Four decades at the El Cortez

If you want a lesson in Las Vegas history, you don’t have to go much farther than Liz Butler, who’s still serving drinks at the El Cortez. With an accent and attitude that betrays her East Coast roots, she’s been a fixture at the El Cortez for nearly four decades, and she doesn’t show any sign of leaving.

Butler came to town in 1970 with her then-husband, and on Dec. 2 wandered into the casino at Sixth and Fremont streets. Walking around, she was approached by slot manager Buzz Jackson, who asked her if she needed anything.

“I need a job,” she told him—typical no-nonsense Liz—and he hired her right away as a change girl, an entry-level position with a name that reflects the far-from-gender-neutral sensibilities of the era. Hauling around pounds of change in her belt wasn’t her idea of fun, so she moved up to a job in the change booth after about a year.

Yet the change booth was nothing compared with a better-paying job as a cocktail server. The first time Butler asked the El Cortez’s owner, Jackie Gaughan, for a promotion to cocktail waitress, he told her she was too fat. Today, that might be grounds for a lawsuit. Back in 1973, she joined a gym, went every day, and lost a few pounds. She went back to Gaughan.

“Am I skinny enough now?” she asked. He said she was, and she started serving drinks. And she still adores Gaughan. “Jackie was the best boss you could have,” she says. “He’s a people person.”

Those were wild days at the El Cortez. Butler remembers a mix of celebrities (Redd Foxx of Sanford and Son was, she recalls, a constant presence in the keno lounge), locals and out-of-towners, each of whom she met with her unique blend of sass and warmth.

Butler, who is African-American, dealt with her share of prejudice. As a change girl and a cocktail waitress, she encountered customers who refused to be served by her and even slung racial epithets at her. Although she admits “it was rough,” she credits El Cortez security with ejecting patrons who were demeaning to her, and her managers for standing by her.

“You cannot disrespect someone who works here,” she says with pride.

She was more than capable, however, of taking matters into her own hands. Once, a patron let his hands get a little too friendly with her backside. “Whammo! Right upside the head,” she chuckles. “Can’t do a lot of stuff that you used to do.”

For Butler, the El Cortez is a family. She’s working with people whose parents were at the casino when she started, and there’s a real bond between them all, who’ve shared so much over the years, most of it centering on their former boss. She recalls Gaughan taking her and a few other veteran employees out to dinner frequently. “He took us everywhere,” she says.

His generosity is one of her fondest memories. Once, when she broke her foot and was wearing a cast, Gaughan let her come in and do office work to make up the differential between her union sick stipend and her tip income.

After work, she got together with her co-workers at the casino bar—everyone was comped, naturally. “It was fun,” she says repeatedly, as she thinks back.

Butler’s love for the El Cortez—and her co-workers, starting with current majority owner Kenny Epstein and general manager Mike Nolan and on down—is abundantly clear.

“When I see someone looking at the pictures,” she says of the historic photos that decorate the property, “I tell them about Jackie, and that I’ve been here a long time, and that those are some of the greatest pictures you could ever look at.”

Butler has seen plenty of changes, and she’s adjusted to the new realities of customer service. “I have to tone it down sometimes,” she admits. And the younger clientele the El Cortez is attracting, thanks to Fremont East entertainment district, is ordering drinks that the cowboys of yesteryear never would have.

But even when she’s recounting an encounter with an unruly guest, she has a smile on her face. “Mostly, I love the people. I just like talking.” And don’t even ask her about leaving.

“Where would I go?” she asks, in a tone that suggests you shouldn’t hazard a guess. With such devotion, the El Cortez—and its patrons—are lucky to have her.



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