An Oral History of Ellis Island Casino

The 50-year-old off-Strip casino (and GOAT karaoke destination) keeps it in the family

The karaoke stage is small but the spotlight looms large.

To your left is the DJ, carefully watching your performance and hoping it justifies the decision to call you to the stage. To your right is a booth of revelers, who might make you an Insta-celebrity on their stories if you’re good enough. In front of you is a lounge full of patrons ready to sing along or possibly boo you off the stage—but mostly, they’re just waiting their turn.

Even for a Tuesday night, this is no place for amateurs. This is Ellis Island.

The best of the best local talent, and many Las Vegas headliners, have proven themselves on the stage at this small, off-Strip casino. Once surrounded by apartment buildings and small businesses, the now 50-year-old Ellis Island has survived one Vegas building boom after another. Next door, The Platinum tower stands as a reminder of the prerecession condo craze, while the undeveloped lot directly across Koval Lane is a reminder of all that was proposed yet never saw the light of day.

Ellis Island itself was nearly swept up in the city’s short-lived “Manhattanization” period of the mid-aughts. Yet it survived and now thrives—partly because the karaoke stage is still a draw, but largely because it remains a family business in a town dominated by corporate decision-making.

Built by realtor Frank Ellis, the casino was originally the first Village Pub, a brand that has expanded throughout Las Vegas (there’s one inside Ellis Island and even at McCarran Airport) since Ellis passed the company to his son, Gary.

In April 2018, Ellis Island acquired the Mt. Charleston Lodge, while back at “home base” on Koval Lane, the original property has undergone numerous renovations and additions since the 1990s, including the takeover and remodel of the neighboring Super 8 motel.

Soon, the family business that dubs itself “Las Vegas’ Best Kept Secret” will debut its most ambitious concept: a two-story streetside outdoor entertainment venue dubbed The Front Yard, that will inject a party vibe along the normally quiet block between Flamingo Road and Harmon Avenue.

With construction well under way, the Ellis family and some longtime Ellis Island employees sat down with Vegas Seven to discuss—among other topics—how the karaoke stage came to be what is, why Michael Jordan’s name could have been attached to the casino (had the economy gone a different way) and how far the property has come from a small bar that Frank Ellis primarily used as his office.

Gary Ellis, owner: In 1968, Koval Lane was practically a dirt road. My father and a partner bought the original 1.65 acres with the intention to build a strip mall with several different businesses. One was a bar they had planned to lease out. They were asking 25 cents a foot. Nobody would take it. He said, “I’ll take it, I can run it”—and that’s the bar that’s out there, the karaoke bar.

Brian Chausmer, vice president of finance and IT: He used this place as his office; he was in the real estate business. This became a hangout for local businessmen. All the UNLV people would come over here, sit and have their lunch and drink their martinis.

Gary Ellis: I was 8 years old then. On opening night, it was a private party and I was bartending. I mean, bartending, pouring soft drinks and whatever, behind the bar.

Chausmer: I actually started here in 1972. I was friends with the family and it was a rite of passage that all of us kids had to work here as busboys or dishwashers.

Gary Ellis: Cooks, waiter, bookkeeping, pretty much everything that had to be done here through the years.

Chausmer: The original pub was just this, just what we call the lounge—just a small restaurant, basically. Flamingo was a two-lane road; the MGM, which is now Bally’s, wasn’t even there.   

Gary Ellis: I always liked the business. [My father] started thinking about selling in ’81 or ’82, and I had an interest in it. My goal was to get a nonrestricted gaming license because I was born and raised in this town. In order to do that, you had to have 300 rooms. Coincidentally, about the time that I was making it clear to my father that I’d like to buy him out, I got a call from a local real estate broker. He said, “I’ve got some guys that want to build a Super 8. They want to build 225 or 250 rooms.” So we met, I asked them if they would do 300 rooms and we could try to merge the properties and get the resort-hotel zoning, which you need in order to have a nonrestricted gaming license. We put that deal together and got the nonrestricted zoning, and then got the state and county liquor and gaming license and opened up.

I changed the name because Village Pub didn’t really fit to let the public—the tourists— know it was a casino. I had a guy that was doing some advertising for me that came up with the [Ellis Island] name, and I said, “Hey, that’s kind of fun.” Ties back to my roots and our last name, so I renamed it and kept the Village Pub name registered under our ownership.

Marcus Zavala, vice president and general manager: I started in August of ’89. I was a kid. I worked a full-time job and a part-time job. I was riding my bike to 7-11, and I had a fake ID. I went to 7-11 and bought a case of beer, and I was on my way back when the chef saw me and said, “Hey, kid, lemme have a beer,” and I said, “Well, lemme have a job.” He said, “Sit down, let’s talk a minute.” We started talking. I told him I need a job, and he said, “I got three days a week washing dishes.” So I said, “OK,” and that’s where I started.

Karen Dorsey, president: Gary had just built the hotel shortly before I came, so the hotel was here when I came in 1990. Other than that, it took you five minutes to get down Koval Lane. Now it takes a little longer.

Zavala: It was like a little strip mall: There was Ellis Island, and then there was a little liquor store and deli and a beauty salon.

Dorsey: [Gary] didn’t have an assistant. He didn’t have anyone helping him with the challenges of the growth of this property. In 1990, it was a third of its size. There were no small satellite properties. There were no Village Pubs. It was just this Ellis Island casino. We had no live gaming.

Gary Ellis: I opened a casino in ’89 under a slot route operator’s license.

Dorsey: We had no live gaming, no brewery. We did have karaoke—the only ones to have it every night of the week.

Inspired by a Japanese bar he’d visited on the city’s west side, Gary Ellis brought karaoke to Ellis Island, seeing it as the answer to the question: How do you create buzz at a Las Vegas venue without any headliners?

Gary Ellis: With resort-hotel zoning and license, you needed to have live entertainment at the time. There was a little Japanese bar, I think it was called Kabuki, I can’t remember 100 percent. But I stopped in there one night and the karaoke had a stool and a screen—kind of like a computer screen right next to the person sitting on the stool. It was the wildest thing and I was fascinated, the Japanese clientele, they were singing American songs. Frank Sinatra was the most popular.

The guy that had put the system in was there working on it. I confirmed with the county that it would qualify as entertainment. I asked the guy to come over the next day. He put the system in; he said, “Well, just see if you like it.” I bought it that next day because I knew it worked.

Zavala: I remember unpacking the very first karaoke machine we bought. It was a new thing. It was great. It hit right away, people started coming for it. Karaoke, there weren’t very many karaoke places around town.

Gary Ellis: It was so new to everybody back then, and being so close to the Strip, you would get some typical karaoke singers that have had a few too many and can’t really sing. And then you get a lounge act coming in and would just blow everybody’s mind, just some awesome singers.

Chausmer: I can remember [Gary] saying, “Yeah, I’m going to add karaoke to the lounge.” I thought to myself, “Huh?” But it’s still, after 30 years, super-popular. You can’t get in this lounge at night. People absolutely love it.

Gary Ellis: Of course, that’s a really small area in there, so it didn’t take much to fill it up. You know 100, 120 people.

Christina Ellis, director of marketing: Everybody has an Ellis Island karaoke story. Whether it’s “I’m in a business meeting” or “I’m meeting somebody at a bar,” it’s like everyone has a story. I have friends who, when they were in college, were rowdy and got kicked out of here. I have friends who met their boyfriend or husband here.

Zavala: We used to do the Christmas parties: He would have the employee Christmas party in the lounge, and those were always fun. I’m a terrible singer. I remember somehow somebody bribed me to get up there to sing, and I was up there just tearing this song apart. Gary comes up, he’s got the hook, and he hooks me off, and I was so happy to get off the stage.

Gary Ellis: If I tried to take it out and replace it with something, I’d be in trouble. I’d have a mutiny.

Buoyed by interest in the karaoke lounge, Ellis Island continued to expand throughout the ’90s and early aughts, adding a microbrewery, new games, a Metro Pizza and the indoor barbecue (with its beloved baked beans and corn on the cob sides), as Gary Ellis simultaneously grew the Village Pub franchise. Entering Las Vegas’ prerecession building boom, it wasn’t long until the first “tire-kickers” approached him about selling the casino and making way for the next big thing.

Gary Ellis: We had a lot of them back then, a lot of people trying to purchase our property. We actually had a deal we structured, it was a conservative deal for us in that it wasn’t giving up control, before it became a reality.

Chausmer: That was back when you could do a deal on a napkin. But then, of course, in ’05 and ’06 the economy sort of tanked all over, especially here, that “funny money” dried up.

The proposed deal was the aforementioned Michael Jordan project, in which the former NBA star would have been the face of a condo-hotel development dubbed Aqua Blue. Ellis would have operated the casino, while Jordan would have lent his star power to a pair of restaurants.

Gary Ellis: Michael Jordan’s involved in restaurants in Chicago. He was a friend of the guy that developed [Aqua Blue]. It preserved the casino, there was a lot of upside, and we were going to try and get it done—and obviously times got tough, and [Aqua Blue] didn’t get the financing, and couldn’t get it done. That all went away, which was fine.

Dorsey: [Gary] is one who is never afraid to gamble, so to speak, and he never expresses any downturn in the business.

Gary Ellis: The key was that, if everything failed, then we could just get on and do what we do in our small casino, and everything would be preserved. That’s kind of what happened.

Chausmer: Eventually it’ll all build up. You know, when I got here, we were sort of out in the middle of nowhere and there were a couple of competitors around us. One across the street, even, but older properties, you know? So it’s changed as the Strip has grown and expanded toward us, and Flamingo has became a major thoroughfare, obviously.

Having survived the market crash while keeping his casino intact, Gary Ellis brought in some new familial faces to join his longtime employees: daughters Christina and Anamarie. It seemed the natural move for a family that had grown up discussing Ellis Island at the dinner table.

Christina Ellis: We have Sunday night dinner, still, and talk about Ellis Island nonstop. It’s our favorite topic.

Anamarie Ellis, director of player development: I think it takes a very special family. You have to have a very close bond with your family and great communication and a good balance of the two, working in a formal business. There really is no line of separation with work in our family. That’s why I think it worked so well with us. That’s the part that I love the most: We can talk about anything, from a family matter to a specific player, in one conversation.

Christina Ellis: I actually started working here when I was 12 years old, as a hostess with a mouthful of braces, seating people during summer break, and then just grew up, really, in the business. Every summer, I would work in a different department, so whether that was in the restaurant or I was in HR a couple of times, in accounting, even when I was at college, I was probably the only fine-arts student coming home and doing cage audit for their summer job, you know?

Anamarie Ellis: I did hostessing first. [Dad] just threw us right in for the summers when we were here. Then I did busing. I do have specific memories of me, since I was the only busser in this section, and I’d look up and my dad would just be watching with a grin on his face, watching me run around, cleaning up all the tables and lugging the big bucket around.

Christina Ellis: I think that every single one of my cousins has worked here, and I’m on the younger end of the cousin spectrum. My cousin is in the promotions department. My other cousin’s a bartender.

Dorsey: The girls couldn’t wait to come to work for their father. They’re very bright, and I guess this sounds a little funny but, for me, when I do ultimately retire—which I joked about, “When I’m 103!” because this environment keeps you very young, but sincerely—when I do retire, I feel so comfortable that this legacy is going to continue.

Gary Ellis: The greatest story I have is family. My immediate family and having them work with me. That is the greatest thing that I think anybody could want. To have them want to come back to this family business is the greatest thing that could happen to me as a father and as a businessman.

Ellis Island will open The Front Yard in late 2018. The karaoke lounge opens every night at 9 p.m.