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2016 marked the diamond jubilee for a downtown Las Vegas gambling institution, the El Cortez.
It opened on November 6, 1941, at Sixth and Fremont. The builders were Marion Hicks and John Grayson. Hicks had been involved in a gambling cruise ship off the southern California coast. Like a lot of those operators, he came up the highway to Las Vegas. It cost around 300,000 dollars to build and included seventy-one rooms, a bar, a beauty parlor, and, as the Review-Journal put it, “a western motif carried out in a modified manner.”
It’s still there, in Spanish Colonial Revival style, looking little different from its first big remodeling in 1952. There’s a tower next to it, bringing its room total to 364. As a bow to its history, its restaurant is called Siegel’s 1941, complete with memorabilia donated by Benjamin Siegel’s daughter. And that brings us to the fun part: the fascinating figures from our history who have owned it. Although people worried it was too far from the action when it opened, the El Cortez really has been at the center of a lot of Las Vegas history.
Grayson sold his interest in 1943 to Tom Hull, who built the first Strip hotel, the El Rancho Vegas. Hicks bought out Hull in about three months.
In 1945, Hicks, with Grayson still listed as an owner, sold for 800,000 dollars. The new ownership group included Moe Sedway. He later was one of the owners of the Flamingo and had the pleasure of testifying before Senator Estes Kefauver’s committee on organized crime when it came to Las Vegas. Sedway was tied to Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, and Siegel was involved in running the El Cortez before and during the construction of the Flamingo.
Finally, after a few more ownership combinations, Sedway and company sold the El Cortez to J. Kell Houssels, Senior. He had been involved in Las Vegas since 1930 as operator of the Las Vegas Club, an investor in several other properties, and developer of other businesses, including cab and bus companies. Other investors would join Houssels, including Bill Moore, a builder and owner of the Hotel Last Frontier. Houssels’ other properties included the Showboat and Tropicana, and his son, Kell, Junior, practiced law before following him into the business.
Houssels oversaw the 1952 renovation. A decade later, he and his co-owners sold the El Cortez to another Las Vegas legend, Jackie Gaughan, whose ownership group included Kell Houssels, Junior. Another investor was Mel Exber, who would own the Las Vegas Club with Jackie Gaughan. Gaughan had come to Nevada during World War II. He was stationed in Tonopah but later moved to Las Vegas. His son Michael also joined him in the gaming industry and used to joke that his father had everything downtown and Michael took over everything to the south. Jackie Gaughan would own the El Cortez until 2008, and lived and played poker there until he died in 2014. Gaughan sold it to his associate and protégé, Kenny Epstein, who also turns seventy-five this year. Epstein and his four children run the show today. The El Cortez pays tribute to its history—and it has a long and storied one, indeed.