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Video Vault | Tropicana's Folies Bergere and the mob skim

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The complicated past of the Las Vegas Strip includes the glamour of lavish production shows, as well as the sinister background presence of the mob. In one case, they were combined, as seen in a new exhibit at The Mob Museum in collaboration with the Nevada State Museum.

The story starts in 1959 with the opening of the Tropicana's Folies Bergere.

"It came to town with sort of an elegance, panache, a chicness that Americans recognized," says Karan Feder. "It was different from the other shows in town other than Lido [de Paris at the Stardust Hotel]."

Feder is costume curator at the Nevada State Museum and notes that the focus on the women was accentuated by what they wore.

"It's just interesting to note the gorgeous jewels that are used that are quite expensive," she said. "And a lot of the handwork that now we don't see in costumes."

Why bring a showgirl display to The Mob Museum? The connection is the man born Vincenzo Pianetti in Italy in 1927. By the time of his arrival in Las Vegas in the early 1960s, he had assumed the name Joe Agosto.

"He became the executive producer of the Folies Bergere," explains Mob Museum Director of Content Geoff Schumacher. "Not because he had a great deal of expertise with production shows, but because there was no chance that he was going to get a gaming license to run the Tropicana."

"It was a money issue," clarifies Feder. "They needed money to mount a new show weren't able to get the loan. And all of a sudden, there was an opening for the mob to step in."

With the loan from representatives of the Kansas City syndicate came conditions, one of which being that their guy - Agosto - run the show.

This was similar to the situation at the Stardust, where Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal ran the mob's interests while functioning as publicity director, entertainment director and other positions.

"You have a guy doing some kind of middle-level work or has a job title for the middle part of the casino that doesn't require a license," says Schumacher. "Where, in fact, they are ultimately running the casino. They're making the hard decisions."

But just as Agosto started the skim, Mitzi Stauffer Briggs, heiress to the Stauffer Chemical fortune, bought 51 percent of the Tropicana in 1976.

"This actually was temporarily a kink in the mob's plans to skim from the Tropicana until they gained her trust," recounts Schumacher. "Agosto gained her trust, and he ultimately was very involved in the Tropicana even though she owned it."

"And when I came in, I did come in with $6.4 million," Briggs told News 3 in the early 1980s. "And within 24 hours, there was $1.5 million of that $6.4 million left."

News 3's Liz Wilson explained how the skim operated in a 1982 report.

"It happened, authorities say, between 1978 and '79. A period when money and chips were accounted for by sheets of paper called fill slips. To get money or ships, someone had to sign for them. That person was accountable. But if the slips were lost, money could disappear. If the right person were in the cage, a lot of money could disappear."

As the showgirls entertained, Briggs' fortune disappeared - eventually more than $11 million.

"It's as if the Tropicana was some type of a giant octopus that you couldn't satisfy," continued Briggs. "I mean, it was a bottomless pit.

"What they didn't know was that law enforcement was watching them very closely and that ultimately they were caught," says Schumacher.

While running the skim, Agosto had also become involved a check-kiting scam involving banks in Minnesota, as well as the Tropicana. The feds had him, and rather than face serious time, he began testifying on behalf of the prosecution.

Then just as the case was coming together, Agosto suddenly had a massive heart attack.

"When he died in '83, that certainly seemed like that was going to hurt the Fed's case against the people who were involved in skimming," notes Schumacher.

But the cases were able to move forward, as noted in 1984 by News 3 reporter Donna Cline.

"Agosto was a secret witness in the conviction last spring of Kansas City crime boss Carl Civella, Carl DeLuna, and former Las Vegas casino owner Carl Thomas."

And while all this played out in the count rooms and later in court, the glamorous costumes were paraded in the showroom nightly, to great acclaim.

"The Folies Bergere is really a symbol of the connection between the mob and the Tropicana, via the Folies Bergere," sums up Feder.

Mitzi Stauffer Briggs was forced to sell the Tropicana but received nothing back, as all the proceeds went to pay creditors. She worked low-wage jobs and was a volunteer at the Guardian Angel Cathedral on the Strip until passing away in 2013.

The Folies Bergere closed for good in 2009. The new costume display opens at The Mob Museum on Jan. 21, while the main collection remains at the Nevada State Museum.

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