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80 years after opening, El Cortez going strong in downtown Las Vegas

Updated November 6, 2021 - 7:47 am

A beloved place is less about the building people enter than it is about the memories they carry with them when they leave.

El Cortez owner Kenny Epstein knows that his hotel-casino means something to people. Las Vegas’ oldest continually operating hotel-casino has seen eight decades worth of memories, guests and players pass through its doors.

“They see what we’ve done with it, and they appreciate it because we’re doing it for them,” he said. “If we don’t do it for our customers, they’re gonna go someplace else.”

On Sunday, the hotel-casino turns 80 years old, 29,220 days after it first opened its doors Nov. 7, 1941. It will punctuate its birthday weekend with a fireworks show, a mariachi band, cash drawings and cake and champagne on Saturday night.

As the only still-operating hotel-casino on the National Register of Historic Places, El Cortez exhales history.

This is the place where mobsters Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Moe Sedway, Gus Greenbaum and Meyer Lansky ushered in mafia rule in Las Vegas casinos; where downtown casino mogul Jackie Gaughan lived and worked; where people come to play some of the only remaining coin slots in town.

What once was a heavily local, retirement-age clientele today comprises about as many tourists as locals and an influx of young people, said El Cortez owner Kenny Epstein, who in July also turned 80. All of the hotel’s visitors who consider El Cortez special, he said, do so because of the memories they formed.

How does a property last 80 years in a city famous for reinventing itself every decade or so?

Continuity, according to Epstein’s daughter, El Cortez Executive Manager Alex Epstein.

Continuity of ownership, continuity of employees and continuity of customers.

“(Our) customers, they’ve been coming for generations — grandparents bringing their kids, bringing their grandkids,” the 36-year-old said. “You now have kids who are my age and younger who are coming because their parents have talked and grandparents have talked about it for years.”

‘Nobody like Jackie’

The hotel-casino has had three ownership groups in 79 out of its 80 years, the exception being the mob buying El Cortez from original owners John Kell “JK” Houssels and partners in 1945 and then selling it back to him in 1946.

Houssels remodeled the place in 1950, briefly experimented with a pirate theme and sold El Cortez in 1963 to the man who would become its longest-tenured owner, Jackie Gaughan. Gaughan lived and worked in the hotel until he died in 2014.

Gaughan sold the property to his friend and partner, Kenny Epstein, in 2008, and the Epstein family continues to own the hotel-casino, which features a Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style.

Maintaining personable, recognizable ownership from Gaughan to Kenny Epstein has helped El Cortez maintain an old-school authenticity that is hard to replicate, said David Schwartz, UNLV ombudsman and gaming historian.

“I think there’s a lot to be said for people who come in and make changes and do new things, and that’s great. But it’s also nice that you have a place that while they’re doing new things — and it’s very much a 21st-century casino — it still has that feel,” Schwartz said.

Gaughan oversaw the second hotel tower’s construction in 1980 and at one point owned between 25 percent and 33 percent of the land in downtown Las Vegas. He carried a reputation as a hands-on, visible owner who’d mingle with guests and walk around picking up empty beer bottles.

“There was nobody like Jackie, and there never will be anybody like Jackie,” Kenny Epstein said.

Much of the property maintains the look it’s had for decades with its Spanish ranch-inspired facade, low ceilings and neon sign. El Cortez still has 100 coin-operated slots and vintage table games. “They’re the exact same ones your grandparents played,” general manager Adam Wiesberg said.

Siegel and company sold El Cortez to help finance the Flamingo, which opened in 1946. But Flamingo Las Vegas of today looks nothing like it did even 40 years ago, let alone 75. It’s not the type of place where someone could walk the halls and feel like they’re standing where Siegel once did, unlike El Cortez, Schwartz said.

“Not exactly ‘George Washington slept here,’ but in Vegas that might be as close as you get,” Schwartz said.

Other casinos may get a new exterior, color scheme or a massive overhaul to avoid looking stale. Not El Cortez, notes Mark Hall-Patton, the recently retired Clark County Museum administrator.

“You look at a picture of it from 1952 or something like that, it’s like, yeah, that’s the El Cortez,” he said. “That’s really kind of amazing.”

Family legacies

The average El Cortez employee has worked there about 10 years, but many have been on staff much longer — including one for 51 years and counting.

Slot floor director Rick Ronca has spent 33 years years at the company. On Wednesday, he recalled meeting Jackie Gaughan in 1988, “right out in front of the cage over there,” he said, gesturing around the corner from the property’s new high-limit room.

“He said, ‘You look like you’ll do a good job for me. Go over there and tell this guy you’re a new slot floor person here,’ and that’s kind of how I got hired,” Ronca said.

He said he encouraged his boss to hire the woman whom he’d later marry and have two children. She still works there as a slot floor person.

“Everything in my life I can thank this place for, and it’s pretty cool,” Ronca said.

Barbershop bond

Andres Dominguez, 29, has been the barber at a tiny shop tucked away in the second floor of El Cortez for just under three years, but he’s on his second stint “working” there.

His grandfather, Julian Madrid, would cut Dominguez’s hair as a boy and then pay him $2 to sweep the floors. He’d then grab a glass bottle of Yoo-hoo from an old refrigerator and hang out with his grandpa until his mom was able to come pick him up.

Dominguez spent many nights after school at his grandfather’s barbershop, in business for 31 years until it was sold to a new owner in 2005.

Dominguez tried college and working a few jobs after graduating high school, but his heart wasn’t in it. He enrolled in barber college and began crafting a five-year plan to open his own shop. Two years into that plan, an uncle caught wind that the former family barbershop was up for sale and faced closure. Dominguez went down to the shop to try grabbing a phone number to call and inquire. No phone number was listed.

He called security and began a long series of referrals and supervisor ladder-climbing. A wave of awareness washed over Dominguez as he was led up the red spiral staircase leading to the executive offices; He was dressed to go pick up a phone number or email, not for a job interview.

Eventually, Dominguez — wearing Air Jordans, a black T-shirt, denim jeans and a Golden Knights hat (he removed it to show respect) — sat down at a conference table with Epstein in 2018. The casino owner personally knew Madrid, as did many of the supervisors and executives Dominguez spoke with that day in November 2018.

A couple of weeks later, El Cortez offered him the barbershop.

Dominguez tore out the pink carpeting in the waiting area and the linoleum floors he used to sweep after school as a child. He affixed a black-and-white vintage photo of the property’s exterior to the north-facing wall, hung Edison lightbulbs, replaced the mirrors and refreshed the branding to Speakeasy Barbershop. It opened Jan. 8, 2019.

A few throwbacks remain. There’s the simple “Barbershop” nameplate from his grandfather’s shop, which he thinks was previously mounted in the hallway but now hangs on a wall inside the studio. There’s the old cash register his grandfather used to use, now sitting on a table in a side room.

Dominguez framed a $20 bill from Speakeasy’s first haircut. The customer was a man named Bruce, who told Dominguez he was a regular at the original barbershop.

The two-chair barbershop today hardly resembles the place in which he grew up. But Dominguez knows his shop is special. Its location tucked into the original hotel, on Fremont Street, the same place where his grandfather opened and operated his own business for three decades. Dominguez can build upon his family’s legacy at the shop, where men can kick their feet up, get a haircut and get a straight-blade shave with a hot towel, he says.

“Now, I’m the one behind the chair,” Dominguez said.

Old school place, new school thinking

According to Kenny Epstein, there’s just one good thing about about the proverbial “good old days” of Las Vegas, and that was really knowing the customer.

Today, Las Vegas casinos are properly regulated and resorts offer world-class entertainment and restaurants, he said. He added that local gambling is now “legitimate,” something it wasn’t while under mafia control.

Knowing the customer well has paid off for the El Cortez, which has been able to broaden its appeal.

El Cortez’ customer base was once roughly 80 percent locals and 80 percent 55 years or older, Kenny Epstein said. Today, the hotel-casino draws a roughly 50-50 split between locals and tourists and a significant influx of young people, he said.

Kenny Epstein isn’t sure why young people like the place, but “I’m glad they like it.”

“People have a nostalgia for old Las Vegas, even if they didn’t live it,” Alex Epstein added.

El Cortez recently completed a $25 million renovation project that included new carpeting, a new speaker system, a high-limit room and a revamped hotel lobby.

It’s a balancing act to make the property appeal to as many people as possible while preserving its history, Wiesberg said.

“We have to be very hands on to make it work, and you have to communicate with customers (and) have to know what they want,” he said.

On a late-October weekday, 24-year-old Sean Frazier played a slot machine along the casino’s west wall. A red concoction rested on the machine, next to his left hand.

The North Las Vegas resident said he comes down to the casino fairly often. He and a friend often stop by on days they work out together, which is nearly every day. Frazier said he’ll gamble anywhere but he likes El Cortez’s proximity to his friend’s place and its atmosphere.

“It’s an interesting mix of everything you want. Everything you didn’t know you wanted,” Frazier said.

Mary Anne and Markland Davis were on their second El Cortez stay of the year. The Baltimore couple got a suite at the hotel-casino in May to celebrate their 40th anniversary. A pre-pandemic Vegas trip inspired their May stay, when they saw a commercial for El Cortez while staying at Bellagio.

The ad boasted of looser slots at El Cortez than at properties on the Strip, and the couple ventured downtown to check it out. They returned to their hotel room more than $200 ahead for the day, Markland Davis said.

In October, the couple got another suite at El Cortez and a $300 food voucher, Mary Anne Davis said. She praised the property for its friendly staff, cleanliness and music.

“It’s Elvis and Frank Sinatra and all that typical Vegas stuff,” she said.

Contact Mike Shoro at mshoro@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mike_shoro on Twitter.

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