weather icon Mostly Cloudy

El Cortez in downtown Las Vegas celebrates 75 years

The El Cortez is a Las Vegas time capsule.

So is owner Kenny Epstein.

It’s fitting that both celebrated their 75th birthdays this year. The El Cortez kicked off its celebration Tuesday with cake, champagne and dignitaries. Its anniversary is Monday.

The downtown hotel on Fremont Street is part of Las Vegas lore, having once been owned by mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. Casino legend Jackie Gaughan purchased the property in 1963 and later partnered with Epstein, the son of a Chicago bookmaker.

A walk inside the El Cortez showcases its history. A 1941 Cadillac convertible appears in the lobby, and there’s a restaurant bearing Siegel’s name and memorabilia donated by his daughter Millicent.

The family-run El Cortez bills itself as the longest continuously operating hotel and casino in Las Vegas. The family counts on that history to help the property compete against new casinos and corporate brands.

“Our history has done very well for us because people have a nostalgia for vintage Vegas,” said Alex, one of Kenny Epstein’s four children who are partners in the El Cortez. “They want to know what the Rat Pack felt like in the original days when it was privately run and less corporate than it is today. We find more people venturing downtown and excited about these stories and reading about downtown, and they can find great bars and restaurants and entertainment and a piece of Las Vegas’ past.”

That nostalgia should extend to the patriarch of the family. Kenny Epstein is a throwback to the private ownership that once dominated the local casino landscape.

In 1959, Epstein, then 18, moved to Las Vegas with his parents and soon set his sights on owning his own hotel-casino. He launched his career in insurance and real estate with advice from his father in the back of his mind.

“I always wanted to be like my father and be in the gambling business,” Epstein said. “My dad said, ‘Show up on time and be honest, and you’ll be a success because you’ll be the only one that does.’”

Epstein started on that path in 1966, as baccarat shift boss at the newly opened Caesars Palace. In 1975, Gaughan offered to sell Epstein a stake in the El Cortez.

Epstein met Gaughan at his Tahoe Biltmore when the former was just 15. Nearly 20 years later, in 1975, Gaughan showed the then 34-year-old Epstein around the El Cortez when it had less than 60 rooms and 100 slot machines.

“Jackie said to me, ‘We’re looking at all of these places, and why don’t you just come down to the El Cortez and I will give you 5 percent,’ and that’s what I did,” Epstein said. “It wasn’t Caesars Palace, but I think my father asked me, ‘What would you rather be: a bartender at Caesars Palace or own your own bar?’”

Epstein said he had a hiccup along the way. He approached Bank of Nevada for a $250,000 loan and was turned down because the bank did not consider the El Cortez a performing asset. At the advice of his dad, he turned to E. Parry Thomas and Bank of Las Vegas.

“I told him I was buying the El Cortez, and he said that would be a good future for me,” Epstein said. “He asked me when I would pay it back, and I said three years. He said, ‘See my secretary, and she will have a check for you.’ That’s as easy as it was, and I paid it back in three years.”

Epstein bought into a different property back then. The biggest difference was its size. It didn’t have a tower and had 250 fewer rooms, Epstein said. But not everything was different. As it was then, some 70 percent of the customer base today is local residents.

“If you’re shooting craps 40 years ago, you’re shooting craps today. The only difference might be the dress,” Epstein said.

That and the $30 million spent a decade ago on an upgrade.

Epstein acquired the casino from Gaughan in 2008. Gaughan lived in the penthouse until he died in 2014. The two ate lunch and dinner together six days a week for years. Epstein chokes up while talking about Gaughan, whom he considered a second father.

In an era when the Riviera, Stardust and other vintage properties have been imploded, the El Cortez remains. When it opened in 1941, it had a casino, restaurant, cafe, floor show and 59 rooms. Those vintage rooms are still open and available to hotel guests looking for a historic experience. In 2013, the El Cortez was placed on the National Register of Historic Places — the only operating casino to be included.

“The El Cortez is a time warp,” Epstein said. “Las Vegas is rip down the old and build the new. We’re trying to preserve this. If we had plenty of money, we would probably rip part of this down and build a whole new place, but we are not, so we’re playing on the historic role.”

A family-owned business survives in this corporate era simply by being profitable, Epstein said. It starts with paying the bills. That is made possible by having a fresh casino floor with the latest equipment — though the El Cortez keeps some coin machines that older players enjoy.

The El Cortez also touts its value, with rooms costing $60 on average, and its payouts as higher than the Strip and elsewhere in Las Vegas.

“We don’t have shopping centers, bowling and movies and all these different restaurants and shows,” Epstein said. “We have to attract people by having the best gamble in Nevada – the smallest hold in all of Nevada.”

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Business Videos
How much do Las Vegas casino CEOs make?
Las Vegas gaming CEOs made anywhere between $1 million and $24 million last year, according to company filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. ((Las Vegas Review-Journal)
30-year-old Rio needs a little TLC
Nearly 30 years after the Rio opened, the red and blue jewel that helped catapult Las Vegas to a new level with its buffet and nightclub has lost its status along with its shine.
The latest on the Drew Las Vegas - VIDEO
Eli Segall recounts his tour of the Drew Las Vegas, formerly the Fontainebleau, on the Las Vegas Strip. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pinball Hall of Fame to move near south Strip
Operators of the Pinball Hall of Fame have been approved to build a new, larger arcade near the south edge of the Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard near Russel Road. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
National Hardware Show underway Las Vegas
The National Hardware Show kicked off Tuesday at the Las Vegas Convention Center (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Caesars for sale?
Caesars Entertainment Corp. has been swept up in takeover speculation since the company’s share price tumbled last year amid disappointing earnings and concerns over a recession. Amid the decline, hedge funds scooped up shares. Billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn began buying shares of Caesars as early as January. Icahn acquired nearly 18 percent by mid-March. In February Icahn called on the Caesars board to study a sale as a way to boost shareholder value.
Las Vegas home prices
Las Vegas home prices grew fastest among major markets in February for the ninth straight month. But amid affordability concerns, the growth rate has slowed down. Southern Nevada prices in February were up 9.7% from a year earlier, according to the latest S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index. The last time Las Vegas' price growth fell below 10% was in September 2017, S&P Dow Jones Indices reported.
Free Parking Coming To Wynn
Free parking will come to the Wynn and Encore resorts on May 1, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Founding Venetian employees talk about 20 years at the Strip resort
The Venetian, which opened May 3, 1999, is celebrating 20 years on the Las Vegas Strip. Seven original employees talk about opening the luxury resort and working there for two decades. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Circa aiming for December 2020 opening
The 1.25-million-square-foot property will have 44-stories and 777-rooms. It will also have a separate nine-story, 1,201-space parking garage.
Boxabl official explains the building concept
Boxabl business development manager Galiano Tiramani shows off a room built by his company. (Blake Apgar/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
TI/Mirage Tram reopens
The tram that shuttles guests between TI and Mirage reopened this week after being closed for much of 2018.
Las Vegas Convention Center expansion taking shape
Renderings and actual footage show how the Las Vegas Convention Center is evolving.
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz at Las Vegas convention
Former Starbucks CEO and potential presidential candidate Howard Schultz spoke at the Epicor Insights user conference at Mandalay Bay Convention Center Wednesday, April 17, 2019. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Drew Las Vegas to open in the second quarter of 2022
The 67-story Drew Las Vegas is slated to open in the second quarter of 2022 at the north end of the Las Vegas Strip. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NAB Day 1 (Time Lapse)
NAB kicked off at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday, April 8, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
National Association of Broadcasters Show shows 1mm thick 8K TV with 22.2 channel digital sound
Japan’s NHK Science & Technology Research Laboratories booth featured a 1mm thick 8K TV system used in conjunction with a 22.2 channel digital sound system at the National Association of Broadcasters Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Nevada shoppers react to Smith’s no longer accepting Visa credit cards
On March 1, Smith’s announced that it would no longer be accepting Visa credit cards at any of its 142 supermarkets, including the 45 in Nevada.
Massachusetts Gaming Commission asks how long Wynn executives knew about misconduct
Business reporter Rick Velotta gives an update on the adjudicatory hearing on the suitability of Wynn Resorts to retain its gaming license in Massachusetts.
Henderson app developer part of Startup in Residence
Henderson based developers of the app On Point Barricade are taking part in Startup in Residence, a North America program dedicated to pairing tech companies with governments. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Sam's Town employees and customers talk of their love for the iconic casino
Longtime Sam's Town employees and customers love each other and love their casino. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas apartments rents
Las Vegas’ apartment market has accelerated in recent years. Developers are packing the suburbs with projects, landlords are on a buying spree, and tenants have filled buildings.
William Boyd talks about the birth of Sam's Town
On the eve of the 40th anniversary of Sam's Town, William Boyd, executive chairman of Boyd Gaming and son of hotel namesake Sam Boyd, talks about how the casino became one of the first local properties in Las Vegas. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
High Roller observation wheel turns five
The world’s tallest observation wheel celebrates it’s fifth year on Sunday, March 31, 2019. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
Escape Room Industry Growing In Las Vegas
Escapology employees discuss the growing escape room industry in the U.S. and Las Vegas. (Bailey Schulz/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Impact of parking fees on visiting the Las Vegas Strip
There are no data showing a relationship between Strip resort and parking fees and the number of out-of-state visitors to Las Vegas. But there are data showing a relationship between Strip parking fees and the number of local visitors to the the Strip. ‘’As a local, I find myself picking hotels I visit for dinner or entertainment, based on whether they charge for parking or not,”’ said David Perisset, the owner of Exotics Racing. ‘’It is not a matter of money, more of principle.’’ A 2018 survey by the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance found 36.9 percent of Clark County residents reported avoiding parking at Strip casinos that charge for parking. 29.1 percent reported avoiding using any services from a Strip casino that charges for parking.
MGM's sports betting deals
MGM Resorts International signed a sports betting sponsorship agreement with the NBA in July It was the first professional sports league to have official ties with a legal sports betting house. The deal came just two months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law prohibiting sports betting in most states. In October, MGM became the first gaming company to sign a sports betting partnership with the NHL. In November, MGM became the first gaming company to sign a sports betting partnership with the MLB. Financial terms of Tuesday’s deal and earlier partnerships have not been announced.
Faraday puts Las Vegas land on the market
Nearly two years after Faraday Future bailed on its North Las Vegas auto factory, the company has put its land up for sale. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
El Cortez owner Kenny Epstein on running the iconic property
Kenny Epstein, owner of the El Cortez Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, talks about Jackie Gaughan mentorship and answers rumors about bodies in the basement at the mob-era casino. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
LVCVA recommends construction of underground people mover
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority announced the recommendation for an underground people mover for the convention center. The system would have the potential to expand and connect Downtown and the resort corridor all the way to McCarran. (Michael Quine/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Lucky Dragon’s foreign investors demand refund

The Lucky Dragon’s developers and prior management are facing lawsuits from Chinese investors, the project’s main lender and a Canadian high-roller who paid a $400,000 deposit to lease the casino just one month before it abruptly closed.