Center for Gaming Research
UNLVGamingReseach on Facebook UNLVGaming on Twitter
UNLV
banner

George Stamos, from Great Resorts of Las Vegas
The El Rancho Vegas story

Las Vegas Sun reporter George Stamos wrote a series of articles about the classic casino resorts of Las Vegas.  This was the first in the series; it originally appeared on April 1, 1979.

Fire!
The windmill falls

It was a spectacular fire. At 4:50 a.m. on the morning of June 17, 1960, three engine companies, a ladder truck, two pumpers, and a brand-spanking-new $50,000 aircraft crash truck sped with lights blazing and sirens whining to the corner of San Francisco Ave. and the Strip. Their destination: the venerable Hotel El Rancho Vegas.

     By the time the fire engines arrived, the main building of the hotel housing the casino, steak house, shops, and showroom, was almost completely engulfed in flames. Firemen began pouring what was to total over $30,000 gallons of water on the searing inferno, but despite this, and the heroics of the El Rancho Vegas employees who gamely fought off the flames from the surrounding bungalows, the efforts to save the main building and its landmark neon-lighted windmill, were in vain.

     Eyewitnesses, many with tears in their eyes, recalled the toppling of the fifty-foot structure, once one of the best known symbols of Las Vegas gaming and hospitality, as it rapidly turned into a massive pyre of burning woodbeams. The flames finally took their toll, relentlessly eating away at the windmill’s base, sending it careening to the ground, flailing its mock wind vanes in a last, futile gesture for help.

     Clark County Sheriff’s detectives Robert Metler and Conrad Simmons had been two of the first people to notice the smell of smoke and the first hint of flames, almost casually lapping up the backstage of the plush and elegant Opera House theatre. While Metler investigated the blaze in the showroom, Simmons went into the casino, which was sparsely occupied at the time, and informed the patrons of the fire.

     “The place went up awfully fast,” Simmons recalled, “but the evacuation was very orderly.”

     “The fire was very hot,” he added.

     And hot it was. So hot that the next day owner Beldon Katleman displayed to the press a lump of metal that was once a batch of silver dollars. They had been literally fused together by the intense heat. Referring to the approximately $417,000 in coin that was destroyed by the blaze, Katleman sighed and said, “Do you think paper money can do any better?”

     In an effort to rescue as much cash as possible Sheriff W.E. (Butch) Leypoldt and his Under-sheriff, Lloyd Bell, pried open the cavernous walk-in vault with a large crowbar and handed out scorched boxes of money to employees as the flames raged around them.

     Performers Pear Bailey, Phil Ford and Mimi Hines were almost victims of the fire’s onslaught. They were driving in Miss Bailey’s car from Channel 13, then located behind El Rancho. The smoke was so thick that it obscured almost everything, causing the singer to accidentally back her car into a tree in her frantic efforts to escape the flames. Ford, who had been doing a comedy routine at the hotel with wife Mimi, led the Ladies coughing and dazed from the smoke and flames, to safety.

     Betty Grable also felt the sting of loss from the El Rancho blaze. She had been starring at the hotel with a lavish revue and had lost over $10,000 worth of costumes in the fire. She stood outside weeping openly, and watched as the flames leaped higher and higher. Comedian Red Skelton showed up and took numerous photographs of the blaze. People lined the streets, some bringing their children to view the early morning pyrotechnics. Harold Hind, the credit manager for the hotel brought his daughter Sue, now Sue Ostanik, down to watch the sad event.

     “I can picture exactly the way it happened,” she said some years later. “The tower was really burning, then it became just a frame and toppled over. That was the first time I saw my dad cry and he cried like a baby.”

     Many wept that morning, because the El Rancho symbolized so many things about this town: it’s friendliness, its openness, the glamour of top stars, and above all, the pioneer spirit of the first major investors in Las Vegas’ gaming future. It took only an hour for the flames to destroy what for 20 years had stood as the epitomize of the Las Vegas resort industry.

 She was the regal Grande Dame of the desert. She stood proud and aloof, an enchanted oasis in the middle of a seemingly endless tract of sand creosote bushes. Her neon-lighted windmill invitingly beckoned weary travelers on the runed and pot-holed Highway 91 that stretched and curved from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. That windmill was a shining beacon that starkly contrasted with the miles and miles of flat and desolate desert landscape surrounding it. The sign on the tower that held the windmill brightly proclaimed in script resembling the curves of a skilled cowboy’s lariat: “El Rancho Vegas”. And beneath the tower itself was a hacienda to rival the most sumptuous villas of old Mexico.

     El Rancho Vegas was straight out of a Hollywood backlot western. The grounds encompassing the 66 acres were immaculately kept. Bright flowers mingled with broad green lawns and statuesque palm trees. The front of the hotel featured a wide lawn with palms surrounded by a fence made of rough hewn logs placed in the traditional cross-hatch pattern of a spread right out of the Old West. The architecture was predominately “frontier” and “Spanish Mission”. The rustic style was to be found in the main building that housed the casino, restaurants, shops and the numerous bungalows and cottages that encircled the main building. All the of the buildings were white to aid in reflecting the pounding summer heat. Brown shingle roof adorned the main building while the smaller mission-style cottages and red tile roofs. Adding color and a Southwestern flair to the casino building were several multi-colored mosaics inlaid at various points on the outer walls.

aerial
View from above

windmill
The windmill in its glory

    A lush garden atmosphere was carried through out the refreshing and inviting pool area. There, lawn, flowers, and more palm trees were in evidence everywhere. After taking a dip in the turquoise pool, guests could relax on rattan chaise lounges, or have a cool drink on the gaily-decorated verandah, whose canopy was supported by brightly colored Y-shaped beams. Also enhancing the western ambience of the pool area was a sun arbor, a trellis-like structure made of white wooden beams.

     El Rancho also boasted a “Wagon Wheel Tavern” which, according to the neon sign out front, featured old fashioned chuck wagon dinners. This small restaurant went to great lengths to carry out the feeling of the old West by displaying genuine wagon wheels outside the establishment, along with authentic hitching posts.

     The main building of the hotel, on top of which sat the landmark windmill, housed the Stage Door Steak House, A Chuck Wagon buffet, the Nugget Neil Cocktail Lounge, offices, and the Opera House dining room and showroom.

     Just as the windmill was the centerpiece of the hotel’s exterior, the Opera House dominated the interior overshadowing El Rancho’s smallish casino. The rustically-appointed room sat 300 patrons and was the heart of the hotel’s entertainment operations. The walls of the Opera House were of brick and the ceiling was constructed of open wooden beams accented with real wagon wheels suspended like antique chandeliers.

     The tables and chairs were casually arranged surrounding the dance floor, which doubled as the main stage. Tables were set with white linen cloths and a hurricane lamp that was covered by a bell-shaped, stitched leather lampshade. The chairs also carried this stitched leather effect on their backs and seats. To round out the Western atmosphere of the Opera House, there was a wishing well up against one wall, complete with its own bucket.

     The casino minuscule by today’s standards, also reflected the same rough-hewn ambience that had been designed into the Opera House.

     But with all its splendor and rugged charm, El Rancho Vegas did not spring from the parched desert earth like a genie from a magic lamp- its creation was the result of the vision , dreams, and hopes of one man, a genie in his own right: Tommy Hull.

     In the late 1930’s, the Los Angeles Highway was little more than a paved wagon trail that stretched and wound its serpentine way from the shores of the Pacific Ocean through

uncounted miles of forlorn and desolate desert, winding up at the brisk and rarified Citadel of Zion, Salt Lake City. And there was a man, so the story goes, who was once stranded on that highway, just a couple of miles south of the small town of Las Vegas.

     It is said that this man, while waiting to be picked up by an auto mechanic, methodically counted the cars as they passed and marveled at their numbers. And it is further said that this same man gazed upon the desert’s barren expanse and thought that this spot would be a good place to build a motel, or perhaps a hotel, for the weary travelers of Highway 91.

     Thomas Everett Hull was no man’s fool.

     This story of Tommy Hull’s fanciful speculation has been scoffed at by some, but that is of little consequence. For Hull did indeed build his frontier Camelot and with it, he sowed the seeds of Las Vegas Strip. The man with the sparkling eyes, disarming smile, quick, wit, and dapper attire was never one to let little obstacles like miles and miles of barren desert wasteland, get in his way.

     Hull was a colorful man who personified the American spirit of adventure and independence. He tussled  with Pancho Villa’s men during an aborted Mexican mining expedition, walking nearly 600 miles back to U.S. soil on his own, and regularly made and lost large sums of money in several hotel ventures, but ultimately came out on top.

     A theatre in Demming, New Mexico was Tommy Hull’s first business venture, but it was a flop, in spite of his being the sole operator, including running the projector, taking tickets, and sweeping the floors.

     He then operated several hotels in California from the Belleview in San Francisco, to the Mayfair in Los Angeles. His success with the Mayfair allowed him to pay off his creditors and bid for the operation of the Hollywood Roosevelt.

     Famed San Francisco financer  Lou Lurie owned the Roosevelt. He told Hull to keep his money and put him in charge of the hotel. By the end of the 1930’s Hull managed to buy several hotels of his own throughout California, including two that carried the “El Rancho” name, one in Fresno and one in Sacramento.

     Then turning his sights slightly eastward, Tommy Hull began negotiating with Mrs. Jessie Hunt to purchase the tract of land at the corner of Highway91 and San Francisco Avenue (now Sahara Ave.) Mrs. Hunt was relieved to be getting rid of some of that “worthless” property, and after trying to actually GIVE the property to Hull, she accepted a payment of $150 per acre for approximately 33 acres. The site for his third El Rancho, the El Rancho Vegas had been procured.

      Hull then brought in the prestigious Los Angeles architectural firm of McAllister and McAllister, and the first artist’s rendering of the hotel, which closely resembled the finished structure, were completed in April, 1940. (Hull himself assisted in the designing of the main building).

veranda
Veranda and windmill

Finally after months of planning and construction, El Rancho Vegas opened its doors to the public for the first time with a gala celebration on April 3, 1941. The Strip had been born.

Las Vegas music store owner and former bandleader, Garwood Van recalled the bustling excitement that marked the heyday of the El Rancho, making it the first in a long line of Las Vegas hotels that would attract the top names in show business and the top gamblers from across the nation.

     “We had the first production show with Frank Fay and the Ernie Rayburn “El Rancho Starlets,” says Van. “Hull said to me how beautiful Vegas was in the winter, but I said ‘who works Vegas?’ But after being signed for only four weeks, I wound up staying 13 months!

     “The place was jam-packed from the opening night on,” declared Van. “I was absolutely amazed at the number of people that came. Why, Highway91 was so busted up that if you went over 40 miles per hour you’d break an axle.

     “But Tommy was right about the wonderful fall weather, though,” added Van, “because I couldn’t wait to get back.”

     Van remembers that the girls of the chorus line, who were brought in from Hollywood and San Francisco, were all very pretty, with scantily-clad outfits and good figures. The showgirls were not semi-nude, as in today’s productions, but that didn’t stop the young handsome bucks from regularly congregating at El Rancho with the hope of swaying the girls hearts.”

     “Joe Wells, of Wells Cargo, the outfit that hauled supplies and equipment to the Dam and later to Basic Magnesium, used to hand around every darn night,” Van said.

     Business was so good in those days that even being a well-known movie star did not assure one of getting a table at a packed Opera House theatre. Van recalled an instance when the late Wallace Beery and his family, on their way to Los Angeles, stopped at El Rancho for dinner. When Maitre d’ Dorothy Tsouras turned him away from the dining room because it was packed to capacity. Beery reportedly bellowed, “I don’t want to see no Goddamned show, I just want to have dinner!”

     Van, whom Hull had installed as liaison between his office in L.A. and the hotel quickly arranged for Beery family to be served dinner out by the pool.

     “They really loved that,” Van said.

     Van recalls that despite the war years, the hotel prospered. “June, 1942 to June 1943 was the big year,” he said. “We expanded with 60 units for military officers from the Gunnery School at what is now Nellis Air Force Base. There was a ceiling on room charged for the military, but not for anyone else.” We did so much business, Van added, “that R.E. Griffith later bought the Hotel Last Frontier and took half our personnel.”

     In the spirit of the Old West atmosphere, Van himself wore expensive, hand-embroidered western outfits, and the engaging and flamboyant Hull was known to have doffed his tuxedo for his own ten-gallon hat, jeans, and boots and put on a “Howdy Podner” drawl to the delight of his guests.

     And that Western theme, indeed the whole concept of wideopen Western hospitality was carried through even out to the airport, according to Guy Landis, former bass player for Garwood Van’s orchestra.

      Our very format was that “the first impression is a lasting one. That’s why they were flamboyant days,” said Landis.

     “That was our motto,” Landis stressed. “I played off about seven thousand airplanes,” he added, “That airplane came in and we had a bass and accordion screamin’ like gangbusters! And with one hand we’d be shakin’ hands. We wore guns, we were all cowboys.”

     Landis said that making the guests feel both welcome and excited about visiting El Rancho was the most important task of every employee. It was the goal of everyone that guests would have such a wonderful and memorable time they’d be itching to come back.

      “Everything, like the guns, the hats, and the band, was purely something that would make the guy coming in say-“Wow! Look at that!” You could see their faces light up when they came off the plane and heard all the music; it made them feel important. That put the guests in a mood that carried right through. Everyone would be happy when they got to the hotel. Then they’d get them to their rooms. But they’d do it very courteously. Courtesy was great thing. They’d bend over backwards, all these guys.”

     Of course, the point to all of the Western hoopla, which included car fiveaways, chuck wagon brunches, strolling musicians and whatever else the management could think of, was designed to encourage the guests to gamble. And, if a guest happened to lose, it was hoped all the extra attention would keep the patron in such a happy frame of mind that he wouldn’t mind losing that much.

     “After they were in a good mood, that’s where all the music came in and everything else,” said Landis, “ guests were entertained all the time. We even played in aircraft.

The top of my bass was sawed off for that purpose. But that all tied in...because you try to make a gambler, who has lost a lot of money, happy. That’s what they would do.”

      Landis recalled that when guests from a large group or convention, such as Motorola, arrived at El Rancho, management kept up the level of excitement that been started when their plane, or train, or bus first arrived and was met by the hotel band and staff, right up to the time the guests hit the showroom.

     “Then the customer was left alone,” Landis said, “but they didn’t feel like they were being ‘let go’; it was very subtle. It was so loose and flamboyant, even in those days…but it worked. We used to have hotels call us to send our people over there....so we’d share the wealth.”

     Convenience for the patron was a hallmark of El Rancho, said Landis. The hotel pioneered the idea that everything a guest might need should be found on the hotel’s premises, therefore the many shops and even a travel agency, which was a first for Las Vegas, right on the grounds, Mike Cole, of Cole Travel Agency, had one of his first offices at El Rancho, so a guest could make his travel plans, even arrange to return to El Rancho at a future date, without leaving the hotel.

     Entertainment, too, was geared to keeping the gamblers happy and at the hotel El Rancho was the first Las Vegas hotel to use big names to attract crowds and high-rollers. Its celebrity round-up reads like an elite roll-call of the best and most famous personalities of the 1940’s and 1950’s: Sophie Tucker, Joe E. Lewis, Peggy Lee, Zero Mostel, Guy Lombardo, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Jackie Gleason, Jimmy Durante, Nat King Cole, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Eartha Kitt, Kay Starr, Sammy Davis Jr., with the Will Mastin Trio, the Williams Brothers with Andy Williams, and the Ritz Brothers, to mention but a few, made El Rancho THE place to play, to mingle, and to be seen. Hollywood and New York had indeed met in Las Vegas at El Rancho.

      Entertainment here was of a different style in the ‘40’s and 50’s. As Landis, who was behind the scenes as a musician, explained, “The apron of the stage was a regular dance floor. At that time we had several acts, chiefly comprised of a magician, a dance act, a comedian and puppeteers.”

     “It’s not like it is today,” added Landis, “after the show, they had a little dancing. The dining room would open up about 6 o’clock and you could stay in there all night if you wanted to.”

     “The original band,” noted Landis, “I believe, and I’m not too sure on the name, was Jay Widen’s. Then there was Garwood Van.”

      There were magic moments of entertainment history written at El Rancho. Joe E. Lewis, who was the hotel’s host and top comedian, would ‘hold court’ til the wee hours of morning, his acerbic, barbed tongue keeping everyone in stitches.”

signage
View of the El Rancho Vegas's sign from the roof of the Thunderbird casino, early 1950s.

“The thing that impressed me the most,” Landis fondly recalled, “was when Joe E. Lewis would close his show—it was always on a two week basis or thereabouts-all the entertainers would join in. Sophie Tucker, or whoever would be in town, and sometimes they’d fly them in, and they’d have the greatest shoe on the face of the earth! This would go on until maybe four o’ clock in the morning, impromptu. Ted Fio Rito would be up there playing the piano with Austin Mack; the thing was to keep it going..they’d have Milton Berle and all those stars come in, throwing their lines back and forth. Joe E. Lewis would say, “Now I want to introduce you to the Judy Garland of the Stone Age, Miss Sophie Tucker!” People would be layin’ on the floor, and me too,” Landis added.

     With the opening of the Last Frontier Hotel, just a mile down the road from the El Rancho, Tommy Hull began to get worried about maintaining the hotel’s financial stability. Things had indeed been rocky the first couple of years, with a turnover of 13 managers and Hull’s absentee ownership (he lived in L.A. and commuted to Las Vegas periodically) not aiding the situation , R.O. Cannon, El Rancho’s auditor and later its manager, suggested that it was perhaps time to get out.

     Hull heeded the advice and sold the hotel to Joe Drown, an associate of Conrad Hilton. After that first transaction, El Rancho passed through several owners, including Sid Barrish and Wilbur Clark.

     The short lived ownership merry-go-round ceased in 1947 when a young adventuresome and energetic entrepreneur by the name of Beldon Katleman inherited the hotel from his uncle, Maurice Katleman. Beldon, who brought in noted much of the hotel, giving each cottage its own style, emphasizing a modified French Provincial motif. He expanded the casino and Opera House Theatre. At the time Katleman took over, El Rancho consisted of 22 buildings with 144 rooms which included the government quarters. (By the time of the 1960 fire, Katleman had expanded the hotel to 69 buildings with a total of 220 rooms.)

     It was Katleman, then who guided El Rancho through its heyday, carrying forth and enlarging upon the traditions of courtesy and “big name” entertainment that Tommy Hull had inaugurated.

     It was Katleman who arranged for the private wedding there of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman on January 29,1958. At the time, Newman and Woodward had not reached the heights of Hollywood stardom and the El Rancho staff had to be advised of their status in a series of memos from the publicity and promotions office. One of the memos read: “Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, Hollywood motion picture personalities, will be married at the bungalow of Mr. Beldon Katleman…EVERYTHING COMPLIMENTARY, PER BK.” Two other memos, sent out by publicist Gert Nolan, requested a wedding cake suitable for 8 to 10 people with the traditional bride and groom figures and the names ‘Joanne and Paul’ as well as champagne, hors d’oeuvres and Katleman’s favorite brand of vodka: Zabrfka.

     Beldon Katleman was cut from the same cloth as Tommy Hull. He was a vigorous and determined man who reveled in running his own enterprises. When the death of Maurice put him in the operation as on of the owners of El Rancho, Katleman subsequently bought other investors our and assumed full control of the hotel.

     According to Paul Ralli, and author and contemporary of Katleman's, he was somewhat of a child prodigy. Katleman, Ralli states in his book “Viva Vegas,” was able to solve complex mathematical problems at the age of seven. He described Katleman as “a man who..typifies the Atomic Age: relentless urge, overflowing imagination, bubbling ideas.” Ralli also said of Katleman that he was “..throwing overboard old-fashioned concepts, and does things at which older men hesitate and hedge and dilly-dally.”

     Katleman was also a man of eccentricities and quirks, as Ralli points out. For instance, he never signed many contracts, even with highly paid stars. He was also sentimental, turning over the Royal Suit to a visiting couple from his home town of Sioux City Iowa when he heard they were staying at his hotel. The people form Iowa never did find out why they were given the red carpet treatment.

Congratulations
Beldon Katleman (R) watches as another happy couple cuts the cake at the El Rancho Vegas.

     As firemen doused the last smoldering embers of El Rancho, little did they or anyone else realize that the fire would cause a legal conflagration in the coming years.

     First reports, immediately after the fire, were that Katleman planned to rebuild El Rancho in an even grander style than it once was.

     As it turned out, however, the hotel was never rebuilt and the property became a motel operation that was a mere shell of its former self. It was this dismal situation that prompted Katleman to put El Rancho up for sale in the late 1960’s.

     Howard Hughes quickly seized the opportunity and negotiated a $7.5 million deal for it. Katleman originally agreed to the terms and accepted $2.7 million in earnest money from the Hughes organization. Another $4.6 million was put in escrow at that time, pending completion of the deal.

     But before that happened , he changed his mind and demanded more money. The litigants spent two years , from 1968 to 1970, in Judge Howard Babcock’s District Court chambers battling over the intricacies of the original agreement. Katleman’s attorneys attempted to sway Babcock into dismissing the Hughes suit by claiming that Hughes had a “stranglehold” on the Las Vegas tourist trade and that acquisition of the hotel and property was illegal under the Sherman Anti-Trust law. Babcock didn’t buy this argument.

     Eventually, on May 20, 1970, Hughes and Katleman settled out of court, with Hughes agreeing to pay Katleman $1 million over the previously agreed to price for the hotel. Katleman’s 23-year reign as sole owner of El Rancho was thus brought to a close. He went out like the proverbial lamb after his lion-like entrance on the Las Vegas gaming scene nearly a quarter of a century before.

     Now the El Rancho property sits vacant, a forlorn and weed-infested monument to what was once the colorful and lively first great resort in a long line of dazzling Strip establishments. Parts of the remaining structures on the acreage were carted off to “Old Vegas” (now West World), the Old West amusement park outside of Henderson. The rest of the buildings crumble under the hot desert sun.

     Where once starlets frolicked and Eastern cowboys flirted with Dame Fortune, now lizards and tumbleweeds cavort and play. Few newcomers to Las Vegas are aware of the importance that piece of vacant land once held. But those who lived here when the Queen still reigned supreme in the early days of the Strip will affectionately recall the Western grace and splendor.

     El Rancho Vegas was the first, and she will never be forgotten.

Back to the El Rancho Vegas story

More literary artifacts:

"The El Rancho Vegas Hotel, 1949," William Saroyan
The famous author's account of his stay at the property.

"Playtown USA ," Katherine Best and Katherine Hillyer
The famous author's account of his stay at the property.


Follow UNLVgaming on Follow unlvgaming on Twitter Twitter and UNLVGamingResearch on Facebook

© 2016 University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Do not copy or reuse without permission.


Last modified Thursday, 12-Feb-2009 15:55:50 PST