HOME | IN THE MAGAZINE | BACK ISSUES | JULY/AUGUST 2014
Story by Wayne Curtis
It was all very hush-hush and discrete.
The January 28, 1958 memo informed staff of a private party the next evening in Bungalow 502. A bar attendant was required along with Champagne for the 16 anticipated guests, and bar service should include bourbon, gin, mixers and “Zabrofka,” the manager’s “special kind” of vodka.
The event was the secret wedding of actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, taking place at El Rancho Vegas. The resort wasn’t noted for its extravagant liquors or fancy mixology or over-the-top bar—but it was singular for other reasons.
“The birth of the hospitality in the hospitality industry was here,” writes Las Vegas historian David Schwartz.
Despite its fabled association with extravagant tippling, Las Vegas has never been a fancy cocktail sort of town. (Can you name Las Vegas’ signature cocktail? Exactly.) Instead, the city has always been the home of highballs and Scotch-on-the-rocks, and Dean Martin’s almost-vermouth-free martinis.
What the city did bring to the table was an effusive hospitality—at its clubs, bars and casinos. And it did so for one simple reason: hospitality was virtually all it had to sell. The rest was scrappy desert, relentless sun and casinos built on a statistical certainty that the majority of its guests would depart disappointed. The only way to assure they’d come back was to treat them like royalty.
“No cheap and easily parodied slogans have been adopted to publicize the city,” read a 1940 guide to Las Vegas, and “no attempt has been made to introduce pseudo-romantic architectural themes, or to give artificial glamour or gaiety.”
El Rancho would change all that.
El Rancho Vegas was a milestone in the desert, marking both a new place and a new time. It was the first hotel-resort along U.S. 91 on what would soon become known as The Strip, and it was built by Thomas Hull, a visionary hotelier who owned a small chain of El Ranchos in California. Local boosters had lured him to the desert for a visit, hoping that he’d build a new hotel downtown. Hull liked the area’s potential, then stiffed his hosts by snapping up 35 “worthless” desert acres three miles south of downtown—just beyond the town limits and its municipal taxes.
Hull’s hotel compiled an impressive list of firsts: It was the first self-contained resort in Las Vegas, designed by Los Angeles architect Wayne McAllister such that no one would ever feel the compunction to leave. It had Las Vegas’ first neon sign, and its first air-conditioned rooms. From its opening in April 1941, it was wildly successful in diverting travelers en route from Los Angeles. “Stop at the sign of the windmill,” the ads implored, and the five-story neon-lit windmill made sure no one drove by without noticing.
Stylistically, El Rancho also offered something for everyone. “El Rancho is as Western as an Indian rain dance and as modern as the Ritz,” reported the Dallas Morning News after it opened. “There is a chromium and leather cocktail bar for persons surfeited with pueblos and already homesick for the de luxe urban touch. There is a frontier bar, however, for the Easterner who would like to think he is visiting a Bucket of Blood.”
The Nugget Nell Lounge was the drinker’s centerpiece, the place to linger between the buffet and the floor show. Lined with white brick walls and red-topped bar stools, it featured Western panoramas behind the bar and exposed beam ceilings above. In the event you forgot what you were supposed to be doing, the bar’s light hung from a dome shaped like a roulette wheel.
Nugget Nell herself set a more whimsical tone. She was, in fact, a taxidermied deer’s head occupying a central spot behind the bar; she was adorned with faux diamond necklace and earrings.
The resort soon grew from 40 cottages to 60 buildings with 230 rooms. The saloon drew in performers like Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr. and Andy Williams. In the late 1950s, Betty Grable had a standing gig.
Almost from the day the neon first lit up, others took note of El Rancho’s success. A Texas movie-theater magnate built the Last Frontier resort a year later and a mile down the road. It copied El Rancho with a Western theme but, appropriately Texan, made everything bigger. Bugsy Siegel sought to buy El Rancho, but it wasn’t for sale—so Siegel built his own place, The Flamingo. It was the first to abandon the Western theme in favor of pure swank, and created a new template for Las Vegas.
On June 17, 1960, Betty Grable was performing at El Rancho when a fire broke out in a backstage dressing room. The wooden structure went up swiftly; the flames flared for two hours, and at last the iconic windmill tumbled into the smoking ruins.
Today, it’s an empty lot at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue. El Rancho may be gone and its drinks forgotten, but it established the lasting idea that hospitality—“hospitality as warm as a Western sunset,” as the resort’s brochures touted it—can itself be a destination. Even in a barren desert, if you treat people right in an alluring environment, they will come back.
Even when you’re fleecing them.