Crime lords, illegal whiskey, federal stings and mysterious fires — par for the course in this tale of two historic Vegas nightclubs
Someone should put up a historic plaque next to the volcano at the Mirage hotel-casino. Not to commemorate the volcano but, rather, to mark a different kind of historic eruption: That spot is the site of the Red Rooster, the first nightclub on what would eventually become the Las Vegas Strip.
The first gambling hotspot on the future Strip was a far cry from the glittering monoliths that define today’s upscale tourist playground. But the Red Rooster was no mere juke joint. It featured everything from all-girl bands to dance marathons to promotional stunts like a blindfolded race-car driver zooming in front of the club. Opened by Alice “Ma” Morris on November 26, 1930, the Red Rooster foreshadowed the famous, neon-drenched resort corridor the street would one day become.
The timing of the Red Rooster’s opening was auspicious, poised on the cusp of history about to happen: The Las Vegas Valley was on the verge of becoming a very, very popular place. The U.S. government was ready to award a $49 million contract to start work on the Boulder Dam Project (today known as Hoover Dam). The press event for the dam took place just a few weeks before Morris opened the Red Rooster, convincing her that she had picked the perfect spot for her club. At the dam press event — on the highway just a few miles south of the new nightclub — Secretary of the Interior Ray L. Wilbur drove a silver spike on the main Union Pacific line to signal the start of a railroad to the dam construction site. (Someone also picked his pocket.)
The dam project attracted thousands of workers (and, just as importantly, their paychecks) to Southern Nevada. They’d need places to live, eat and relax. Hoping to provide that, Las Vegas did its best to roll out the welcome mat. Community leaders tried their hardest to convince federal officials that Las Vegas was just as wholesome and friendly as any other small town in America. Businessmen and union leaders went so far as to build a festive welcoming arch over Fremont Street at Main.
It was an admirable attempt to appear quaint and small-town, but federal dam officials didn’t buy the act. They were suspicious, and understandably so: While Prohibition had been in effect in Nevada since 1918 and gambling was still illegal, a thirsty man didn’t have to look hard to find a strong drink or paid female companionship on Block 16, the red-light district on north First Street. And it didn’t help that such vices and illegal businesses were tolerated by the police (in fact, the sheriff was a former bouncer at one of the Block 16 clubs). It came as little surprise, then, when the federal government said “thanks, but no thanks” to Las Vegas and instead decided to build its own town, one free of temptation and vice, near the dam site. The rules of Boulder City: no gambling, no prostitution and, of course, no liquor. (Meanwhile, as construction of the dam geared up, Nevada Gov. “Friendly Fred” Balzar signed legislation on March 19, 1931 that legalized gambling.)
The feds even made some pre-emptive strikes. In a campaign to reduce the temptations lurking in nearby Las Vegas, prohibition agents launched an undercover operation, opening a saloon named Liberty’s Last Stand. The “pro-hi” agents, as they were called, rigged the place with a hidden microphone, stringing the cable to the roof, across the alley to the roof of the building next door, then down to where the hidden agents listened intently. The subsequent raids and arrests resulted in the temporary shuttering of clubs such as the Texas Moon, the Cool Shade and Blue Goose and, yes, the Red Rooster. Sure, there was money in gambling — but the real jackpot was in booze. Early Vegas clubs would succumb to that temptation again and again, and they’d pay the price.
Legalized gambling proved to be an attractive opportunity in itself. To many Southern California entrepreneurs, Nevada once again looked like the Promised Land. Among those businesspeople were figures who, along with the Red Rooster’s Alice Morris, would become notable names in Las Vegas history, such as Moe Goldie and the Cornero brothers.
The rise of Moe
But the Red Rooster was the first. Strategically located on Highway 91 to be the first stop for motorists before reaching city limits, the Spanish Mission-style building looked conservative, but inside was a different story: On any given night, an orchestra might be performing popular jazz tunes for a crowded, bustling dance floor, and the restaurant would be serving dinner to hungry travelers pulling in from the dusty road. Of course, there was another attraction as well: the free-flowing booze. Indeed, one of the many attractions of the Red Rooster was how it casually flouted Prohibition laws — like many speakeasies in the Las Vegas Valley — serving beer and whiskey to fuel the party.
“Ma” Morris and The Red Rooster had the help of one of Las Vegas’ more colorful historic figures: Morris Goldie, a rising player in the Southern California gambling racket known for his instinct for a good opportunity. Son of a successful Los Angeles cabinetmaker, Goldie grew up showing little interest in things like miter joints and bevel cuts. Rather than learning the family trade, the young Morris took to the streets, where he flourished.
At the tender age of 14, he had already built up a successful business as a newsboy hawking the daily papers, but by night, the bustling streets and dark alleys of Los Angeles presented a different opportunity: gambling. Along with his two brothers, Goldie took to downtown Los Angeles to host illegal craps games, soon graduating to operating games of chance in plush L.A. nightclubs. They also graduated from being mere newsboys to serious criminals to be reckoned with, as “Moe” became one of Southern California’s big underworld players from the 1920s to the 1940s — a hub that included names like Farmer Page and the Cornero brothers. By 1922, the Goldie brothers had their own illegal gambling club, the appropriately named “Goldie’s Place,” in an area of Los Angeles that is now a historic district. When police raided the joint, which featured poker, blackjack and craps that drew more than 100 players, they described it as the largest gambling establishment in the city.
Goldie’s younger brother Robert was the first of the family to establish a foothold in Nevada, when he took over an illegal gambling operation at the Cal-Neva at Lake Tahoe in 1929. It wasn’t long before Goldie, too, was lured by the promise of illegal gambling profits in the fresh new market of Nevada. In 1931, he arrived in Las Vegas, and quickly struck a deal with Alice Morris at the Red Rooster: He’d take care of setting up the gambling, and they’d share the profits. The newly created Clark County License Board granted Goldie a modest license to operate a 21 table game and three slot machines in the Red Rooster, the first gaming establishment on the Las Vegas Strip.
Unfortunately, its tenure was short-lived: The feds raided the Red Rooster on May 18, 1931, arresting Morris and her husband for violating the federal prohibition law. All were found guilty, granted probation and made to pay a $500 fine. Goldie was not arrested — but would wind up paying a price as well. When he applied to renew his gambling license in July, the county board gave him a resounding no, citing his connection to a violation of liquor laws.
After the liquor bust, the county forbade Goldie to run the games at the Red Rooster. But it wasn’t too hard a blow, for now there were other opportunities. Goldie took his skills and experience across town to Louis Cornero at a new place called The Meadows.
Goldie’s luck runs out
Louis Cornero, the youngest of the three Cornero brothers, arrived in Las Vegas with big plans — an upscale hotel with Hollywood-style entertainment and fine food. They also included in their plan a housing subdivision behind the hotel, complete with its own newspaper to compete with the city’s only publication at the time, the Las Vegas Evening Review-Journal. But the resort’s real secret ingredient was a shady side deal Cornero had cooked up with the city. Officials were trying to push seedy Block 16 out of the city and into the county. They offered Cornero a deal: If the Corneros opened up a resort just outside city lines, the city would ban prostitution — thus sending would-be customers straight to The Meadows. The Corneros leapt at the opportunity, buying up land and starting construction on the project at Fremont Street and Charleston Boulevard. The city was happy to have the project outside its boundaries, and the Corneros were happy to be on the major road to the dam site.
The Meadows was an evolutionary leap over the Red Rooster. It boasted a spacious gaming floor, a nightclub, restaurant and 50-room hotel — and you could get a cup full of quality Canadian whiskey to quench your thirst. Of course, paid female companionship was available as well. In the nightclub, notable stage acts included a young singer named Frances Gumm — later known as Judy Garland — and a house band known as the Meadow Larks.
After the Red Rooster’s liquor bust, Moe Goldie had been forbidden by the county to run the games at the Rooster — but now there were other, more promising opportunities. He took his skills and experience to Louis Cornero at the Meadows.
Goldie’s luck there, alas, wasn’t much better. Six weeks after his arrival, on September 7, 1931, the hotel portion of The Meadows resort caught fire. According to The Meadows’ in-house newspaper, “A beautiful structure became a roaring furnace and crumbled into a twisted mass of debris. An investment of over $50,000 perished in the destructive blaze.” Hoping to save the source of his livelihood, Goldie did his best to try to stave off the consuming fire — and the fact that he lived in the hotel put him in the perfect position to do that. A fast-thinking Goldie tried battling the flames with a garden hose, a brave but futile effort.
He didn’t have much help: Because the property was located in the county, the city fire department merely stood by and watched the fire burn. Adding insult to injury, most of Goldie’s clothes were destroyed in the fire, but he didn’t take the loss too hard. When a hotel staffer asked whether he had saved his pants — he prized his tailored pants — Goldie replied, “No, the summer’s over and I won’t need ’em any more this year.” The Corneros continued to lease the property out through the 1930s, finally selling it to businessman and civic leader Nate Mack, who owned it when it caught fire and burned down in 1943.
Meanwhile, back on Highway 91, the Red Rooster’s fortunes continued to rise … and fall. In January 1933, the county granted Morris’ Red Rooster what it called a dance hall license. And after Prohibition was repealed that year, the county agreed to grant it a license to serve only beer. The club burned to the ground in July 1933, but it reopened on the day before New Year’s Eve in 1933, remaining popular through World War II; in fact, retired Hollywood actress Grace Hayes bought the club, renaming it the Grace Hayes Lodge. However, Hayes grew tired of running a nightlife operation, and over the next few years leased it to others. Next door, the San Souci auto court was also feeling the pressure, as major hotels took root nearby. Deals were made, money changed hands, and the Red Rooster and the San Souci were linked, and in 1963, the Castaways was built. (Its most notable purchaser: Howard Hughes.) The Castaways lasted for 25 years before Steve Wynn bought the site and the surrounding land, where he would open the Mirage in 1989. Bridged by nearly six decades, the Red Rooster and the Mirage were both firsts for a city built on the powerful allure of chance.
Few would dispute that Wynn was the bold, brash architect of the new Las Vegas. But it was Moe Goldie and Alice “Ma” Morris who set the stage for what would become the Las Vegas Strip.
Robert Stoldal is news director of KSNV News 3 Las Vegas.