Entries in classic las vegas (5)

The El Cortez celebrates 70 years of classic Las Vegas style

Hard to believe that the El Cortez is 70 years old but the venerable hotel/casino is still going strong and celebrating all year long.

 Opened by J.Kell Houssels in 1941, it was considered to be too far down Fremont Street.  But from the beginning it was successful.  Ben Siegel came to town to muscle in on the race wire at the hotel and with Meyer Lansky, Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway  bought the casino from Houssels in the mid-1940s for $600,000.  They didn't hang on to it for long as Siegel was already working on his dream project on the Las Vegas Strip, the Flamingo.  They sold it back to Houssels in 1946 for $766,000.  Houssels bought in famed Los Angeles architect, Wayne McAllister, to do a remodel on the hotel.

In 1963, young Jackie Gaughan, who had come to Las Vegas in 1943 when he was stationed at the old Air Base (that would become Nellis).  He moved his wife Roberta and two sons, Michael and Jackie, jr to Las Vegas in 1951.  He bought a small 3% of the Boulder Club and 3% of the Flamingo with partner Eddie BarrickJackie had a knack for sports books and handicapping.  In 1961, he and partner Mel Exber bought the Las Vegas Club and in 1963, they bought the El CortezGaughan hired Wayne McAllister to oversee the design and construction of a new room tower.

Fremont Street back then was the center of town.  The telephone company and Sears were located across the street, JC Penny's was nearby as was Woolworth's and Skaggs.  People came downtown not only to gamble but to shop.  From the beginning the El Cortez was a hit with not only the tourists but locals as well.

Jackie invented the Fun Book, filled with coupons for free drinks, free slot pulls and two for one dinners.  Like Benny Binion, he had a knack for understanding and treating his customers like kings.

Jackie had his ties in downtown real estate from the beginning.  With Kell Houssels, Sam Boyd and others, they opened the Union Plaza.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s while the neighborhood around the El Cortez changed and the local businesses that catered to local shopping moved out to the suburbs, the El Cortez never waivered. 

Jackie sold the El Cortez to family members a few years ago but he still lives in the hotel and can still be seen walking through the casino.  The last few years, the hotel has undergone renovation and upgrades from a new air ventilation/filteration system to the Cabana Suites with its great mid-century modern flair, across the street.

As part of the 70 year celebration, the Flame Restaurant is offering Oysters Rockefeller and Hearts of Palms every Tuesday through Thursday for the rest of the year.

So go downtown and help the El Cortez celebrate 70 years of history and enjoy a taste of classic Las Vegas.

Classic Las Vegas circa 1962

Jeff Altman is a film colorist who recently restored family home movies of a family trip to Las Vegas in 1962.

His grandfather captured the neon and marquees of both Fremont Street and the Strip as well as shots of the old train station and more.

For more on Altman, go here.


Las Vegas 1962 from Jeff Altman on Vimeo.

Las Vegas Memories

The Alpine Village sign in the YESCO boneyard circa 2003.


The Alpine Village Restaurant board (Thanks to Lonnie Hammergren)


Anderson Diary


Andy Anderson as part of the Neon Museum


Aqueduct Building, the Sands Hotel

Bonanza Village ad


Caesars Palace parking lot following a flash-flood.


Caesars Palace brochure cover


Original Caesars entrance


Celebrate Louis Prima's 100th birthday


Hard to believe that Tuesday marks the day that Louis Prima was born 100 years ago.  A renowned bandleader, musician and songwriter (Sing, Sing, Sing) are all well known.

In the 1950s, he teamed with female singer, Keely Smith, and fellow New Orleans sax player, Sam Butera and hit the road.  They lit up theaters and clubs where ever they played.

In Las Vegas, Entertainment Director Bill Miller was working for Milton Prell at the Sahara Hotel with a mandate to bring in customers.  Miller had at one time been the booking agent for Louis Prima

In 1954, Prima called Miller looking for work.  "How would you like a seven-year deal?" Miller asked.  Prima thought it was a good idea and so he and his wife, Keely Smith moved to Las Vegas just before Christmas.  After a few nights of playing the Casbah Lounge, Prima knew their act wasn't working.  Traditionally, the week between Christmas and New Years was a slow time but Prima was afraid that the hotel might cancel their contract if things didn't improve.  He called an old friend and saxophone player in New Orleans.  

"He called me on Dec. 24th and said 'Sam, you want to come to Vegas?' and I said when and he said tomorrow.  I told him it was Christmas and I got my kids and I can't leave on Christmas but I could be there on the 26th.  He said good, see you then."  Sam Butera told me in an interview in 2003.  "I brought along my drummer and my piano player."

The drummer and piano player barely had time to meet Prima and Smith before going on stage that night.  Louis Prima introduced Keely Smith, Sam Butera and the Witnesses.  The audience liked the name and it stuck.  The lounge entertainers performed sets between midnight and 6:00 am, every night.   They rotated generally with a comedian so that there was always entertainment in the lounge.

"And there was no one, ever, in the history of show business, that did the business that this man did from midnight until 6 in the morning. You could not get into that club. That was really one of the biggest things that happened in Vegas," says Miller. "It created people like Shecky Green. All the lounge acts started with Louis Prima." 

Prima, Smith, Butera and the Witnesses kept the joint jumping all night long. 

"We were the hottest act in the world." remembers Butera

"People like Frank Sinatra, Sophie Tucker would be there, 5:00 in the morning,  just to watch this act." remembers Carme, a venerable performer from those by-gone days. 

Performing five shows a night, three half hour shows and two forty five shows, Prima brought his raucous New Orleans style of entertainment to Las Vegas and it made not only them famous but the Sahara became the late-night place to be.

On Tuesday, Dec. 7th, Las Vegas celebrates Louis Prima's birthday with his son, Louis, Jr leading the band:

Louis Prima Jr. is performing a celebration tribute concert in honor of his father, Louis Prima’s 100th Birthday.

Tuesday, December 7 6:30 to 8pm on the First Street Stage at Fremont Street Experience.

The Swingin’ Pedestrians follow with 3 sets from 8 to 11pm.


Last of the Las Vegas Memories

This series has been very popular so I thought we would end the series on an up note:


The pineapple fountain that once graced the front of the Tropicana

Snow day, December 2008

The El Rancho Vegas with its famous pool

Downtown 1955

A slogan that brought thousands for a visit

The original House of Lords rendering, Sahara Hotel


The El Morocco (formerly the Bank of Las Vegas) and Jack Dennison's Copper Cart