History of the El Rancho Las Vegas
El Rancho Las Vegas First Opened April 3, 1941
The first resort on the Strip began as an idea in 1938 when Tommy Hull's
car broke down in front of a vacant lot right next to the Las Vegas City
Limits. The desert was blistering hot and while Hull was waiting for help,
he couldn't stop thinking about how wonderful it would be to jump into a
nice pool. He then proceeded to build a resort with a pool on the vacant
lot. The idea of adding a casino was actually an afterthought.
Hull was in the hotel business owning eight including the San Francisco
Bellevue, Los Angeles Mayfair, Hollywood Roosevelt, and Sacramento Hotel
Senator. Hull wanted was to have all the luxuries of resorts built into
motels and auto courts. He then started naming these new types of resorts
"El Rancho," including El Rancho Fresno and El Rancho Sacramento.
On April 3, 1941, the El Rancho Las Vegas opened on 57 acres of land with a
simple sign lifted on stone pillars advertising the new resort. A neon-lit
windmill was located on top of the casino. "Stop at the Sign of the
Windmill" was one of its slogans. Added was a gas station to encourage
people to stop. A white wooden fence ran alongside the highway; the pool
was visible behind a wood trellis palms, and shrubs. The grounds featured a
waterfall running over native rock.
A sprawling wagon-train ring of one story Yosemite style cabins housed 63
rooms but later added 47 more. It was rustic & friendly, sort of a dude
ranch, complete with riding stables. Named the "Village", El Rancho catered
to families. Each cottage could be reached by driving through carefully
paved and lighted streets, and had its own well-tended lawn, a shaded
porch, and all the comforts of home with well-equipped kitchens and every
possible combination of living-dining-bedroom suites. The property
contained badminton courts, dinner dancing, and an outdoor barbecue serving
the terrace. The Chuck Wagon Buffet had seating for 250 people and was
the largest in town.
El Rancho maintained its own laundry facilities on the premises and a staff
of 15 worked to iron shirts with a promise to have them back to the guest
within six hours. Ten gardeners worked the year round keeping up the
grounds. El Rancho used as much as 10 million gallons of water a month in
the dry summer periods.
The El Rancho had its own cruiser which was located on Lake Mead that
guests could charter for fishing or boating.
Stars showcased at the resort included Pearl Bailey, Lita Baron, John and
June Belmont, Milton Berle, Ben Blue, famous stripper Lili St. Cyr, Billy
Daniels, Jim Di Stephano, Katherine Dunham, The Dunhills, Paul Gardos, Lena
Horne, Guy Landis, Joe E. Lewis, Lenny Maxwell, Chuy Miranda, Benny Payne,
Harry Richman, Andy Russell and Della, Bill Skipper, Ann Southern, Sophie
Tucker, and Rudy Vallee.
The resort hosted the weddings of Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence, Paul
Newman and Joanne Woodward, and Bud Abbott's daughter Vici and Donald Wheeler.
On January 16, 1942, the El Rancho became a place of mourning for Clark
Gable and his long-time friend Spencer Tracy. One of Howard Hughes' TWA
planes carrying Gable's wife, Carole Lombard, left the small Las Vegas
Airport with 15 United States Army pilots to campaign for savings bonds.
The plane had crashed in Mt. Potosi killing all aboard. Gable was in Los
Angeles when he heard the news, and he and Tracy went to Las Vegas to claim
her body. It is rumored that Gable spent the entire time at the El Rancho
pacing his room.
Hull subsequently sold the resort and it had many owners including Joe
Drown, and Wilbur Clark. The last owner was Beldon Katleman.
Betty Grable and her husband, band leader Harry James, were on the stage in
the cocktail lounge in an ad lib comedy routine with Dave Burton, lounge
entertainer, on June 17, 1960, when a blaze erupted. Grable, spotted the
flames, gasped and ran out with her husband through a side door.
No one was injured in the fire but all that was left of the central
building after more than two hours of burning was a charred shell. Damage
was estimated at $5,000,000. Rumors stated it was arson but in July of
1960, two sheriff's deputies on the scene believed the fire started in the
dressing rooms close to the kitchen and spread from there. Katleman had
promised that he would replace the existing resort with an ultra-modern
concrete building. The rest of the buildings were razed shortly
thereafter. Katleman's dream was never built. It remained an empty lot,
across the street from the Sahara Hotel & Casino.
Howard Hughes bought the property in 1970, then visionary Bill Bennett of
Circus Circus/Mandalay fame purchased it. In May of 2000, Hilton Hotels
Corporation placed a 10 acre land parcel under contract. The rest of the
property is under speculation and remains deserted.
More detailed information can be found at www.lvstriphistory.com