Las Vegas Sun

April 22, 2019

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Strip mine: Casino Legends Hall of Fame details Las Vegas’ past

The intersection in the 1957 photograph is hardly identifiable.

On one corner sits a newly built resort. Across the street there is nothing but undeveloped desert that extends west toward the mountains.

Looking at the aerial view, Steve Cutler explains as he points to the lone hotel, "This is the Tropicana."

Pointing to the vacant lots across the street, he adds, "This is the Excalibur. And this is the MGM."

The photograph of the once-naked Strip hangs in the Casino Legends Hall of Fame museum at the Tropicana.

It stands as a reminder of the city's newness and of how an international tourist destination sprouted from nothing, and in the most illogical of places.

Accompanying the photograph (and dozens of others) is gaming memorabilia from the hotels and casinos that eventually followed and, in some cases, have since crumbled.

Gaming chips, swizzle sticks, ashtrays and matchbooks fill glass display cases. Card decks, menus, dealer's aprons and key chains are set among vintage postcards.

The collection, which dates to the early 1930s when gambling was legalized in Nevada, is owned by longtime Las Vegan Cutler.

The displays spread through five rooms in the Tropicana's lower level, beginning with a patch of original carpet from the Pioneer Club (built in 1942) that features winking, cigarette-smoking cowboy Vegas Vic, a fictional figure emblematic of Las Vegas' early Old West theme. The collection ends with a small display and video of Las Vegas' mob figures.

In between are old gaming licenses, photographs of early Las Vegas entertainers, casino owners and visionaries who have been inducted into the museum's Hall of Fame in recent years.

"Every dime I've made in my entire life has gone to this stuff," Cutler said while scanning the 15,000 artifacts that draw 1,000 visitors each day to the museum. "When it gets down to that last piece you need (of a collection), you'll pay anything.

"I could make the museum six times bigger if I had the space. I add things to the collection literally every day. I have thousands of photos."

Cutler searches for memorabilia at garage sales and flea markets and buys from gaming collectors throughout the country.

"I just went antiqueing yesterday," he said. "The fun is in the hunt. I get excited when I go to an old garage sale and find an old matchbook from the 1950s."

Cutler's family moved to Las Vegas in 1953. In 1972 at the age of 24 he began working as a dealer at El Cortez, then went on to work as a pit boss at Caesars Atlantic City and Harrah's in Atlantic City before returning to Las Vegas in the early 1990s.

He opened his first gaming exhibit at the Pioneer Club in 1994. One year later he moved the exhibit to the Flamingo Hilton in Reno, and later to the Flamingo Hilton in Laughlin. The museum opened in 1999 at the Tropicana.

Cutler began collecting gaming chips in 1972. The collection grew to include ashtrays, dice, china and other items. Ten years ago he started collecting Las Vegas entertainment memorabilia.

"I discovered that collecting things other than chips made my chips more interesting," he said. "I have over 600 different swizzle sticks. They don't even put hotel names on swizzle sticks anymore."

Cutler said that at one point he had a three-car garage filled with memorabilia. He owns more than 15,000 gaming chips from Nevada casinos and more than 100,000 chips that are duplicates.

"It's very difficult for me to find a chip now that I don't have," Cutler said. "Most of the chips I bought in the casino I put in my pocket and went home. I had no idea it was going to turn into this."

Dated contracts signed by Strip entertainers, cuff links from the Landmark and sundries marked with old casino logos are among his more obscure souvenirs from the past.

The idea of creating a Hall of Fame, complete with induction ceremonies, wasn't an easy sell to local casino executives and entertainers at first, Cutler said.

"At the beginning everybody was a little apprehensive," he said. "It was a brand new awards ceremony that had no credibility. Now everybody knows and understands what it is."

More than 60 people have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Inductees include trumpeter and band leader Louis Prima, entertainer Sophie Tucker, Sen. Harry Reid, the McGuire Sisters, Vicki Carr and Benny Binion.

Singer and entertainer Rose Marie is better known for her role as Sally Rogers on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" than for performing in Las Vegas shows, which included opening for Jimmy Durante on opening night at the Flamingo in 1946.

"A lot of people don't realize, she had a 30-year career in Las Vegas before she went to Hollywood," Cutler said of Rose Marie.

Finding the past

It's hard to say whether tourists visit the Casino Legends Hall of Fame museum because they're simply curious about Las Vegas' past or because they picked up a free-admittance coupon in the hotel or tourist publications. Either way, the crowds turn out.

"In their mind they want to see all of these places they read about or saw in the movies," Cutler said. "It's not there anymore.

"The 1950s -- that's the decade everybody fantasizes about. That's the Louis Prima era, Rat Pack era, entertainers like Sophie Tucker and Lena Horne."

Paychecks made out to such entertainers when they performed at Hotel El Rancho Las Vegas are on display at the museum. (In one check Eartha Kitt was paid $8,890 for her appearance. In another Buddy Ebsen was paid $914.96.)

The paychecks were stored in a warehouse with other items rescued from the Hotel El Rancho Las Vegas after it burned to the ground in a 1960 fire.

Other items from the Hotel El Rancho Las Vegas, which opened as the first casino and resort in 1941, include ice buckets filled with casino chips that melted during the fire, a place setting from one of its restaurants and a 1947 Thanksgiving Day menu.

A showgirls display at the museum features costumes and headdresses worn by dancers when they performed in the Tropicana's show "Folies Bergere," which is the longest running show in Las Vegas, and an accessorized makeup counter that was taken from a "Folies Bergere" dressing room.

Outfits worn by Elvis, Liberace, the DeCastro Sisters, Frank Marino and concert pianist Mafalda, a longtime resident and performer in Las Vegas, are also on display.

Looking at original contracts and paychecks, Tony Coleman, a 39-year-old tourist from Decatur, Ill., said, "A lot of these stars, I didn't know performed in Las Vegas. It's very interesting. It's a history lesson."

Coleman and his wife, Rene, were visiting Las Vegas for the first time recently. The museum, Coleman said, helped explain where Las Vegas has come from and where it is going.

"Whoever thought something this big would start out in the desert?" he added.

But it did, and Cutler has preserved part of the story.

"I miss it," Cutler said, referring to old Las Vegas. "But if it didn't evolve and change into what it is today, it would be a ghost town. There is gaming all over the country."