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October 31, 2014

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Showboat-turned-Castaways has storied LV history

In a city where there was Grand Prix auto racing, world title boxing matches and professional golf tournaments, the Showboat Hotel miles from the glittering Strip held its own in the 1980s as a major local sporting venue.

The Showboat Lanes on Boulder Highway was the site of the oldest stop on the Pro Bowlers Association tour and the Showboat Sports Pavilion featured world title boxing matches, professional wrestling, roller derby and billiards.

"That was fun -- we really had it going," said Frank Modica, former general manager of the Showboat Hotel, who ushered in its sports era with then-President Joe Kelley, who died earlier this month.

"It's real sad to see it (the Showboat-turned-Castaways) close. Forty-two years ago I had my wedding reception there."

Modica, who started with the Showboat in 1959, became its general manager in 1962 and later served as its president, said he brought in sporting events to attract people into the casino.

"We had that big empty space and we didn't know what to do with it," Modica said of the huge second-story room that became the sports pavilion.

"At that time, with the exception of Caesars Palace, no one had a nice pavilion for boxing or other sporting events. We put in bleacher seats, and I went after the fights."

While the Showboat did not always draw the biggest boxing shows, it did feature bouts with some of the bigger-name fighters of the era including three-time world champion Alexis Arguello, world super featherweight champions Cornelius Boza-Edwards and Bobby "Schoolboy" Chacon, world bantamweight champion Lupe Pintor and world junior middleweight champ Wilfred Benitez.

"The Boza-Edwards vs. Chacon fight was one of the best ever," Modica said of the May 1981 battle where Boza-Edwards, then of England and now a Las Vegas boxing trainer, won by 14th-round technical knockout.

"Promoter Bob Arum had approached me because he had been having difficulties with Caesars," Modica said. "We took him on and it was a good promotion for us. Boxing was great for a long time, then everyone got into the act and it just ran its course with us."

The Showboat's wrestling promotions brought to town the 7-foot-4 wonder Andre The Giant in main events and multi-time world champion Lou Thesz as a promoter. The Los Angeles Thunderbirds roller derby team played some of its final games at the Pavilion before the league folded.

Modica recalled that those events drew good crowds, but that wrestling and roller derby fans did not frequent the casino after the events like the boxing fans did.

The Pavilion later was converted into the Showboat's bingo hall.

"A lot of what we did was copied," Modica said. "We started bowling, now a number of casinos have bowling."

Modica said the televised PBA events brought in tourists who wanted to see and play on the same lanes where the pros performed. The Showboat was the first stop on the tour not to charge fans an admission fee, Modica recalled.

The bowling promotion also produced some heartfelt legendary tales, including the time in January 1982 an unknown 20-year-old pizza maker from Mesa, Ariz., James Miller, shocked the pro bowling world by recording two perfect games and capturing the $150,000 Showboat PBA Invitational.

He defeated 19-year-old Pete Weber, son of bowling hall-of-famer Dick Weber, who had won the Showboat PBA Invitational in 1963. Dick Weber for years worked at the Showboat Lanes in Atlantic City and Las Vegas as a promotion leader.

Pool legends Minnesota Fats and Willie Mosconi took their televised series of matches to the Showboat in October 1981.

"It really saddens me to think it is gone," said Modica, who will turn 76 next week and is retired in Las Vegas. "I was thinking of all the people, all the employees, the boxing events, everything. So many memories."

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