El Rancho – First on the Las Vegas Strip in 1941

The El Rancho in Las Vegas was built by Thomas Hull as an addition to his chain of “El Rancho” hotels in Gallup, New Mexico, and Fresno and Sacramento, California. The 63-cabin resort was designed as a way-station, a break for families to enjoy on their trip through Nevada, not as a casino property.

Still, it opened on April 3, 1941, with a small casino. The property was inviting, with a white, split-rail fence surrounding the frontage of the 57-acre property and a large sign spanning the driveway entrance. The El Rancho had it all: a large pool, a neon-lit windmill atop the main entrance, and horseback riding stables, and lodging.

Each cabin had a personal parking area, a porch, and a patch of green lawn carefully maintained by gardeners.  Many cabins had kitchens so that guests could cook meals, or they could eat in the Chuck Wagon buffet in the center of the property.

The casino was smaller than those in the downtown casino area but included blackjack, roulette, and craps, plus seventy slot machines. Guests were encouraged to visit the Opera House, where comedians like Joe E. Brown and Milton Berle performed. Crowds were small but enthusiastic.

Hollywood Legends in Las Vegas

Clark Gable was regularly seen at the 91 Club up the street while establishing Nevada residency and awaiting his divorce in 1939. He then stayed at the El Rancho, reluctantly, in 1942 after his new wife, Hollywood star Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash shortly after takeoff from the Las Vegas Airport.

Although the property was successful, Hull sold his percentage (points) in the hotel in 1943, and two new owners were listed on the Clark County gaming license, Hilton-Brown.  Then, in 1944, Wilbur Clark arrived from his training in Reno.

Fronting for the Mob, Clark changed the property’s name to the El Rancho Vegas.  By that time, the Hotel Last Frontier had joined the El Rancho along the highway to Los Angeles on October 12th, 1942.  It kept the name until it changed to the New Frontier in 1955.

The casino did very well and Clark’s partners in Cleveland (Moe Dalitz and company) that they would help bankroll a new club for him.  That move, the building of the Desert Inn, allowed Sanford Adler to move up to the “owner’s position” at the El Rancho Vegas before his ill-fated year at the Flamingo, and his banishment from Las Vegas.

Next, Jake Katleman purchased controlling interest in the property (and leased out the casino operations to some folks from Back East). When Jake passed away in 1947, Beldon Katleman took over at the young age of 31. He obtained loans, bought out the other family interests, and refurbished the resort at the cost of nearly a million dollars. At the time, the expansion made the casino the largest in Las Vegas.

During the 1950s, entertainers did big shows at the El Rancho, but the competition from new properties like the Sahara, Sands, Dunes, and Desert Inn took away a chunk of the weekend business. Katleman kept an interest going in the property by switching to more provocative acts, like strippers Candy Barr and Lili St. Cyr. However, as the resort prospered, his casino malfunctioned under Mob control, and Chicago Outfit henchman Marshall Caifano.

In early June of 1960, Katleman had Caifano removed from the property after a heated argument about the benefits Caifano wanted, which included free lodging and the constant company of new showgirls. On June 17, Caifano was surreptitiously allowed to enter the backstage area of the showroom. Once there, he started a fire that spread to the kitchen. Soon the entire property was a blazing inferno with flames seen all the way to the downtown casinos.

The property was destroyed and never rebuilt. It took a while, but Caifano was eventually the first person listed in Nevada’s Black book, barred permanently from ever entering a Nevada casino. He wasn’t happy.

Ten years later, Howard Hughes bought the property before slipping out of his Desert Inn penthouse early one morning and catching a jet to the Bahamas.  The property was still vacant years later when Bill Bennett of Circus Circus purchased it. In 1982, the once-Mob controlled Thunderbird hotel changed its name to the El Rancho Casino, after running as the Silverbird from 1977 to 1981. That El Rancho property closed in 1992.

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Vegas Used to Be Fancy?

Wow, people used to actually get dressed up to visit the casinos in Las Vegas! This scene from the mid-’50’s may have been staged, but there were a lot more people going to a nice dinner and show back then.

Of course, the dinner show to see Rose Marie, or Jimmy Durante, or Joe Brown, was an under-$10 affair. If you slipped the maître d‘ a couple bucks you got a nice seat. $5 put you up front where the singer or comic might just talk directly to you!

When the Rat Pack was making headlines in the 50’s and early 60’s, you could count on seeing Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin for a reasonable price, and they often hung around with other stars after the show to have a cigarette and a couple shots. Of course, that’s when it was Vegas and the Mob!

When the Moulin Rouge casino opened in 1955 with stars like Count Basie, Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte and Louis Armstrong performing, their small showroom filled-up for the end of the second show with other stars like Marlene Dietrick, George Burns, Judy Garland, and Jack Benny, who were playing at other clubs in town. Nobody wanted to miss out on the Class A entertainment and the casino management went so far as to add a third show at 2:30 am, because as Chickie Berman used to say, “Nobody important gets up before noon anyway.”

Life Magazine put the new club on its cover and touted the Moulin Rouge as the first racially integrated casino in Las Vegas, but the casino’s success was also its undoing. Profits were being siphoned from the count room, bills went unpaid, and casinos on the Strip like the Sands pushed their weekly entertainment budget to astronomical levels, paying some stars more than $100,000 a week.

The Sands also slowly began allowing African American entertainers to enter using the front door of the property, and to even stay in some of the hotel bungalows. The change was quick and dramatic, and the Moulin Rouge closed just five months after it opened, but its impact was significant and within a few years all of the casinos in Las Vegas were fully integrated.

Today, you don’t have to put on a coat and tie to enjoy the top stars playing at the Mirage, MGM, or the Luxor, but you can expect to pay $100 to see a big-name on the stage. That price doesn’t get you dinner anymore, but there are a lot more choices in town than there were 50 years ago. Enjoy!

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

 

 

Vegas and the Mob

The Mob didn’t start the gambling in Nevada, and especially not in Las Vegas. In fact, they were relative latecomers, since Nevada had gambling for years before it was officially legalized in 1931. Because Nevada was such a large state with such a small population, there wasn’t much reason to spend any capital to set up shop there, not when Chicago was making a killing (sometimes literally) with their own casinos in Illinois, and Lucky Luciano’s Family was doing just as well with joints in The Big Apple, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, and Arkansas.

However, once Las Vegas started to grow, both air travel and auto travel became more common and less expensive, and a new thing called air-conditioning became commonplace in the desert, Vegas started looking good.

In fact, although Bugsy Siegel never warmed up (sorry, no pun intended) to the idea of living in Vegas, he spent more and more time in the town because it was legal. Times were getting tougher in Los Angeles, and while he much preferred Beverly Hills to downtown Vegas, nobody was trying to whack him. Of course, all good things come to an end, right?

If you ever wondered how the Mob (starting mostly with Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel) moved into Vegas, took over casinos, and then managed to skim millions of dollars while the FBI stood by watching, and listening, well the new book, Vegas and the Mob, answers that question!

Read about the new casinos the Mob built, who fronted for the Mob, and what happened when the Mob got crossed. Through forty years of frenzy, the Mob sucked their casinos dry of the profits that should have gone back into rebuilding, so people like Howard Hughes and corporate investors of the 1970s were able to find bargains in the desert, even if at the time of purchase they seemed like bad investments.

Vegas may be clean and free of the Mob today, but it wouldn’t be what it is, without the Mob!

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

 

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