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Reaching for the Sky

The 20th anniversary of the Stratosphere reminds us of how special Bob Stupak really was

Reaching for the Sky

Even with the new T-Mobile Arena, the Linq High Roller wheel and the lights of the Strip, there is one focal point that visitors see when they’re descending into Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport. The 1,147-foot Stratosphere tower lords over the Strip from its northernmost boundary. And this month, the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Stratosphere, we’re reminded of the man whose brainchild it was, Bob Stupak.

Las Vegas has welcomed many unique individuals over the years who have helped to engineer its growth, from Bugsy Siegel to Howard Hughes to Steve Wynn. But none of them was quite like Bob Stupak.

Stupak grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of a man who ran a craps game at the city’s Lotus Club for 50 years. He arrived in Vegas in 1971—after a side trip to Australia for several years—and bought the Vault casino, changing the name to Glitter Gulch (ironically, recently sold to the next generation of Vegas entrepreneur, Derek Stevens, owner of several Downtown casinos, including the D).

Later, he bought a small plot of land on the Las Vegas Strip just north of Sahara and opened up a gambling museum/casino in ’74. After a fire and a million-dollar loan from Vegas’ favorite banker, Parry Thomas, Stupak debuted Vegas World in 1979. The casino struggled at first, but Stupak developed innovative promotions and table game rules. He was the master of direct-mail marketing, creating a “Vegas Vacation” promotion and the city’s first million-dollar jackpots. Vegas World eventually was pulling in more than $100 million a year.

But Stupak was never one to sit on his laurels. In 1990, he had an idea to build a 1,800-foot sign advertising the casino down below, the world’s largest free-standing sign. He later reworked the idea to include an observation deck and a restaurant at the top, creating the “Stupak Tower.” Some of the world’s most popular thrill rides were later added to the tower. Construction began slowly, and Stupak had trouble getting financing, until he brought in his friend and fellow poker player Lyle Berman, the chairman of Grand Casinos, then a major gaming company in tribal gaming in Mississippi. The $550 million that Grand brought to the table revitalized the project.

But a serious motorcycle accident almost killed Stupak, who was in a coma for months. However, a miracle drug provided by his son, Nevada Stupak, saved his life.

The Stratosphere tower opened in 1996, but it was a financial disaster. Stupak was forced out as chairman within a year, and further developments, including a Titanic-themed casino, failed to come to fruition.

Stupak wasn’t just known in Las Vegas as a developer, however. He ran for mayor in 1987, and like current presidential candidate Donald Trump, he bested more than a dozen competitors to gain the nomination. He narrowly lost the election—some charge he was a victim of voter fraud, with much evidence to support that charge. He later started a short-lived muckraking newspaper, the Las Vegas Bullet (this time reminiscent of Sheldon Adelson, who recently purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal).

As late as 2006, Stupak ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Nevada.

When he died in 2009, he was warmly remembered by competitors and colleagues alike.

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

“I’ll miss his impishness.”

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