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Las Vegas calls itself the entertainment capital of the world. And it has a long history of great entertainment, no question. Reno and Lake Tahoe hotel-casinos long have boasted great performers, too. But many Nevadans are surprised when they hear the first city to feature true entertainment headliners in a showroom was … Elko.
This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Newt Crumley bringing show biz headliners to his family’s Commercial Hotel. The Commercial had started out with Elko itself in 1869 as the Humboldt Lodging House, next to the tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad. Newt Crumley Senior eventually took over the place. And in 1941, his son had an idea to attract customers. The Crumleys remodeled the Commercial Hotel’s lounge, which was known as … The Lounge. Really. And young Newt Crumley signed Ted Lewis, known as the High-Hatted Tragedian of Song. By 1941, Lewis had been a headliner around the world for a quarter of a century. He was a fine clarinetist and recorded “St. Louis Blues.” But he was best known for singing “Me and My Shadow,” wearing his top hat at a rakish angle, and asking audiences, “Is everybody happy?”
Lewis made the Crumleys and Elko happy. He performed for eight nights, April 26 to May 3. He made twelve thousand dollars, which would be good money NOW. Apparently, he gambled away some of it at the Commercial Hotel. But obviously, big name entertainers—and he was a big one—would go on to make far more money. So would the hotels where Lewis and others performed. Before and after the show, customers would eat and drink and gamble. Lights went on above the heads of other Nevada operators.
Other top entertainers soon followed Lewis into Elko. Paul Whiteman, another jazz orchestra leader, was a hit. So was Sophie Tucker, known as the Last of the Red Hot Mamas. So was the last performer that year, Chicko Marx, who didn’t have Harpo and Groucho with him.
A lot of these performers would go on to perform in Las Vegas when I was growing up here, and they were popular on the Strip, too. The Strip hotels used to provide free shows and other well-deserved perks for those stationed at the gunnery school and later Nellis Air Force Base. Similarly, the Commercial moved its shows to the Wendover army air base on the Nevada-Utah line after the second world wear began.
And Crumley insisted that each performer do a special free show for Elko youths, usually at the Hunter Theater, a local movie theater. We saw something similar in Las Vegas, where performers would occasionally show up at school events.
Also, Crumley and the Commercial Hotel attracted competition. Red Ellis and his partners eventually bought a hotel and changed its name to the Stockmen’s. They began bringing in stars, too, including Broadway leading man Alfred Drake, pop star Margaret Whiting, folk singer Burl Ives, and country performers Rex Allen and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Today, Elko isn’t exactly known for big name entertainers, although some performers still do come through there. If you think of entertainment there, you’re more likely to bring up the annual cowboy poetry festival. But Elko, Newt Crumley, and the Commercial Hotel started something big, and it keeps getting bigger.
Nevada Yesterdays is written by UNLV history professor, Michael Green, and is funded by the Nevada Humanities.