Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 | 2 a.m.
It is coffee and cannoli with Steve Cutler in the kitchen nook of his home in Las Vegas. Hanging over the steaming black brew and crunchy-gooey pastries is the inescapable sense that we have done this before.
We have sipped java and devoured these little desserts and talked in a very high-minded way of the stuff Cutler collects.
And that is where we have always hit a kink — at that collection. All that casino and resort memorabilia, a small sampling set out throughout Cutler’s home, just to be seen for this one afternoon. The rest of it is in a vast storage warehouse in an undisclosed locale. What we see is but a taste, as appetizing as these cannolis.
There is the fine china set out when the Moulin Rouge opened on May 24, 1955, alongside an invitation to the event signed by boxing great Joe Louis. “A cosmopolitan hotel” is how the new Moulin Rouge is described.
There is so much more. Table cards from Elvis Presley’s ill-fated Las Vegas debut opening for Shecky Greene and Freddy Martin and his orchestra at the New Frontier on April 23, 1956. A trumpet once owned by Louis Armstrong is set near a flier announcing a youthful Frank Sinatra appearing with the Ziegfeld Follies at the Desert Inn’s Painted Desert Room. Hand-painted, cast-iron slot machines, some of them dating to illegal clubs opened in the 1920s.
More than 500 security badges dating to the 1940s. Binders stuffed with casino contracts, including El Rancho checks payable to Hoagy Carmichael ($12,086.98), Gloria De Haven ($2,758.63), Ann Southern ($705.50), Lili St. Cyr ($1,500.00) and Rudy Vallee ($3,325). Currency dating to the 1800s (including a $1 Martha Washington silver certificate). Stacks of chips melted during the 1980 MGM Grand fire. Ashtrays from the Santa Anita Turf Bar at Boulder Club dating to 1930. A humanitarian award presented to Sammy Davis Jr. by the president of Mexico in 1962.
There are more than 120,000 pieces in all, drawn from about 740 resorts, the majority of which are gone like last night’s whiskey bottle, as they used to say in the old saloons. For the past 15 years (at least), Cutler has compared his memorabilia to the Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Cutler’s mind-blowing inventory was on display for several years as the Casino Legends Hall of Fame at the Tropicana. It seems forever ago that then-hotel operator Aztar Corp. and he partnered in the attraction, which took over a bingo room downstairs at the hotel.
As a hired consultant for Aztar, Cutler produced recurring Hall of Fame induction ceremonies linked to his display. Nearly 100 inductees, ranging from the Rat Pack to casino maverick Bob Stupak, were honored in seven categories.
The museum opened in February 1999, and Cutler and his collection left the property in April 2005 as the property prepped for a multimillion-dollar makeover, and existing contracts between the property and such entertainment attractions as the legendary “Folies Bergere” production and Rick Thomas’ magic act began to time out. Ever since, Cutler has sought to find a suitable home for the dormant Hall of Fame.
It has been an intermittent process for the ponytailed, silkily presented Cutler, who is 62 years old and is recovering from a recent cancer scare. He moved to the city in 1953 (one of his family’s old houses is now home to Pamplemousse on East Sahara Avenue) and began collecting coins as a child. He started stashing away casino chips after taking a $12-an-hour job as a blackjack dealer at El Cortez. After work, he played poker and would come home with his pockets stuffed with chips.
“I would play where I was hot, so I had a lot of chips from the same place, like the L.V. Hilton or the Horseshoe,” he says. “That’s how this all started. I just started saving and trading for casino stuff.”
Cutler rose in the resort industry, attaining executive-host status at Caesars Palace and Desert Inn. But as he has worked to compile his collection, he has not found a willing partner to display all of this fascinating and relevant memorabilia.
Why is this array of memorabilia not on display today? One issue is that Cutler has pinpoint focus of how he wants the Casino Legends Hall of Fame presented.
“It needs to be a contemporary, 21st century attraction,” he says. “What we had at the Tropicana was temporary and low budget, a lot of stuff under glass and hanging on walls. This can’t be that. It really needs a $1 million-to-$2 million space to make it a real Hall of Fame.”
Cutler is not interested in making that investment himself.
“I’m not going into debt, and I am not borrowing to do this,” he says. “I’m in good financial shape, and I want to stay that way.”
Cutler, simply, seeks someone to pay him to stage the collection and invest in a proper staging space for all this memorabilia. Or for someone to just buy it outright and hire him as a consultant.
It’s a tall order, for sure, but Cutler has been steadfast in his conditions to return the Casino Legends collection to a public venue.
“I’m not going to move into a room and pay rent,” he says, outlining the very condition that has thwarted the public display of the Casino Legends Hall of Fame. If Cutler were to agree to pay rent at a resort and put his stuff on display, the collection likely would have been open to the public for several years now.
His high-arching vision is to resume the Hall of Fame as a static attraction, tie in an annual-induction ceremony and televise that event across the country. The best estimate is that what he owns is worth $10 million.
“You think of something like this as priceless, but everything has a price, and that is an accurate number,” Cutler says. “Of course, if you have a great room and awards show and everything else, it could be worth $100 million.”
Cutler’s frustration is rooted in partnerships brimming with great potential, but which have collapsed for either financial or legal reasons. He was tied into the planned museum at Casa de Shenandoah, which was to be a public tour of the property once owned by Wayne Newton and largely a tribute to Newton’s career. That project was halted when the Newtons and their business partners wound up in court.
But Cutler, for all of his history in the city, has had trouble finding an eager ear for his grand collection. He has spent months tracking Steve Wynn. Cutler talks of a long-awaited agreement from Caesars Entertainment executive Rick Mazer to bring the collection to a 10,000-square-foot space in a Caesars hotel, only to see Mazer reassigned to Atlantic City.
Cutler finally found a kindred spirit in Las Vegas real estate exec David Atwell, who engineered the deal that led to the construction of the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace and who also negotiated the sale of the New Frontier land to the Israeli corporation El Ad Group for $1.24 billion. Atwell is acutely appreciative of the city’s history and also happens to be very well connected for the many lucrative transactions he’s navigated over the years.
“My role is to help Steve get in front of the people he needs to be in front of to make this happen,” Atwell says. “This collection is so important, so impressive. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world.” However, Atwell is battling a recurrence of throat and lung cancer — successfully, he stresses — and has been in a rehab facility for several weeks as he works deals while reclining in bed.
“While I’ve been going through this, I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching,” Atwell says. “I would like nothing more for this Hall of Fame to be part of my legacy. It would make me so proud.”
Atwell and Cutler have met with Binion’s co-owner Terry Caudill, who has been interested in moving the collection into a large space — and that 10,000-square-foot number keeps surfacing — at his famous Fremont Street casino. There is a far-off idea to include it in the second-phase build-out of the Downtown Grand, which is likely two years in the offing.
“(Downtown Grand CEO) Seth Schorr loved the idea, and it would be a good fit for Phase 2 at the hotel, as it connects to the Mob Museum in its entertainment complex,” Cutler says. “But we are talking two years from now to see that happen.”
Cutler says a return to the Trop has been considered as part of a long-anticipated retail project on that property (the concept of which has never even been formally confirmed). A meeting with representatives of Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project has led to some interesting discussions of the city’s cultural underpinnings but not much else.
Nonetheless, Cutler remains hopeful.
“I see this being open 365 days a year, with people and institutions being awarded for their contributions to the city,” Cutler says. “We have great, great content.”
At that, Cutler blows into his steaming cup of coffee, which will doubtless cool far sooner than his passion for the Casino Legends Hall of Fame.
Tropicana Las Vegas sits on the south-east corner of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, an intersection which has the most adjacent hotel rooms in the world, also making it one of the most busy. The hotel has 1,658 rooms, three restaurants, a 62,011-square foot casino and a spa.