So much of the modern casino industry is about now: today’s problems, this week’s big promotion, this quarter’s financials. Tomorrow is crucial because expectations and chatter can boost today’s stock price; yesterday, well, there are only so many hours in the day, and it’s not likely to matter much.
That’s why it is refreshing to see one casino where the management is keenly aware that today, as important as it is, is just the day between yesterday and tomorrow. It’s even better to be able to share in its observance of a rare milestone.
You might have missed the El Cortez’s 75th anniversary celebration. It didn’t have the glitz of Caesars Palace’s 50th, in which a summer of events and promotions culminated in a gala featuring stars of yesterday and today. No, CEO and chairman Kenny Epstein chose to mark the occasion the same way that big days have been celebrated since the days when Jackie Gaughan still lived on the property: sheet cake and champagne.
Yes, Mayor Carolyn Goodman proclaimed November 1 as El Cortez Day and produced a municipal proclamation to boot. Then members of the Espstein family shared their thoughts on the milestone in the porte cochere against the backdrop of a 1941 Cadillac Fleetwood, but, as these things go, it was a pretty low-key affair. No five-tier cake, no fireworks and definitely no Jennifer Lopez.
Low-key, but not without real meaning. After the ceremony is over, after the departure of the mayor and a small clutch of media, a longtime patron of the El Cortez approached Alexandra Epstein Gudai, partner and executive manager, with a gift: four popcorn balls for her, her sister Katie, and her parents. It was genuinely and warmly received.
That’s the kind of place the El Cortez is, because the woman’s generosity, while appreciated, isn’t exceptional. Guests have been bringing gifts for the El Cortez’s owners, managers and employees for years. It’s a reflection back to the care with which Gaughan tended his flock of modest-spending, loyal customers for more than four decades.
You’ve probably heard the stories: Jackie driving his jeep around the El Cortez garage with jumper cables and gas can, searching for a guest in need of a jump or a fill-up; Jackie comping rooms to any fellow Omaha native; Jackie making a deal with only a handshake; Jackie greeting everyone who walked through the El Cortez’s doors.
Gaughan left the largest imprint on the El Cortez, but he was not its builder. That honor goes to a group led by Kell Houssels, John Grayson and Marion Hicks. Houssels, a former pilot and miner, first got involved in gaming when he bought a Fremont Street poker club in 1929. Two years later, his Las Vegas Club was among the first four Las Vegas gaming halls granted licenses after the legislature brought back unrestricted commercial gambling. Hicks and Grayson came from California; Hicks ultimately made a greater impact in Las Vegas. Arriving in town in 1939, the former car dealer and contractor built the El Cortez and retained an interest in the property.
Both Houssels and Hicks had interests in a variety of casinos. Houssels, over his long career, also owned and/or managed the Boulder Club, Showboat, and Tropicana. Hicks later built and owned the Thunderbird, one of the Strip’s first resorts, and the Algiers, a popular Strip motel.
When it opened in 1941 at a cost of $245,000, the El Cortez—with 50 guestrooms, a restaurant and a lounge—was as large and well-appointed as anything in town. Thomas Hull had just opened his El Rancho Vegas on the Los Angeles Highway (today Las Vegas Boulevard) three miles from town, and nothing on Fremont Street compared with the El Cortez.
“It was the first resort-type casino in Downtown Las Vegas,” Epstein says. “There hadn’t been anything like it before.”
But there were money problems, as was often the case with casinos then (and now), so when Houssels was approached by a group of investors led by Ben Siegel, he was happy to make a deal. Siegel, along with Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway, bought the El Cortez in 1945. Their involvement with Billy Wilkerson’s Flamingo project, however, took most of their time. As the Flamingo’s opening drew near, they sold the property back to the Houssels group, but not without leaving a legacy.
“They added an element of notoriety, of glamor,” Gudai says. Siegel, of course, is a member of the (alleged) organized crime pantheon so influential in the development of Las Vegas as a gaming and tourism center. It’s a pantheon whose exploits, once downplayed, are now cataloged, if not celebrated, in the Mob Museum only a few blocks away.
Siegel’s spirit is still part of the El Cortez, most notably at Siegel’s 1941, the property’s flagship eatery, which purports to bring back the days when “mystery, adventure, and maybe even a little danger were always just around the next darkened corner.”
A part, but not the whole, and not the soul. That belongs to Gaughan, who bought the property from Houssels et al in 1963, was majority owner until 2002 and lived in the casino until his 2014 death. The Epsteins and their partners carefully tend his legacy.
“He created the personal touch,” says CFO Joe Woody, who started at the El Cortez in 1988, “that sense of family that you don’t see anywhere else.”
“Jackie was about loyalty and value, both for his customers and his employees,” Gudai says, noting that some employees have been at the El Cortez for more than 40 years. Likewise, her family has a long history with Gaughan. Her father Kenny met him at Lake Tahoe in 1956 when he was only 15. Epstein’s father told him Gaughan was one to watch.
“That guy is a triple threat,” he told his son “He’s a go-getter, he’s smart and he’s on the square. He’s a cinch.”
Nineteen years later, Epstein bought into the El Cortez. He learned the tricks of a winning business strategy from Gaughan, the inventor of the casino fun book, and gladly accepted the torch from his mentor when he bought the property in 2008. “It’s hard to improve on Jackie as person,” he admits, “but we’re always working to take care of the place,” pointing out continuing investments in upkeep and maintenance that keep the property fresh.
Related: The People of El Cortez
Gudai says that her father, who was a day one employee of Caesars Palace, brought a worldly perspective to Gaughan’s property, bringing in ideas from his travels and experiences to Fremont Street and having the wisdom to embrace the casino’s place in its neighborhood.
“He’s looking beyond our front doors,” she says, “his vision is larger. We’re developing our other properties in the area to serve the community in ways that go beyond gambling. It’s a living, breathing organism that’s always evolving.”
Epstein’s challenge in 2016 is staying true to the Gaughan legacy—and an aging but loyal customer base—while keeping it relevant to the younger crowd that is increasingly drawn to the neighborhood. He credits his daughters with extending the casino’s appeal to the next generation.
“All of the sudden,” Epstein says, “the El Cortez is cool for millennials.” Woody adds that Alex and her sister Katie have “bridged the gap” to that coveted demographic.
Gudai’s approach is rooted in a passion for Downtown Las Vegas. “I love it here,” she says. “First and foremost, I’m a champion of this neighborhood.”
Keeping the property current while not losing sight of its roots is what has helped it reach its 75th year of continual operation when larger, flashier casinos are lucky to last half that long. Having opened its doors in 1941, visiting the El Cortez, like running it, has become generational. The grandchildren of loyal guests are now checking in, glad to have fun in a place where their grandparents did.
That’s why sheet cake and champagne was really the only way that the 75th anniversary could have been celebrated. It’s the way Jackie celebrated his birthday for years, with a truly democratic soiree, plenty for everyone who wanted to share in the fun. Sometimes sheet cake and a personal touch tastes better than a fondant-encrusted culinary creation with a players card.
For his part, Epstein, as he marks his 41st year at the El Cortez, is mindful of his role in the property’s continued life. “I’m a link in the chain,” he says of the continuity from Houssels and Hicks to Siegel to Gaughan to his daughters. “Life is a big circle.”