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July 29, 2014

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Tropicana at 50

To escape Cuba in 1961 after spending months in a concentration camp, Jose Dominguez signed over his plantation and all his belongings to Fidel Castro's Communist government.

Jan Wright arrived at the Tropicana in 1975 to perform as a showgirl and animal trainer in her husband's "Folies Bergere" act, "Gene Detroy and the Marquis Chimps."

Wright did not know just how much of a "family" guy Agosto was.

He was the Las Vegas front man for the skimming operation at the Trop that funded the Civella Kansas City Mafia family's criminal enterprise.

So that, she said, explained Agosto's peculiar habit of holding meetings poolside so the noisy pool filter would muffle the conversation.

Agosto avoided using Tropicana office or casino phones, Wright said, sensing that they might have been bugged.

"But Joe was careless and said things when he used the boy dancers' (backstage) pay phone that had been tapped," Wright said. "That's how the feds got him."

Information learned from those calls helped lead to the 1979 St. Valentine's Day raid on the Tropicana by the federal government, which produced indictments against Agosto and others, including purported mob boss Carl Civella and Tropicana casino executive Carl W. Thomas.

Agosto, whose code name in mob circles was "Caesar," became the government's key witness, helping put away Civella, Thomas and others. And it ended the mob's control of the Tropicana.

Agosto died of a heart attack in August 1983 in Kansas City.

Wright stayed at the Tropicana after the act, and her marriage, broke up.

"There comes a point as an entertainer when you get tired of all of the traveling and you want to settle down," said Wright, who said she became a U.S. citizen in 1977 but declined to give her age. "The Tropicana had been good to me, like a family, so I decided to stay."

In her 32 years at the Trop, she climbed the ranks and is now the hotel's administration services manager, overseeing records and finances.

As for the future: "I see the Tropicana building on what it already has and becoming even more of a terrific place." Will she be a part of it? "I serve at the pleasure of the president."

Sammy Millage has been dealing blackjack at the Tropicana since Richard Nixon was elected president.

Millage said he was thrilled to step aside for Dino, who was known among gamers as a fairly good dealer.

"I've dealt to or seen a lot of stars here over the years," Millage, 60, said. "That's why they call the Tropicana the Tiffany of the Strip."

Millage said the Trop's friendliness has cultivated many regulars.

Millage, who worked as a dealer at the Fremont and Landmark casinos before joining the Tropicana in 1972, has had chances to move on, but he has avoided the temptation .

"I figure if I am going to do the same job somewhere else, I just as well stay here because I like it here," said the father of two and grandfather of six.

And dealing to famous people who frequent the resort is always a thrill.

Among the celebrities to whom Millage says he has dealt hands are entertainers Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Telly Savalas and Bill Cosby, as well as former world heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes.

Millage, who also has dealt three-card poker, Crazy 4 and Caribbean stud table games, recalled that Cosby actually preferred to play tennis at the Trop, where tennis great Andre Agassi's father was club pro.

Savalas was an excellent tipper, Millage said, and Holmes was a happy gambler.

Millage sees a bright future for the Tropicana under new ownership.

"Nothing ever remains the same. It's time for a change," he said.

The new owners "have announced they are adding a lot more rooms. We'll be among the largest hotels again."

For a time, the Tropicana was among Las Vegas' six largest hotels.

And what about Millage's future ?

"The day I cannot find my way home, I'll retire," he said.

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