El Cortez Hotel-Casino

[VR Morph by Howard Goldbaum.]

When it opened in 1941, the El Cortez Hotel-Casino was considered the finest such establishment in downtown Las Vegas. It was the brainchild of Marion Hicks, who migrated to Las Vegas when authorities shut down Southern California's gambling operations.

The $245,000 resort debuted in November 1941 with restaurants, a floor show, hotel rooms, and as the photo suggests, the ranch-style architecture that had just appeared on the Strip with the El Rancho Vegas, and with the Hotel Last Frontier soon to follow.

As the recent photo shows, little has changed in the hotel's appearance, although a fourteen-story tower out of camera range to the left has expanded the number of rooms to about three hundred and has necessitated the parking garage built behind the property.

The El Cortez's history is colorful and tied to the growth and image of Las Vegas. Hicks and his first partner, John Grayson, ran into financial trouble almost immediately and sold an interest in the resort to Thomas Hull, who had just built the El Rancho Vegas, starting development of the Strip.

By 1945, mobster Bugsy Siegel had taken over the property. Hicks went on to build a Strip property, the Thunderbird, whose hidden owners included Siegel's longtime partner Meyer Lansky. That calls into question just who owned what in the first place, given that another of their allies, Moe Sedway, was in charge of race-wire results for the casino and was listed as one of the El Cortez's buyers. In 1946, Siegel—and whoever else his partners may have been—sold the El Cortez and used the profits to complete the Flamingo.

The El Cortez then entered a period of prosperity and calm. The ownership group included William J. Moore, an architect who owned and ran the Last Frontier, and J. Kell Houssels Sr., a onetime mining engineer who owned and operated several Las Vegas properties, including the Las Vegas Club, the Showboat, and the Tropicana. Such longtime casino executives and owners as Sam Boyd, later the builder of several casinos, and Joe Kelley, who operated the Showboat for a quarter of a century, worked at the El Cortez. Nevada U.S. Senator Pat McCarran often stayed there during his visits to Las Vegas in the 1940s.

Houssels, Moore, and their partners sold the El Cortez in 1963 to Jackie Gaughan, who went on to become perhaps the leading downtown Las Vegas casino operator until the turn of the century. He owned several casinos that concentrated on low prices and giveaways, and his involvement in their management was so deep that he eventually moved into rooms at the El Cortez. In 2002, Gaughan announced that he was selling the El Cortez and three other downtown casinos to Barrick Gaming for $82 million. Barrick ran into financial problems and its silent partner, the Tamares Group, had to step in with additional funding.

Meanwhile, Gaughan continued to live at the El Cortez. The El Cortez had another noteworthy resident, and his presence said a great deal about how Las Vegas used to be. "Fat Irish" Green was an aide and bodyguard for Siegel. Green held onto a briefcase that Siegel gave to him, supposedly full of ill-gotten financial gains. As a reward for his honesty, Green received free room and board.

When Houssels sold the El Cortez to Gaughan in 1963, the new owner asked Green to pay his hotel bill, which had been accumulating for more than fifteen years. Green replied, "I never paid any rent and I don't have to pay any rent." Gaughan then called Houssels and asked him to let Green move to his newer hotel, the Tropicana. Houssels said, "Sorry, he went with the deal." Gaughan then noticed that Green liked to eat four blocks west of the El Cortez at the Horseshoe. He called its operator, Benny Binion, and asked him to provide a room. Binion replied, "I feed Irish for nothin'. You got to keep him at the hotel for nothin'."

Now one of the oldest buildings in downtown Las Vegas, the El Cortez remains a favorite of loyal customers and those who love Las Vegas lore.

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