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The El Rancho Vegas story

The Hotel El Rancho Vegas, though it existed as a casino resort for less than two decades, nevertheless earned a place in the annals of gaming history.   It was the first full-scale casino resort on Highway 91 south of Las Vegas, a roadway that within ten years of the El Rancho's opening would become known as the Las Vegas Strip.  Though it did not have the glitz or notoriety of other early casinos (most notably, the Flamingo and Desert Inn), it was nonetheless a Strip pioneer.

El Rancho Vegas

When the El Rancho Vegas opened in 1941, Southern Nevada was a very different place.  There were a few isolated gambling clubs on Highway 91, but no full-fledged casino hotels.  Indeed, the idea of the casino resort--an integrated complex containing gaming, lodging, dining, entertainment, and retail facilities, did not yet exist.  Gambling in Nevada, barely a decade since its 1931 re-legalization, mostly took place in gambling halls in Reno, Las Vegas, and other small towns of Nevada.

Thomas Hull, who opened the El Rancho, conceived of his casino as a true destination resort, where all of a guest's needs would be met.  The resort's patrons would be expected to eschew the rough-and-tumble sawdust and spittoon world of Fremont Street (and nearby Block 16, the city's red light district, on the verge of closure anyway) for an elegant, controlled vacation in an enclosed island of green miles from downtown Las Vegas.

The concept was revolutionary, and marked a watershed shift in patterns of American gaming.  The El Rancho was followed by one, then more self-contained resorts on Highway 91.  By the early 1950s, the roadway had developed into the Las Vegas Strip.  

The El Rancho Vegas went through several changes of ownership in the mid1940s before Beldon Katleman, who inherited a share from an uncle, bought out the other shareholders and became the El Rancho Vegas's proprietor of record. Katleman renovated the El Rancho Vegas and it continued its career as a premier Vegas showplace throughout the 1950s. Though it expanded periodically, it never matched the size of new resorts like the Riviera, Tropicana, and Stardust.


Aerial view

Katleman used entertainment to promote his casino, bringing in stars from Yma Sumac to Joe E. Lewis. In the letter to the left, impresario Tom Douglas thanks Katleman for bringing him in to repackage the El Rancho Vegas after its 1952 remodeling. The "revue" idea continues to be popular in casinos across the country today.

Letter to Beldon
Read this open letter to Beldon Katleman.

The El Rancho Vegas was still respected as a quality casino with good accomodations and entertainment when, in a catastrophic blaze, its central structure burned to the ground. Never rebuilt, the casino struggled as a non-casino motel before being purchased by the Hughes Corporation. It was used as a storage facility before being completely leveled. Today, the land where the El Rancho Vegas began the Las Vegas Strip is a vacant lot. As of Fall 2001, construction on a Hilton timeshare on the south edge of the site is proceeding. Sahara owner and Las Vegas icon William Bennett has title to the rest of the site, and it is frequently mentioned as a possible site for a new casino resort.

Whatever is built there will have a significant legacy to build on. Though it ceased operations over forty years ago, the El Rancho Vegas still casts a long shadow along the Las Vegas Strip.

*** Note: In 2007, MGM Mirage purchased the land and subsequently announced plans to build a resort on the parcel as a joint venture with Kerzner International.

The site in 2001

from the sky!

Want to see more?

Read about the Big Fire

To read about the El Rancho Vegas first-hand, see these 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.

Playtown, USA, Katherine Best and Katherine Hillyer
Excerpts from their 1955 Las Vegas tell-all.

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Last modified Thursday, 12-Feb-2009 23:52:28 UTC