Monday, December 5, 2016

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. Included at the El Rancho were a large pool, a neon-lit windmill atop the main entrance, and horseback riding stables. 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 1950’s, 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 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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