J Kell Houssels Jr. died recently. His name may be vaguely familiar, and it should be much more so. When Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson take public positions on or in the Republican Party, or MGM Resorts International strongly endorses Harry Reid and then helps fund a think tank he will head with John Boehner, Houssels had something to do with it.
Now, this doesn’t mean Houssels was overly political, though he certainly had opinions. He was elected to one term in the Nevada State Assembly in 1950 and got a bellyful of politics just from that. But his and his family’s influence on gaming and our community, and thus our political culture, has been lasting and important.
John Kell Houssels Sr. was one of the pioneers of gambling when Nevada legalized it in 1931. He co-owned the Las Vegas Club, and later El Cortez, Showboat and Tropicana, as well as investing in several other properties. He diversified into transportation companies, a beverage distributor and restaurants, and dipped into politics, to the point that critics attacked the “Houssels machine,” which supposedly was all-powerful in city affairs during the 40s.
His son, Kell Jr., moved here at age 8 in 1930 and attended the Fifth Street School before going away to boarding schools and academies. Kell Jr. welcomed the chance to escape Las Vegas during the summer: When it was hot, one of his duties was to hose down the family home to cool it off.
Young Kell, who became known as Ike, attended West Point and Stanford Law School and came home to practice law. He did it well but didn’t really enjoy it, and soon joined his father in the gaming business. As Kell Sr. aged, the younger Houssels took on a bigger role at the Tropicana and, later, the Showboat. He was one of the builders of the Union Plaza Hotel, meaning Houssels had the distinction of being among the first to be heavily involved in Strip, Downtown and locally oriented casinos.
When the state changed licensing rules to encourage corporate investment, and other jurisdictions made gambling legal, Houssels and his board of directors jumped on the opportunity. The Showboat expanded to Atlantic City, an Indiana riverboat and Australia. The Showboat corporation proved successful enough to be sold in 1998 to Harrah’s, now Caesars Entertainment, for more than $1 billion.
His legacy in gaming would’ve been secure if all he had done was bring the Folies Bergere to the Tropicana or support the Showboat becoming a center for bowling, just as that sport hit it big.
As his father had been, the junior Houssels had long been involved in horse racing and real estate, and he joined his sons in an investment firm. His legacy in gaming would have been secure if all he had done was bring the Folies Bergere to the Tropicana—it was the longest-running show on the Strip, closing just before its 50th anniversary—or support the Showboat becoming a center for bowling, just as that sport hit it big. But Houssels Jr. did more.
He was one of the founders of the Nevada Resort Association, and later served two terms as its leader. The NRA (the initials are a bit ironic) helped unify the hotel owners—sometimes against the Culinary Union, especially in the days when the Culinary was tied to the mob and some other dubious characters, but sometimes in tandem with the unions. And it helped consolidate the hotels’ power in dealing with government agencies. Whether or not you like that, it’s important.
He was also one of a group of second-generation casino operators who have helped Las Vegas grow. Michael Gaughan went directly into the business where his father, Jackie, was a pioneer. Houssels followed a trajectory similar to that of Bill Boyd, who became an attorney and then joined his father in the trade. The fathers were important to gaming and Las Vegas history, but the sons demonstrated that they could do quite well on their own, thank you.
They also felt invested in the community. The Gaughans and Boyds have done their part. Houssels married a dancer who was part of the Szony & Claire adagio act in the Folies Bergere; Nancy Houssels supported creating a ballet company, and so the Houssels have been a key part of the Nevada Ballet Theatre for its nearly half-century of existence. The couple were among the founders of The Smith Center, and they have served on more boards and given to more causes than we have fingers and toes to count.
After his parents died, Houssels offered the family home that he once hosed down to UNLV. It was moved onto the campus, and today it is the home of the Center for Social Justice, as well as a throwback to—and reminder of—older Las Vegas. The home was built in 1933, and the elder Houssels was on the board of the original land foundation that helped UNLV acquire its acreage.
J. Kell Houssels Jr. helped bring respectability to the gaming industry in which he and his father spent their lives. Its success in spreading across the country and around the world had something to do with their success as well—as does Las Vegas’ successes.
Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.