It is a name—a generic one, but a name nonetheless—that has been part of Nevada history even before the 1931 relegalization of commercial gaming. In early April of that year, Las Vegas Club, then at 21 and 23 Fremont Street, received a license to offer games of chance from the Las Vegas City Commission. Earlier this month, that gambling hall—located on the opposite side of Fremont since 1949—closed its doors.
Before 1931, mining engineer J. Kell Houssells ran Las Vegas Club as a card room. He adjusted easily to slots and table games, becoming a leader in the Downtown gambling scene and, ultimately, running the Strip’s Tropicana.
Houssells briefly partnered with Benny Binion before taking the Las Vegas Club name across the street to the former Overland Hotel, leaving Binion to turn the erstwhile Las Vegas Club into the Westerner before moving across the street himself to the casino that is now Binion’s.
Today, the original Las Vegas Club is an ABC Store, with no hint of the property’s place in casino history. Visitors looking to pick up a box of Hawaiian Host macadamia nuts or dollar bottles of Nestlé water don’t seem to mind.
In 1960, two Downtown legends, Jackie Gaughan and sports handicapper Mel Exber, bought Las Vegas Club. Exber brought the gambling hall’s sports influence. Its coffee shop was known as the Dugout, gourmet dining could be found in the Great Moments Room.
Under the Exber/Gaughan regime, Las Vegas Club boasted “the most liberal 21 in the world” and that loose slots made it the “House of Jackpots.” It was a popular break-in joint for dealers, who could hone their craft with the colorful low-stakes patrons. Expansions in the 1980s and ’90s added hotel towers, and its race and sports book became a strong point, advertising that there was “no bet too large, no bet too small” to accept.
Exber died in 2002, and Gaughan sold Las Vegas Club in 2004. Since then, the property struggled to find an identity in the new Fremont Street, leading to a series of cutbacks that came to a stop August 19. While Las Vegas Club was still accepting bets up until the end, its hotel had been closed for years and its dining options and gaming floor gradually shrunk.
About eight hours before the last spin of the reels, and there isn’t much question that this chapter of history is near its close. The stick figures playing golf and shooting hoops on the etched-glass light fixtures seem discordantly optimistic. On the ground, there’s no joy, no sadness, just a sense of finishing up. No one is eulogizing Kell Houssells, Mel Exber, Jackie Gaughan or the thousands of employees who kept the Club in business for over eight decades. Two security officers in bright yellow polo shirts are keeping an eye on the place, watching as other employees prepare for that night’s shutdown. A grand total of three players are sitting in front of slot machines.
Ten years from now, will anyone mourn Las Vegas Club?
After all, there weren’t many tears shed when Las Vegas Club became the Westerner, or when its neighbor the Northern Club transitioned into the Monte Carlo Club and eventually became La Bayou. The Mint flourished and was swallowed by Binion’s Horseshoe. Fremont Street has never stood still.
New owners Derek and Greg Stevens have chosen to evaluate all possible uses before moving ahead. Speculation is that any redevelopment will complement their other properties, Golden Gate and The D (formerly Fitzgeralds), which have earned kudos for their liberal gambling rules and early-adopter moves. (Back in 2014, the properties became the first in Las Vegas to accept Bitcoin for non-gaming transactions) While there aren’t any definite plans—or even general suggestions—the expectation is that this property will be something special.
If that’s the case, the low-key ending for Las Vegas Club might be appropriate. It will retain a fond place in the memories of dedicated gamblers, sports bettors and those who personally knew Gaughan and Exber’s golden touch. But for the vast majority of current visitors, whatever replaces it will be the only name that they associate with that corner of Main and Fremont.
David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.