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Best and Hillyer, from Las Vegas: Playtown USA
The El Rancho Vegas story

In their 1955 work Las Vegas, Playtown USA, Katherine Best and Katherine Hillyer described a tourist's view of Las Vegas in the early 1950s. Here are a few excerpts that concern the El Rancho Vegas.

The two Katherines
Best and Hillyer, 1955

Meet Las Vegas

El Rancho Vegas... was built by Tom Hull, of the Hull Hotel System, in 1940 [sic], the pioneer of many cathederals of chance that now embroider the Strip. It was the first offering of de luxe hospitality by anyone in the environs, and almost from its moment of opening pointed clearly to the garden path up which Vegas would dance in the postwar years.

By contrast with the unexciting hostelries of the 1930s, El Rancho seemed so tony in the eyes of its owners that it scared them. Would dust-stained travelers feel out of place in all this splendor? Would they bypass El Rancho in favor of surroundings less apt to make them feel like bumpkins at Biarrtiz? Hastily El Rancho broadcast greetings to "come as you are!" These reassuring words solved everything. At one eight o-clock dinner show a gentleman turned up in a bib overall.

Actually the decor of El Rancho was simple Western ranch style, with the casino and restaurants housed in one building, guest cottages scattered over a vast acerage of green grass. It has since, so present owner Beldon Katleman avers, been remodeled in French provinical styel, which, properly interpreted, means there's now a lot more room for slot machines, crap tables, and roulette.

Fancier ultramodern places have been built, but El Rancho maintains its charm--not the least of it being that it is in essence a glorified motel, and motels are the love of the American traveler.... [pp9-10]

Start of the Strip

Other years (c. 1940) saw other near ventures, but never did Las Vegas see a completed resort hotel until 1940 when hotel man Tom Hull and a friend were driving from Las Vegas down the now-paved Highway 91 towards Los Angeles. On the edge of city limits, Mr. Hull had a flat tire, and while his friend hitchhiked beck into town for help, Mr. Hull stoof on the highway and counted the cars. An hour of this and he became convinced that the mesquite and sage-stippled fright of a desert behind him was a mighty wholesome spot for a luxury hotel.

As you know, the result was El Rancho Vegas, that hacienda-type establishment consisting of a caisno nestled in the center of a cultivated desert, a dining room, a fringe of sixty-five guest rooms stretching off westward, a swmming pool, and row upon row of luxorious cottages dotting lawns that soak up 10,000,000 gallons of water a month. This greenery is worht some $10,000 an acre today. Mr. Hull paid $5,000 for the whole cacti kaboodle of it in 1940. His palsy, "Howdy, podner, come as you are" invitation was obeyed by gambling-hungry, luxury-craving droves, from downtown Las Vegas, from Boulder, from California, from Arizona, from Texas, from Utah, from everywhere. [pp 60-61]

Joe E. Lewis and Lili St. Cyr

Joe E. Lewis, in between performances and sessions at the crap tables, is at home in one of the splendid little bungalows that grace the El Rancho Vegas premises. Joey's domestic routine is fairly stylized. He, in his own words, gets up at the first crack of ice, orders a scratch sheet, a racing form, a cup of coffee for breakfast, lolls around the bungalow until he falls asleep, then has steak, peas, and a kind word for dinner. The kind word comes from the waiter, who, like everybody at the El Rancho, adores the furrow-faced comedian. Beldon Katleman, the hotel's owner, was once heard to state that he wouldn't mind if Joe E. set fire to the place--it would only mean that the dear boy was chilly. Geri Nolan, the hotel's publicist, calls him "Junior" and spends six months a year forwarding his mail.

Joe himself says he begins feeling more at home when he walks on stage and, as part of his act, snakes a drink out of the hands of the nearest spectator. He "ignores" the between-acts period. Then, after the supper show, he moves in on one of the crap tables and gets right down to feeling completely at home. One night, after a particularly rough session with a highly uncommunicative pair of dice, he walted disconsolately away from the table saying, "Next year I'm going to work in blinkers."

Joey frequently chares billing in his Las Vegas shows with a pliable blonde named Lili St. Cyr, a stripper de luxe who appears on stage in such radiant undress that audiences are rendered not only speechless but gaspless. Her appeal is particularly demonstrated by the finale of an act called "Bird in a Gilded Cage," in which she soars out over the audience in a gilded cage dropping beaded panties, frilly garters, and sequined bras on the hands-outstretched spectators below. It is not what anyone conceivably could call a domestic-type act, and nobody could have been more startled than Miss St. Cyr herself when she began getting letters from women asking for instructions on how to make "those darling panties and bras." As a matter of fact, there have been so many requests of this type that she has established a lingerie-manufacturing company in California called Lili St. Cyr Unmentionables, Inc. "Now there are not many women," she says, "faced with the problem, as I am, of getting out of underthings in one second flat, but business is good, and I am not going to allow it to mystify me." [pp. 73-75]

Fanciful Press Agentry

Social directors keep the little women and the kiddies happy while daddy loses his sport shirt at the crap table.

The position of social director is new to Las Vegas, a post created rather flamboyantly a while back by a young woman named Bunny Ehrenberg, who came out to El Rancho Vegas from New York City to get a divorce. Mrs. Ehrenberg was so gay and charming around El Rancho's swimming pool that when her six weeks were up, owner Beldon Katleman urged her to stay on as social director at a reputed $10,000 a year. Nothing culd have pleased Bunny Ehrenberg--now Bunny Schloss--more. She loved the West. She loved Las Vegas. She loved being gay and charming around the swimming pool. And she could use the $10,000.

The scene now shifts to New York City, where El Rancho's New York press representative is trying to sell the idea of a Strip hotel director to a national magazine as a picture feature. "It's a lulu for glamour," he proclaimed to the editors. When they did not seem especially overcome with the idea, he began to gild the lulu.

"She's known as the Golden Girl," he extemporized. "Works at a gold desk, uses a gold telephone. Rides in a golden Cadillac. Hands out gold swizzle sticks to drinkers...."

"Yeah," said the editors, perking up.

"Yeah," said the press agent. "She..." and on and on he went.

By the time he concluded, no one could blame the editors for falling for the story. It sounded glamorous and exclusive and thoroughly Las Vegan, and they bought it. Then the press agent called El Rancho with the glad tidings. In the excitement he didn't go into details, only that Miss Schloss should appear as soon as possible in New York with a gold evening dress so that preliminary pictures might be taken on her home stomping grounds being social with Broadway personalities on TV and what not. Nobody can blame the delight that swept over El Rancho at the thought of getting a spread in a national magazine, delight enlivened with laughter and tempered with mystification over the fact that their Golden Girl was the darkest brunette, and aside from her recently discarded wedding ring was not unusually endowed with gold habiliments. So they packed Bunny off to New York, equipped with a gold lame' evening dress, and laughed some more. This was money for jam.

Miss Schloss arrived back in Las Vegas one jump ahead of an editor and photographer. She was breathless. Also, she now had a gold streak in her hair and gold-tipped eyelashes.

"I don't know exactly what golden tricks our press agent magazine," she reported tensely, "new things kept coming up. But I do know this much. He said I rode around in a golden Cadillac and worked at a golden desk and used a golden telephone. What are we going to do? The magazine people arrive tomorrow."

She added that her eyelashes hurt. The editor in charge of the story had insisted she get a gilt hair- and lash-do.

El Rancho management swung into action. A Cadillac was borrowed from the town's dealer, James Cashman, and sprayed with a rich, sticky gold. A knotty pine desk became a Cinderella sunburst overnight. Ditto a telephone. By moming everybody was too tired to be nervous. Miss Schloss drove out to the airport in the golden Cadillac to greet the editor and photographer and all went well due to careful herding of the visitors into the still-wet painted car. Back at the hotel Miss Schloss posed for pictures at her golden desk and except for the fact that she couldn't get the paint-stuck drawers open and didn't dare pick up the glistening telephone, this particular photographic chore went off successfully. And then:

"Where are your gold jeans?" the editor inquired. "We'd better get some outdoor Western shots of you in them."

Bunny Schloss was, fortunately, on her recently painted golden toes. "They're-they're at the cleaners," she stammered.

That night El Rancho's wardrobe mistress sat up until dawn stitching little bright yellow sequins all over a pair of blue jeans.

That morning Miss Schloss's patience began to slip. She discovered that the magazine thought the name Shaw would be more glamorous than Schloss, and she didn't like that one bit. Her eyelashes stung. And the sequined jeans were too small. Furiously she declined to don them until the wardrobe mistress threatened to quit. "After I've spent the whole night sewing itsy-bitsy gold so-and-so's on them things," she roared, "you're going to wear'em!"

Wardrobe mistresses are hard to come by. Miss Schloss was crammed into the sparkling pants and spent as much of the day as possible standing up. Probably her finest hour came when she swung one seemingly cement-encased leg over a horse and sat with stomach pulled back to spine long enough for gay pictures of her cantering across the desert to be taken.

The net result was that the photographs were stunning and made a splendiferous feature for the magazine and a handsome addition to El Rancho's publicity album, but folks around the hotel can't to this day look at them without shuddering. Nor can they bear the sight of James Cashman cruising about town in his returned Cadillac. Mr. Cashman liked his gilded job so much he just kept it that way. As for Golden Girl, she quit her job the week the magazine hit the stands. [pp. 107-110

Back to the El Rancho Vegas story

More literary artifacts:

"The Hotel El Rancho Vegas," George Stamos
A full retelling of the hotel's history.

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

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Last modified Thursday, 12-Feb-2009 15:38:40 PST