Las Vegas Sun

May 23, 2017

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Tropicana’s closing shuts door on history

The museum at the Tropicana soon will be history.

Curator Richard Burgel, who opened the humble Las Vegas Historic Museum in July, has been given notice that he must vacate the premises before April 25.

He learned about his eviction a week ago.

"I had a meeting Friday with a Tropicana executive who showed me a kiosk they wanted me to rent," Burgel said. "Then he sat me down in his office and told me they were going to expand the slot department's tournament area - they were going to remodel and they would like me out ...

"I almost hit the floor."

A spokesman for the Tropicana was unavailable for comment.

With its propensity for building, razing and rebuilding, Las Vegas doesn't seem to put much stock in nostalgia.

"I'm devastated," the 52-year-old Burgel said.

Burgel's small corner of the Tropicana - about 2,000 square feet - contains exhibits related to the city and the state's colorful past, with emphasis on gaming, mobsters, entertainers and brothels.

A video covers the rise and fall of the Mafia in Las Vegas. There are also several large photos of such figures as Flamingo founder Bugsy Siegel and former Stardust boss Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, the subject of the movie "Casino."

Among the entertainers featured in the museum are Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima, Judy Garland, Wayne Newton, Elvis Presley and Liberace.

In the brothel section, there are exhibits from such bordellos as Sheri's Ranch, the Mustang Ranch, the Chicken Ranch, Mabel's, Madam Kitty's and the Green Lantern.

The space leased by Burgel for about $2,500 a month was previously the home of the Casino Legends Hall of Fame Museum.

The Hall of Fame Museum, owned and operated by Steve Cutler, opened in 1999 and was closed by the Tropicana in April 2005.

Cutler's museum focused more on the entertainers, inducting legendary performers into its hall of fame during ceremonies at the Tropicana.

Burgel, who also owns the Lost Vegas Gambling Museum and Store downtown at Neonopolis, said the Tropicana invited him to create another museum in some of the space vacated by Cutler and to present exhibits that focused more on brothels and gangsters.

"They knew I had the museum downtown so they asked me to put this one in here," he said.

However, he didn't have the kind of exhibits they wanted.

"I went out and bought the collections," Burgel said. "And I kept improving them, buying more collections - the museum is a work in progress."

He said a lot of promises were made to him.

"I was told if the place didn't get imploded, I would have a home for at least two years," Burgel said.

He was worried earlier this year when it was announced that the Tropicana had stopped taking reservations after April.

"We were holding our breath," Burgel said.

Then last month it was announced that Pinnacle Entertainment Inc. was buying Aztar Corp., owner of the Tropicana.

The takeover isn't expected to be completed until the end of the year.

And it may be as long as two years before any new construction takes place.

Burgel is mystified about his sudden eviction.

"I'm a small-business operator - this is a mom-and-pop operation," he said. "I was led to believe that they (the Tropicana) wanted the museum; people love it.

"The hotel is making money off of me because I pay rent. I invested my savings in this, and now I'm being forced to move, without any assistance."

Burgel says he hasn't had the help he was promised in the beginning.

"The Tropicana was supposed to promote us, but they didn't," he said. "We're hidden down in the basement, so if you don't know about us you won't come - we don't get any foot traffic."

He said the Tropicana gave free coupons to visit the museum.

"But that doesn't help me," he said. "I don't get the admission."

Burgel's 3,000-square-foot facility housed in Neonopolis isn't faring much better.

"Neonopolis is in a lot of turmoil right not," Burgel said. "It's in escrow. Nobody knows anything.

"There's no foot traffic here at all."

Burgel's interest in collecting memorabilia dates back to his childhood.

Born and raised in Miami, he worked as a cabana boy at the Eden Rock Hotel when he was a teenager.

"I waited on Meyer Lansky, Morris Landsburg and a lot of others," he said.

He often received casino chips from them and from his parents, who used to fly to the Bahamas to gamble.

From collecting casino chips he expanded into other memorabilia.

After selling his Xerox dealership in Los Angeles, Burgel retired and moved to Las Vegas in 1995.

"I retired to play golf," he said.

But then eBay came along.

"With the advent of eBay, collecting has never been better," Burgel said.

Burgel is determined to keep his museum going.

"I have a collection like no other that the public needs to see," he said. "You know, there's no money in it - I just love the history of Las Vegas.

"There's no place in this town where you can track the history of gaming, of the owners and operators of the casinos - the good, the bad and the ugly."

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