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El Cortez owner witnesses evolution of Las Vegas firsthand

Tony Curtis in “Vega$.” Robert DeNiro in “Casino.” Andy Garcia in “Ocean’s Eleven.” Plenty of TV shows and movies would have you believe that running a Las Vegas casino is the coolest thing in the world.

“Absolutely,” Kenny Epstein says. “It’s absolutely the coolest thing in the world.”

Epstein, 77, owns downtown Las Vegas’ El Cortez, which has been part of this city’s gaming landscape for more than 75 years. And not to dim that cinematic image of casino ownership, but Epstein notes that he’s “not just in the gambling business anymore.”

“We’re in the room remodeling business. We’re in the changing-sewer-pipes (business). We’re fixing leaks, having a roofer re-roof the whole place. You’re in all these things you never knew about before, and you run all kinds of businesses, not just gambling.”

“And it’s fun every day,” Epstein adds. “I’m not saying there aren’t bumps in the road, but it’s fun.”

As owner of the El Cortez, Epstein is custodian of a piece of Las Vegas’ past.

“I think the El Cortez in a lot of ways is really the keeper of the flame from the original days of Nevada gaming,” says David Schwartz, former director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research and now the university’s associate vice provost for faculty affairs.

Epstein brings to Southern Nevada’s gaming landscape “a bit of the time when Las Vegas was more about personal connection and an appreciation for the history,” Schwartz says and — with some of Epstein’s children now involved in running the hotel — even “shows the casino business can be generational.”

Meeting a mentor

“Since I was, I’d say, 12 years old, I knew exactly what I wanted: I wanted to be just like my father,” says Epstein, whose dad, Ike, was a Chicago gambler and horse bookmaker.

The appeal was “the glamour,” Epstein says. “My father took us to championship fights, the World Series, football games, racetracks, the best restaurants, nice hotels. What more would you want?”

Also igniting Epstein’s interest in a gaming career was a chance meeting he had with a gaming giant who later became his business partner, mentor and friend. It was during a family road trip that included a stop in Lake Tahoe and a stay at the Cal Neva Lodge, owned by friends of Epstein’s father.

One, Epstein says, “said to my father, ‘I want you to meet a fellow. His name is Jackie Gaughan. He owns the Tahoe Biltmore.’ We went and saw Jackie. He shows us around the place, and for a 15-year-old that was kind of exciting. He was so nice to us.”

Later that day, his dad would tell Epstein of Gaughan: “He’s a triple threat.”

“Well, I knew what a triple threat was in football: You can pass, you can run and you can kick. I said, ‘Dad, I don’t know what you mean.’ He said, ‘Well, he’s a go-getter, he’s smart and he’s on the square. That’s a triple threat.’ So I never forgot that.”

Casino dreams

Epstein moved to Las Vegas in 1960, a year after his family had moved here. His father tried to steer him toward other careers.

“My father said, ‘Listen, in the real estate business in Las Vegas you’ll make more money than any gambler ever would,’ ” Epstein says.

After spending about five years in the insurance business (and selling real estate), Epstein started working at Caesars Palace as a baccarat manager when the hotel opened.

He was at Caesars Palace for nine years but kept in touch with Gaughan, who purchased the El Cortez in 1963. In 1975, Gaughan offered Epstein 5 percent ownership of the El Cortez for $250,000. Then, in 2008, Epstein purchased the El Cortez from Gaughan.

A personal approach

From the start, Epstein has carried on Gaughan’s focus on personalized service and targeting locals and patrons who might not be a prime market for Strip properties. “Most places, the customer never sees the people who own the place. We see them every day,” he says.

The El Cortez “is the average person’s country club, a place to go to every day, a place to meet their friends for a coffee and have a few drinks in the afternoon.”

In addition to appealing to longtime customers, the El Cortez has broadened its efforts to appeal to younger patrons. The hotel is remodeling its tower rooms and suites. It also promotes its own history, which includes ownership for a brief time during the 1940s by a group that included Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. The name of the hotel’s restaurant, Siegel’s 1941, alludes to the mobster and the hotel’s opening date.

“There was a rumor that because mobsters owned this place, there were ghosts here, and there were people buried in the basement,” Epstein says, laughing. “The true story is, we had several porters Jackie buried and paid for their funerals, and we got (their) cremated urns in the basement somewhere.”

Like many long-timers, Epstein remembers when Las Vegas was a much smaller town. Unlike some long-timers, he doesn’t bemoan the city’s growth.

“It was great. You knew everybody,” Epstein says. “It was a great town in those days, but it’s so much better now — really, the greatest city anywhere.

“We have the best restaurants, the best hotels. Now we have the Golden Knights, and the Raiders are coming and we’re going to get a basketball team pretty soon, I’m sure.

“It makes you feel great, what this city has accomplished, and to be part of it makes you feel good.”

Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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