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Visiting the Island: The Tropicana’s History in Documents by David G. Schwartz

By Su Kim Chung on April 6, 2017 3:43 PM | Permalink


A promotional brochure for the Tropicana Hotel and Casino, circa 1990. Tropicana Promotional and Publicity Material Collection (HD 9999 G25 T78)

By David G. Schwartz, Director of the Center for Gaming Research

The Tropicana casino resort recently marked the 60th anniversary of its opening, a rare milestone in Las Vegas history. I wrote an extended (by magazine standards) feature article on the history of the Tropicana for Vegas Seven and a shorter piece about the casino’s opening night for the Mob Museum. Both pieces (and a lot of what other writers produce about Las Vegas history) were strengthened enormously by the materials in UNLV University Libraries Special Collections.

For research into the Tropicana, one of the best resources is the Tropicana Promotional and Publicity Material Collection, nine boxes of press clippings, press releases, newsletters, and assorted other ephemera that document the Tropicana’s history. While the earliest documents date from 1969, the majority of the collection is comprised of materials generated during Ira David Sternberg’s tenure as director of advertising and public relations in the 1990s.

These were the years when the Tropicana, now owned by Aztar (a spinoff of Ramada Inns, Inc.), was transitioning from old Vegas to the mega-resort era and striving to stay relevant in an age of exploding volcanos, battling knights, and bigger, newer properties.

The Tropicana responded not by expanding, but by playing up its best asset, its pool. In 1986, following its second tower expansion, the Tropicana rebranded itself as “The Island of Las Vegas,” a place where Caribbean cool, Polynesian hospitality, and gambling excitement ruled. Restyling the pool as a tropical oasis and stocking it with exotic birds, the Tropicana’s waterfalls and lagoons transported guests to a relaxing island-style vacation.

A photo of the indoor/outdoor swimming pool showcases the tropical island look promoted by the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in the early 1990s.  From a press release in the Tropicana Promotional and Publicity Material Collection (HD 9999 G25 T78).

One of the things that Sternberg did to promote the Tropicana was publish “Player Advantage,” a semi-annual to monthly newsletter that, in a few pages, sought to communicate the excitement of visiting “the Island.”

The cover from an issue of Player Advantage, Spring/Summer 1991, from the Tropicana Promotional and Publicity Material Collection (HD 9999 G25 T78).

The Spring/Summer edition of “Player Advantage,” located in Box 2 of the collection, shines a light on what life was like on “the Island.”

“You don’t have to travel thousands of miles,” Sternberg wrote, “and spend thousands of bucks to discover a tropical paradise. We have one right inside our four walls, just waiting for you…Summer is here…and the price is right.”

There was plenty to do at the island, including lounging in the pool, zipping down the waterslide, enjoying live laser shows (hourly) every night, as well as live music and fire dancers. At 11 AM, 1 PM, and 3 PM, Joe Krathwhol’s Island Bird Show (dark Mondays; as Sternberg pointed out, even birds need some time off). The pool also showcased poolside video poker and slots, poolside bars, and a swim-up blackjack table.

A photo of Joe Krathwhol’s Island Bird Show that was featured during the "The Island of Las Vegas" era of the Tropicana Hotel and Casino. From a press release in the Tropicana Promotional and Publicity Material Collection (HD 9999 G25 T78).

This edition of “Player Advantage” includes notes on upcoming events, a rundown of the Tropicana’s culinary delights, and a meet and greet with some of the casino’s most flamboyant exotic birds, from Rade, the Red-sided Eclectus Parrot to Stubby, the Harlequin Macaw. Other segments included a brief note from Tom Avritt, director of casino credit, on the dos and don’ts of casino credit, and a “Dear Ira” question-and-answer section.

This particular newsletter, and the collection as a whole, can both transport you back to a time when the Tropicana was unabashedly tropical and colorful birds were its calling card and facilitate serious research into a critical era of Las Vegas history.