Hotel Histories

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.

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