It’s been 75 years since the Last Frontier opened on the fledgling Las Vegas Strip. And it’s been 50 years since its successor, the Frontier Hotel, was sold to Howard Hughes.
The Last Frontier opened on October 30, 1942. Its builders were R.E. Griffith and his nephew, William J. Moore. They had been planning a resort in New Mexico and were on the way back from California. Remember that Las Vegas Boulevard was Highway 91 to L.A. and Salt Lake. They decided another resort near the year-old El Rancho Vegas would be a good investment. They bought the 91 Club from Guy McAfee and began planning their hotel-casino.
At the time, Las Vegas marketed itself as “still a frontier town,” with hotels and casinos named the El Rancho Vegas, the El Cortez, the Apache, and the Pioneer. The Last Frontier claimed to be “the old West in modern splendor.” Moore’s design included sandstone fireplaces and bars, antique western saddles and guns, and the long mahogany bar from the Arizona Club on Block 16. The Carrillo Room bar was named for actor Leo Carrillo, later the sidekick of the Cisco Kid on television. Guests used the hotel’s airport shuttle …. A stagecoach. Rodeos and roping contests were frequent. Later Moore added a western theme park, Last Frontier Village, behind the hotel, with hundreds of tons of western memorabilia with help from Doby Doc Caudill, who as an avid collector. You can see some of it now at the Clark County Museum. The park’s Golden Slipper Saloon and Gambling Hall included the Flora-Dora Girls, dancers who wore period costumes from the late nineteenth century.
The hotel also had one of the first women executives on the Strip: Maxene Lewis, the entertainment director. She signed up a young pianist, Liberace, for his first Las Vegas appearance. Years later, the star of the Ramona Room showroom was an actor named Ronald Reagan. Moore set up junkets for gamblers from southern California, working with a small airline owned by Kirk Kerkorian. For a brief period, the bingo operator at the Silver Slipper was Mike Wynn. He soon left, but his son Steve later came back to town—and wound up owning part of the main hotel.
By then, much had changed. In 1951, Moore sold to Beldon Katleman and Jake Kozloff. Let’s just say they had some connections and leave it at that. But they also had plans. In 1955, they replaced the old hotel with the New Frontier, with a space theme. It did well, as did Moore. He ended up as a co-owner of the El Cortez and Showboat in partnership with, among others, J. Kell Houssels, Senior.
The new owners brought the theme to the showroom. In 1956, the bill included what the New Frontier called “the atomic powered singer” because he swiveled his hips. At age 21, Elvis Presley made his Las Vegas debut. He didn’t go over well, but the New Frontier survived. There would be much more to the story, but we’ll save that for next time.
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