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A recent Question of the Day queried what... [Continued]

Question of the Day October 1, 2014

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What ever happened to the giant Big Six Wheel at Vegas World, and the "space junk" hanging from the ceiling?


In September 2009 Las Vegas lost one of its more singular characters when Bob Stupak, who had earlier in his life survived an almost fatal motorcycle accident, succumbed to leukaemia at the age of 67. In equal parts degenerate gambler, arch salesman, and consummate showman, the self-styled "Polish Maverick" was a one-of-a-kind real-life legend whose life you can read about in Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith’s excellent biography, No Limit.

This question pertains to the chapter in Stupak's life that followed the suspicious incineration of his World Famous Historic Gambling Museum -- a diminutive slot joint located on a distinctly undesirable lot, too far north on Las Vegas Boulevard to qualify as the Strip, in May 1974. With the insurance money from this unfortunate yet timely loss, Stupak built Bob Stupak’s Las Vegas World, one of the most bizarre casinos in the city’s history, which touted the slogan "The Sky’s the Limit" when it debuted, somewhat inauspiciously, on Friday, July 13, 1979.

His new venture coinciding, as it did, with the height of the Space Race and all the fascination that went with it, Stupak jumped on that bandwagon with a tacky vengeance, decorating his hotel-casino with typically flamboyant touches, including a lunar module replica and a life-sized astronaut, both of which hung from the ceiling, and an exterior sign that was reputedly the largest in the world (and later blew down in a wind storm). Once guests had negotiated the Spaceport check-in, they were greeted with mirrored walls and ceilings in the black interior, which was decorated with twinkling stars, acrylic columns filled with colored bubbling liquid, and even what purported to be genuine moon "rocks" (actually 4 chips about the size of rice grains, which collectively weigh 0.05 grams).

The hotel buffet, infamous for being among the worst in town, naturally was named The Moon Rock, while there was also a Galaxy Bar, and myriad other kitsch nods to some futuristic intergalactic lifestyle, including random rocket sculptures scattered around the place, not to mention a giant mural on the outside of the building. (Sadly, for something so visually intriguing, there seem to be virtually no decent surviving images of the interior or exterior of Vegas World that we could find to do justice to the place.) We did find a couple of choice quotes, however, which seem to sum it up pretty well. As one nostalgic former guest put it, "If you’ve ever been to Space Mountain at Disneyland, you have an idea of how it looked. Except, Vegas World was as though a 3rd grader had tried to replicate Space Mountain. There were huge Styrofoam balls painted gold rotating over the 'Space Pod Check-In.'" Another take on Vegas World we came across described how, "By the early 1980s the hotel was a cross between an early brothel and 2001: A Space Odyssey."

Stupak’s over-the-top nature went way beyond interior design, however. A notorious gambler, he introduced the world’s first quarter-million and million-dollar slot jackpots and invented a (house-friendly) variation of blackjack called double-exposure 21, not to mention his famous "crapless craps." The Big Six Wheel, a.k.a. Wheel of Fortune, is an old carnival game and among the worst a player can pick on any casino floor when it comes to the odds. With its combination of a huge house edge and a flashy, oversized look, it was perfect for Stupak’s casino, but instead of conforming to the typical five- or six-foot diameter for the wheel, the owner of Vegas World had the "world’s largest Big Six Wheel" commissioned, measuring somewhere between 50 and 60 feet in diameter. It was so large it required an electric motor to spin it.

While, in its heyday, Vegas World was reportedly making $100 million a year in gambling revenues, by the mid-’90s the whole space gimmick had definitely passed its sell-by date, and the owner was dreaming of bigger and better ventures, namely the Stratosphere Tower. So, this brings us to your question about what happened to all the Vegas World "stuff" when it closed on February 1, 1995?

When it comes to that giant Wheel of Fortune, we must confess defeat and can find no trace of a sale, or of it having been gifted, or even smashed up for firewood. We have no clue as to its fate, but those outrageous dimensions, not to mention its motor dependency, may have seen that particular icon relegated to a less-than-glamorous landfill. We hope not, and if anyone has heard of or seen it since, please let us know when and where!

As to certain other objects, however, we were able to ascertain their fate. Former President Richard Nixon believed that putting a man on the moon was a global achievement and, in collective recognition of this, he gave shards of moon rock, collected by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren, to every state and country, so the story goes. The tale of how the Nicaraguan government’s share of this largesse ended up with Bob Stupak remains somewhat murky (but is said to involve a South American dictator, a mercenary, a Baptist missionary, and a sum of about $30,0000). After the casino owner’s death, the display was returned to NASA and the last we heard they were still in the process of authenticating the rock fragments. If found to be the genuine article, the chips will most likely be returned to Nicaragua.

As to much of the "space junk," this ended up in the hands of eccentric local collector Lonnie Hammargren, a former flight surgeon at Cape Canaveral and a frustrated aspiring astronaut, who says this formed the core of what would soon evolve into a "’critical mass’ of space stuff." These items, together with Hammargren’s eclectic collection (see QoD 11/9/06) of casino memorabilia , South American and Nevadan artifacts, Hollywood props, bits of old buildings, models, random antiques, miscellaneous flotsam and jetsam, and a good measure of utter trash, are usually on view for the public to see at his Las Vegas "home" in celebration of Nevada Day each year (which coincides with Halloween). So, if you’re in town at the end of next month, you might get to take a trip down memory lane (if you can actually locate anything specific in his sprawling and cluttered domicile. Just don't say we didn't warn you.)

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