After The Mirage brought erupting volcanoes to the Strip and Fremont Street put a five-block canopy over its head, it didn’t take long for both the aging Sahara and El Cortez hotel-casinos to appear out of touch with the times. But while the Sahara tried to change its Rat Pack-era image by adding a roller coaster and the NASCAR Café to the property in 1999 before finally shutting its doors last month, the El Cortez remained true to its identity. Now, as it marks its 70th anniversary, it’s as relevant as ever.
Even after the hotel-casino changed majority ownership from Vegas legend Jackie Gaughan to longtime partner Kenny Epstein in 2008, it remained a value-oriented, customer service-driven property that catered largely to locals. Meanwhile, the Sahara went through four owners after Del Webb sold it in 1982.
“They just kept going in different directions, which doesn’t necessarily work,” says El Cortez Executive Manager Alexandra Epstein, the daughter of Kenny Epstein. “Sometimes you just have to go with what your shtick is and stick with it. I think that’s something the El Cortez has managed to do pretty well.”
Alexandra Epstein has been instrumental in reviving the oldest continually operating hotel-casino in Las Vegas, transforming the run-down Ogden House Motel across the street into the El Cortez’s Cabana Suites, part of more than $25 million in renovations to the property over the past few years.
Even with the improvements, the El Cortez remains retro in a way that can’t be duplicated, right down to its rooftop sign that dates to 1952. The sign, and the classic design of the casino entrance, gives the property a sort of architectural street cred.
Meanwhile, a block away, the Fremont Street canopy has imposed a degree of homogeneity on other downtown casinos. The El Cortez’s separation from the canopy, which once may have been viewed as a slight, is a clear advantage. The El Cortez is now identified with the flourishing Fremont East District rather than the increasingly stale Glitter Gulch.
“It’s got Emergency Arts across the street, which is a huge deal, and they’re really committed to doing things that ramp up the foot traffic down there on East Fremont, which is good for a lot of the businesses around it,” says David G. Schwartz, director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research. “It’s one of the few genuinely urban casinos in all of America. They really believe that if the neighborhood improves, they’ll improve.”