World through vacation packages offered in national magazines and direct mail campaigns, enticing visitors to stay in cheap rooms and gamble on million-dollar jackpots that never seemed to pay out. The casino also offered innovations such as double exposure 21, gambling coupons and no-limit wagering.

The business was privately held, so only Stupak knew if Vegas World was profitable. That was part of the game.

When the Las Vegas Review-Journal was preparing an article on the highest-paid executives from publicly traded gaming companies, Stupak was asked if he would volunteer his salary as a comparison.

“What did Steve Wynn make?” Stupak asked the reporter. “I made a dollar more.”

He eventually closed Vegas World to build his dream resort, the Stratosphere Casino Hotel and Tower, which had a 1,148-foot-tall observation tower. His goal was to build the tallest free-standing structure in the world.

After cost overruns, construction delays and a fire, the Stratosphere opened in 1996 and promptly went bankrupt.

Stupak lost the casino but not his Las Vegas ideas.

In 1999, he floated plans for a $400 million resort on Las Vegas Boulevard just south of Charleston Boulevard with a unique theme: the Titanic. The Las Vegas City Council torpedoed the idea.

“Love him or not, he wasn’t afraid of anyone of anything,” former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones Blackhurst said in 2009.

But the only thing Stupak loved more than promoting his casino was promoting himself.

He nearly won election for Las Vegas mayor in 1987. After conceding the race, he slapped a local television reporter who asked if he was intoxicated.

Following his failure in politics, he ran family members for office, including his daughter and girlfriend.

Stupak had a colorful love-life, which included a longtime relationship with singer Phyllis McGuire.

He made $1 million wagers and won.

He took home an individual event championship bracelet in the 1989 World Series of Poker.

He started a newspaper — the Las Vegas Bullet — when he thought he was treated unfairly by the local media.

He produced a board game to rival a similar game created by then-Atlantic City casino owner Donald Trump. Then he challenged Trump to a match.

After landing a bit part in the NBC television series “Crime Story,” which was filmed in Las Vegas, he took out a full-page advertisement in Variety touting his appearance as the “World’s Greatest Gamblin’ Man.”

In 1996, Stupak donated $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund to suit up and play basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters. He was fouled on a jump shot attempt and then made one of two free throws.

Smith, in his book, wrote that the free throws had importance. Stupak had as much as $250,000 riding on wagers he made with associates on whether he could make a shot from the charity stripe.

“He is a man bereft of hypocrisy, pretense and, some say, table manners, a guy incapable of passing up an intriguing wager,” Smith wrote in “No Limit.”

But cashing a $1 million ticket on the Super Bowl may have been beside the point for Stupak. As Smith wrote, the brash casino man used bets like that to get what he really wanted: “ten times that in publicity.”