Pair-O-Dice Club and Early Las Vegas Strip

In the early 1930s, as the popularity of nightclubs grew in downtown Las Vegas, two casino-nightclubs were built several miles outside of downtown on Highway 91, a site that would later become the Las Vegas Strip. Owners of these early highway casinos, outside the city limits, sought to attract motorists before they arrived downtown.

The first nightclub on the highway was the Pair-O-Dice Club. In 1930, local residents Frank Detra and his wife Angelina purchased land on Highway 91 (also known then as the Los Angeles Highway) and launched the Pair-O-Dice as a private nightclub later that year. As with some other clubs in the Las Vegas area at the time, the Pair-O-Dice was a "speakeasy" that offered alcoholic beverages (illegal during Prohibition) as well as illegal gambling.

After Nevada approved legalized casino gaming in March 1931, the city of Las Vegas and Clark County set up licensing procedures for casino games. Most of the gaming applicants came from establishments that had offered legal poker games on Fremont Street downtown, such as the Las Vegas Club, Boulder Club, and Northern Club. One of the earliest clubs outside of downtown, licensed in April 1931, was The Meadows, on Boulder Highway, a couple of miles south of Las Vegas.

The Pair-O-Dice applied for a casino license, but first the county issued one to a competing nightclub, the Red Rooster, on April 1, 1931. The Red Rooster had opened a year after the Pair-O-Dice, a mile farther south on Highway 91, becoming the first club in the area seen by passing motorists.

On May 5, 1931, the county issued the Pair-O-Dice's manager, Oscar E. Klawitter, a license to run a roulette table, a craps table, and a blackjack table. Weeks later, the club was opened to the public. Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the county permitted the club to serve beer.

The Pair-O-Dice's facade included Spanish-style archways and a two-story, octagonal-shaped entrance with a round, ceramic tiled roof. Inside, the décor included art deco ashtrays, and lamps with dice and playing card patterns. Detra himself was said to have woven the linens used by the restaurant.

Detra's club encountered problems with the U.S. government, which threatened to close it down because of their illegal alcohol sales. But unlike the Red Rooster, the Pair-O-Dice was not raided by federal agents. Throughout most of the 1930s, the Pair-O-Dice was the more successful of the two clubs. It featured gaming, live orchestras, singers, dancing, and Italian food.

Much of the business growth in Las Vegas in the 1930s, although modest compared to the 1940s, can be attributed to the popularity of the Hoover Dam project. Approximately 230,000 people visited Las Vegas in 1933, and 300,000 in 1934, all thanks mainly to the gigantic dam project that took place thirty-five miles south of town.

Other factors that added visitors at the time were the unique attraction of gaming (back then, Nevada was the only state to permit casino gambling), Nevada's easy-divorce law (passed in 1931) and the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. The new infusion of visitor cash into Las Vegas in the 1930s permitted business people to invest into new clubs and hotels.

In 1938, the Detras agreed to sell the Pair-O-Dice to a recent arrival from California, Guy McAfee. McAfee had been a vice squad captain for the Los Angeles police department about twenty years earlier. In the 1920s and 1930s, McAfee ran nightclubs in western Los Angeles.

Most historians consider McAfee the first person to refer to the highway as "The Strip," after figuring that a line of nightclubs would form there, similar to the clubs he had owned frequented along the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

McAfee refurbished the Pair-O-Dice with a fancier décor, based on the Sunset Strip's Hollywood-style clubs. When he opened his new place in 1939, he renamed it the 91 Club, with an eye toward attracting wealthy Southern Californians with its lavish interior, a house orchestra and cheap, multiple-course steak dinners, along with casino gaming.

The El Rancho hotel, considered the Strip's first casino resort, debuted in 1941, about a mile closer to downtown than the 91 Club. Although it would not outlast the Red Rooster, the 91 Club would evolve into the second casino resort on the fledging Las Vegas Strip, when it was selected by R. E. Griffith as the future site of his Hotel Last Frontier.

Griffith liked that the 91 Club site was further south on Highway 91, so travelers from Southern California would see it before the El Rancho. He bought the 91 Club from McAfee in 1941, and Griffith's Hotel Last Frontier was built there in 1942. After numerous reincarnations, the resort known as the New Frontier was imploded in November 2007.

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