In the 1930s, Las Vegas was a hot, barren place in a big Nevada desert. The locals did have some diversions, such as Lake Mead (after Boulder/Hoover Dam was built), but not much else. There was a train that stopped at Union Plaza at Fremont Street and a few casinos like the Golden Nugget in the downtown area. There had been plenty of gaming, prostitution, and drinking, even when all were illegal, and Nevada was the first state to legalize open gaming in 1931.
US Highway 91 (often called the LA highway) ran from long Beach, California, to the Nevada state line and then off to Salt Lake City, Utah. People rarely planned to stay in Las Vegas, but it was on an accessible route east. And, there were restaurants and gas stations.
Although the exact nature of how the Las Vegas Strip came into being is slightly muddied, it evolved along a route from the state line to the downtown area. And since downtown already had plenty of casinos and little space to grow, Thomas E. Hull and James Cashman put their plans and money together to build the very first large hotel on what became the fabulous Vegas Strip.
According to Hull, during the summer of 1938, he had a blowout along the highway just a few miles from downtown and emerged from his car sweating profusely and wishing for a swimming pool, but all he saw was sand and sagebrush.
Hull was a hotelier, who built and managed eight hotels including the El Rancho Sacramento, and the El Rancho Fresno in California. He wondered if Vegas could handle another hotel, and during a later trip to LasVegas, he met Jesse Hunt and purchased 57 acres of scrub-patch land for $6,000, or just over $100 per acre. She told him to forget his hotel idea.
Hull's idea for a new resort started with the largest pool in the state. Something that everyone driving by the property could see. With the help of local car dealer James Cashman and some Texas businessmen, he hired LA architect Wayne McAllister to design a resort similar to the ones he had helmed for Hull's other El Rancho hotels.
Building the El Rancho Vegas
Built by Midstate Construction Company of Fresno, California, Hull's dream came to fruition on April 3, 1941, at 2500 Las VegasBoulevard. At the time, the land was in an area known as Winchester, Nevada, on LVB, and Sahara Avenue.
The property eventually included 160 acres with 110 rooms and cost $475,000 to build. As a resort, it featured a Chuck Wagon buffet, small paved and lighted streets, and individual bungalows, each with a tiny front porch and grass. Also on the property was a showroom theatre. Plus, that big beautiful pool.
The El Rancho Vegas was a tiny city unto itself. There were hayrides, horseback riding, and an all-over western theme. There was a laundry facility with a staff of 15 who worked around the clock so guests would have clean linens and could get their shirts and trousers ironed within six hours.
The Saturday Evening Post said, "The Rancho somehow has managed to make the riveter, the carpenter and the truck driver at home in overalls in the same rooms with men and women in smart sports clothes, with an eloping Lana Turner posing for news photographs."
Almost as an afterthought, Hull included a tiny casino area with two blackjack tables, a roulette wheel, a craps game, and seventy slot machines. The casino itself became a bone of contention over the next decade as several groups of "owners" were licensed. Some paid their taxes; others didn't, skimming away the profits, even when (as in WilburClark's case) they were to have paid a fee to Hull of 10% of the gaming win.
New Owners at the El Rancho Vegas
In late 1944, William Wilkerson, editor of the Hollywood Reporter, decided that the only way for him to stop losing so much money playing craps in Las Vegas was to own a casino. He leased the El Rancho Vegas for $50,000 a month in December and planned to open his own casino across the Strip with his winnings. The idea worked was good, his execution failed.
Wilkerson made money at the El Rancho Vegas but burned through it at lightning speed at the El Cortez downtown. In another story, Wilkerson did begin construction of what became the Flamingo Hotel. Still, he never really owned the property as "Bugsy" Siegel, and the Mob stole it away and turned his dream into a nightmare.
At the El Rancho Vegas, new property owner Joe Drownsold the whole kit-n-caboodle for $1.5 million to LA businessman Walter Guzzardi. Still, lawsuits and unsuited casino owners led to ownership by Beldon Katleman. Katleman died in an auto accident in 1947 and the property passed to his nephew, Jake Katleman.
Jake, greatly influenced by the posh and sophisticated new Flamingo casino, spent $750,000 upgrading the property to have a French provincial theme with a Parisian cabaret show. Those shows turned to risqué stripper acts featuring the likes of Lili St. Cyr and less spicy Hollywood-star shows with entertainers like Betty Grable, Jimmy Durante, Buddy Hackett, and Joe E. Lewis.
Going Down in Flames
The 1950s at El Rancho Vegas ended with a bang as headliner Candy Barr (a stripper) was arrested by the FBI when the US Supreme Court rejected her appeal of a marijuana conviction. The following summer, on June 17, 1960, the El Rancho Vegas’s main building caught fire. The flames eventually engulfed the Chuck Wagon buffet, the Stage Door Steak House, and the Opera House dining room and showroom. Fortunately, there were no deaths, but folks on The Strip watched as the old windmill structure and sign fell into the scorched remnants of the casino and offices.
Just a day before, Marshall Caifano, a Mob enforcer who ran the Chicago Outfit's clubs in Las Vegas, was on the property, demanding as usual, that he be provided free rooms and meals so he had a place to go with the showgirls he strong-armed into one-night stands. This time, however, the casino manager refused his request. Caifano screamed that Katleman would be sorry if he didn’t get what he wanted.
Fire officials never ruled out foul play, but no accelerants were found in the smoking debris. Responsible or not (probably), Caifano was placed in the Nevada Gaming Control Board's black book of individuals barred from entering the state's casinos, as entry number one. He was later replaced as Las Vegas enforcer of Chicago's rules by Tony "The Ant" Spilotro.
Jake Katleman planned on rebuilding, but it never happened. He took his insurance settlement and moved to California where things were safer. What was left of the property, a non-gaming motel, was sold to Howard Hughes for $8.5 million. After some of the remaining buildings were moved to Old Vegas - an amusement park near Henderson, Nevada, - the Thunderbird, which had been renamed the Silverbird Hotel was again renamed, this time as the El Rancho Hotel and Casino. Yes, the name caused a little confusion.
The old land site sat vacant until the Hilton Grand Vacations Club opened in 2004. It deserved better as the first real hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip, but Vegas is a hard town that passes no judgment and offers little remorse.