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July 23, 2019

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Rise and Fall of Bob Stupak’ a towering addition to limited Vegas bookshelf

Engaging, accurate Las Vegas history books are hard to come by.

Local historian Mike Green, who hopes to write the definitive history of Las Vegas someday, cites just two texts as worthy of serious readers' attention: "Resort City in the Sunbelt," by UNLV history Professor Eugene Moehring, and "Las Vegas: A Desert Paradise," by the late UNLV history Professor Ralph Roske.

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John Smith is trying to do something about that.

His first book, "Running Scared," a biography of Mirage Resorts Chairman Steve Wynn, is a detailed portrait of the community's best known and most powerful businessman.

And bucking Las Vegas tradition, it isn't a puff piece. Wynn is suing in two states to try to take it off the shelves.

Next week, Smith's second effort to expand the Las Vegas bibliography hits bookstores: "No Limit: The Rise and Fall of Bob Stupak and Las Vegas' Stratosphere Tower."

It's good reading, capturing in great detail the comings and goings of the city's most flamboyant entrepreneur and would-be politician.

Smith's research is extensive, and his writing is clear and concise. This isn't the usual shoddy work performed by so many amateurs who have somehow garnered a contract to write about Las Vegas.

Yet Smith isn't a lofty academic punishing readers with long, wordy dissertations on dry subjects. This is history for the masses.

As a Stupak bio should be.

There's nothing ivory tower about his subject, and Smith keeps things moving with frequent anecdotes about Stupak's countless adventures since his unconventional youth in Pittsburgh.

Smith works hard to understand and explain Stupak's nature and motivations, concluding:

"If P.T. Barnum had a hedonistic twin, Bob Stupak might be the guy. He is one of the last of the great Las Vegas wild men. In an era in which corporations have placed their publicly traded USDA Grade A stamp on the city, at a time in which gaming's most notorious party animals have begun posturing as elder statesmen of Las Vegas casino society, Bob Stupak is still tearing up the neon-lighted streets with his big ideas, big bets and big mouth."

Young and restless

Stupak's early years in Pittsburgh and Australia provide a revealing picture of what was to come when he discovered Las Vegas.

Smith's chapters chronicling the life and crimes of Chester Stupak, Bob's craps-dealing father, are fascinating. Chester was a major player in Pittsburgh's gambling rackets from the beginning of World War II until his death in 1991. As Smith notes, "Chester Stupak was a man of stature in Pittsburgh's backroom casino circles. He was to illegal numbers and card rooms what Carnegie was to steel."

Chester Stupak got caught a few times during his gambling reign, but usually beat the rap. In the process, his name and face made the front pages of the local papers almost as often as his son's have in Las Vegas.

Not surprisingly, Bob Stupak learned about gambling at an early age. "When I was a kid, I thought that's what big people did -- you throw dice against the wall," Stupak recalls in the book. "That's the way I was raised forever."

Bored with school, Stupak dropped out after the eighth grade. He bought a Harley and worked street jobs, selling cheap watches and working as a small-time loan shark.

Stupak's forays into the worlds of pop music, motorcycle drag racing and street hustling are quickly yet adequately covered.

As a singer, Stupak had limited ability, but as Bobby Star he signed a recording contract and cut eight singles before it became clear that his talents weren't going to allow him to be the next Bobby Vinton.

As a motorcycle drag racer, Stupak won some trophies, but also broke both of his knees, foreshadowing his near-death accident many years later on Rancho Drive in Las Vegas.

Stupak escaped a stint in the National Guard unscathed before returning to Pittsburgh and finding a niche making and selling coupon books.

"Where motorcycles and nightclub singing had failed to provide him with the money his nonstop lifestyle and growing gambling habit demanded, the coupon books promised scads of fast cash," Smith writes.

The Polish Maverick

His gambling interests eventually drew him to Las Vegas in 1964. He instantly fell in love with the town but detoured to Australia for seven years, where he became a coupon-book kingpin and got married -- twice. He finally came to Las Vegas for good in 1971.

Smith carefully documents Stupak's early years in Las Vegas, from the 1973 opening of his ill-fated Million Dollar Historic Gambling Museum & Casino, which burned down under suspicious circumstances, to the opening of his Vegas World hotel-casino in 1979.

Stupak was a master marketer. He had to be to attract tourists to his Godforsaken location on Las Vegas Boulevard north of Sahara Avenue. He wasn't really on the Strip, and his casino was surrounded by drug- and crime-ridden apartment buildings collectively known as Naked City (now euphemistically called Meadows Village).

Stupak attracted gamblers with gambling gimmicks, high-stakes games and questionable vacation packages (better read the small print!). Perhaps his most bizarre gambling attraction among many was a rooster that played tic-tac-toe. Since the carnival-trained rooster got to pick first, it always won.

Using his street savvy, Stupak turned gaudy, little Vegas World, with 100 rooms and $7 million in revenue the first year, into gaudy, big Vegas World, with more than 1,000 rooms and $100 million a year in revenue in its prime.

The self-proclaimed Polish Maverick also played fast and loose with state gaming regulations, at times not having a big enough bankroll to cover casino losses. Fortunately, his friends in the industry, including Horseshoe Club President Jack Binion, helped him out in times of need, Smith reports.

Stupak is well known to many as a high-stakes gambler himself. His poker-playing exploits are legendary, and Smith outlines many of them. (Incidentally, Stupak's passion for poker continues to this day. He played in the World Series of Poker earlier this month at Binion's Horseshoe, placing 22nd out of 247 players in a Texas hold 'em event and winning $2,964.)

The general public, however, came to know Stupak best through his attempts to enter the political arena. Stupak's high-priced runs for Las Vegas mayor were ill-fated yet entertaining. He courted voters by handing out fruit baskets and clock radios. He punched a television reporter who crassly asked if he was on drugs.

Stupak also helped his daughter Nicole with an ill-conceived run for a City Council seat in 1991. She lost to former professional football player Frank Hawkins, largely because the young woman, born and raised in Australia, hardly knew the boundaries of the ward in which she was running.

The faulty tower

The last third of the book tackles Stupak's biggest venture to date -- the Stratosphere Tower. This is a vital part of Stupak's life story, the fulfillment of his greatest dream and one of his biggest disappointments. Yet it is the least interesting part of the book.

Smith does an admirable job of outlining how Stupak conceived of the tower project and got it started, and how Grand Casinos took it over and finished the job. He also lays out why it has failed and now teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.

But this section is bogged down in a sea of numbers. The stock game that has played out since the tower opened is complicated and not very interesting to the average reader. It's obvious that Stupak himself has only a vague interest in stock market economics.

More intriguing is Smith's extensive coverage of Stupak's March 31, 1995, motorcycle accident that left him in a coma for five weeks and required plastic surgery to reconstruct his face.

It is truly amazing that Stupak survived. Police officers, paramedics, nurses and doctors who saw him the night his motorcycle ran into a car on Rancho Drive figured he was a goner.

"It was the worst-looking thing you've ever seen," said poker buddy Eddie Baranski. "There was no way he could live. His head was swollen to the size of a basketball."

Yet Stupak lived to see the 1,149-foot Stratosphere Tower open to visitors on April 30, 1996. Unfortunately, the excitement of opening night at the Stratosphere -- the place was mobbed by 5,000 people -- has not translated into profits for Grand Casinos.

Although there are a dozen reasons why the Stratosphere has not met expectations, one stands out: Stupak's forced departure deprived the operation of a marketing pro with a proven track record at the same difficult location. (Ironically, the casino has done better in recent months after adopting Stupak-style marketing strategies.)

Stupak, 55, is largely written off as a relic of a bygone era at book's end, but this may be a mistake. Allies report that he owns a lot of property and is working on several projects. His next venture may not be on the scale of the Stratosphere Tower, but it's a good bet Las Vegas hasn't heard the last of Bob Stupak.

Green, a historian at the Community College of Southern Nevada, says where Las Vegas-oriented publishing is improving is in the more specialized studies of people, trends and eras. He cites CCSN history Professor Alan Balboni's "Beyond the Mafia: Italian-Americans and the Development of Las Vegas," and Nicholas Pileggi's "Casino" as recent examples.

John Smith's "No Limit" should be added to the list. It's an indispensable tome for anyone remotely curious about Las Vegas' short but lively history.