El Rancho ~ Vegas
Highway 91
Apr 3, 1941 to Jun 17, 1960
El Rancho Hotel
Photo from the Mark Englebretson Collection
El Rancho Hotel
Photo from the Rick Olsen Collection
El Rancho Hotel
Photo from the Rick Olsen Collection

Mike Klackle
Grade 2

Chris Hedrick
Grade 2

Tony Gonzales
Grade 2

Eric Mensch
Grade 2

Lance Robertson
Grade 2

Mark Englebretson
Grade 2

Mark Wallner
Grade 2

Richard Greeno
Grade 2

The first hotel on the strip
In the 1930's there was no Las Vegas "Strip". Las Vegas was a railroad town built to house the railroad workers and their families. The clubs, casinos, stores, schools, hotels, professional offices were all downtown.

Highway 91 (now the strip) went from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, passing through Las Vegas. Scattered along the highway, leading into Las Vegas, were some small clubs, but they were few and far between.

As the legend goes...in 1938 Tommy Hull and a friend were driving along Highway 91. They were a few miles out of Las Vegas when they got a flat tire. Tommy waited with the car while his friend hitchhiked into town to get help. While waiting, Tommy counted the cars that passed him on the highway, and began to get an idea. Highway 91 was a long stretch of road through a hot, dusty desert. There were alot of cars on the highway, and Tommy thought there were plenty of weary travelers, in the cars, who would enjoy a place to stop and relax. Tommy owned hotels in California, so it didn't take much for him to begin to envision a hotel, a swimming pool, and tall cool drinks...an oasis in the desert.

A man of action, Tommy checked on the possibilities and decided that some land on the corner of San Francisco Avenue (now Sahara), and Highway 91 would be a great place for his new hotel. Mrs. Jessie Hunt owned the property, and Tommy began negotiations with her. Mrs. Hunt felt the property was worthless. She offered to give it to Tommy, just to get rid of it! She finally accepted payment of $150 per acre, for about 32 acres.

After months of planning and construction, El Rancho Vegas opened on April 3, 1941. Having seen the beautiful resort while it was being built, Las Vegans dressed in their finest attire to attend the gala opening. Wanting a comfortable and friendly atmosphere in his hotel, Tommy appeared at the grand opening in cowboy boots and blue jeans! He greeted his guests with a friendly "howdy" and invited them to come in anytime, and "come as you are."

The original resort-hotel consisted of a small casino, a dining room, and 65 hotel rooms. Later in 1941 came the first of several expansions. Many rows of individual cottages were built each with its own lawn and well-equipped kitchen. Each cottage was reached by driving down paved, well lighted streets. This was called the Village.

The amenities:
  • El Rancho Vegas was a man made oasis. A staff of ten gardeners worked year round, using as much as ten million gallons of water a month, to keep the lawns and landscaping lush.

  • There were saddle trails on the grounds for horse back riding.

  • There was a swimming pool, with plenty of lounge chairs for year-round sunbathing. Food and beverage service was available poolside.

  • Sportsmen could rent boats at Lake Mead for fishing, water-skiing, or cruising. Later the ERV had its own cruiser on the lake.

  • All rooms were air conditioned, and each had a private bath.

  • There was a 24-hour service station on the property.

  • Guests could try their luck at the ERV casino.

  • The ERV was the only strip hotel with on-site laundry service. A staff of 15 was available to perfectly iron a shirt, and have it back to the guest within 6 hours.

  • Guests were advised to bring their play clothes, yachting togs, boots and spurs, swim suits, sunsuits, blue jeans, five-gallon Stetsons, and bandanas. "Spontaneous sports and games are organized by the Social Director for your enjoyment."

    After a couple years, Tommy sold the El Rancho Vegas, in the first of many ownership changes for the hotel. Some of the owners included Joe Brown, Wilbur Clark and Jake and Beldon Katelman.

    Like Tommy Hull, Beldon Katelman was a man of ideas and action. Before long he had bought out his partners, and had full control of the ERV. He brought in designer Tom Douglas, from Los Angeles, and the ERV underwent a major renovation. Each bedroom and cottage received its own design, and was furnished with modified French provincial furnishings.

    The rustic Round Up Room was transformed into the Opera House Theater and Restaurant, considered by many to be the most beautiful entertainment venue in town. It seated 300 patrons and was the heart of the hotel's entertainment operations. The Opera House had brick walls and an open beamed ceiling. Tables and chairs were arranged surrounding the dance floor, which doubled as the main stage.

    The resort idea was to provide a complete package for its guests, so they never had to leave the property. When they weren't gambling, or enjoying the sports that were offered, there was entertainment offered at the Opera House. ERV was the first to use big names to attract crowds and high rollers. One of the entertainers who was regularly featured at the ERV was stripper Lili St. Cyr. In a unique twist, Lili would step out of the bath and would dress leisurely in front of the audience. Other regulars included Joe E. Lewis, Sophie Tucker, Austin Mack, Eartha Kitt, Buddy Rich, and the Ritz Brothers. Additionally they had the scantily clad girls of the chorus line. All of which was a far cry from the sawdust joints downtown.

    Alas, all good things must come to an end. The El Rancho Vegas was past its prime. New resorts that were "bigger and better" were built on the Strip, including the Sahara directly across the strip from the ERV. Travelers from Los Angeles encountered the newer places before they reached the ERV. But...the El Rancho Vegas was still hanging in there.

    Then, in the wee hours of the morning of June 17, 1960, three engine companies, a ladder truck and two pumpers with lights flashing and sirens screaming arrived at the El Rancho Vegas. By the time they arrived, the main building, which housed the casino, shops, restaurants and showroom was engulfed in flames.

    It was the end of the first resort on the strip.

    The origin of the fire wasn't positively determined, though arson was suspected. There were those that said the fire was fortuitous for Beldon Katelman. Immediately after the fire, it was announced that the El Rancho Vegas would be rebuilt and that it would be bigger and better than ever. That never happened.

    In 1970 Howard Hughes bought the property, which remained vacant for many years.

    If you'd like to see what the El Rancho Vegas looked like in her heyday, find a copy of the movie, "Las Vegas Shakedown." It was filmed at the resort in 1955, and its fun to watch from a "historical Las Vegas" standpoint.

    First published in the Casino Chip and Token News Magazine, Volume 20, Summer 2007 issue.

    Casino Chip and Tokens News is the official publication of The Casino Chip and Gaming Token Collectors Club, Inc.

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