North side of the street
Third to Fourth
People forget that Fremont Street was, in many ways, our Main Street. Perhaps the most unique Main Street in the country. As we have talked about the first four blocks on the south side of the street were filled with saloons and gambling halls. The north side of the street had its fair share of saloons and gambling as well.
Fifth Street shopping
But as you got closer to Fifth Street (now Las Vegas Blvd), there were houses and non-gaming businesses. Stores of all kinds that are necessary in a community where people lived and needed a place to shop. And Las Vegas, in that regard, was no different from any other city. Shopping in the shadow of all that neon and gambling hardly warranted a raised eye-brow most of the time. It was just an accepted way of life for those of us who lived there. Until the Boulevard Mall was built in the mid-1960s, there was no other place to shop for the necessities, except on Fremont Street.
On the corner of Third and Fremont across from the Melody Lane Restaurant was Bond's Jewelry Store. Next door was Rex Bell's Western Wear. Bell was known to have one of the best selections of Western Wear in Las Vegas. Quite often, Rex's father-in-law, King Bow would be hanging out in the store swapping stories with the customers. Bell opened the store in the mid-1940s when he and his sons moved into town from their ranch out near Searchlight. Bell was getting interested in politics and would be elected Lt. Governor. He died in 1962 while running for Governor. Upstairs, were professional offices. The corner office overlooking Fremont Street belonged to Mike Hines, attorney and he had his name written on windows that faced out on Third and on Fremont. Today, the building is Fabulous LV Jewelry and Gifts.
Cragin and Pike Insurance Agency (call Paul McDermit and Frank Kerestesi) was next door to Bell's Western Wear. Ernie Cragin, the senior partner, had originally been in the building across the street that housed the Majestic Theater (and he may have owned that building, but I'm not sure). In the mid-1920s, Cragin built the El Portal Theater next door to his Insurance Company.
The El Portal Theatre
The El Portal was the first air-conditioned theater in Las Vegas. Built by Charles Alexander MacNelledge, the hacienda style building was an immediate hit. There was no front signage, just the marquee. The sign that is still there today was not part of the original theater. The only signage originally was the roof-top sign. All that remains of the original theater are the interior beams and the exterior facade. The theater had a balcony and a strict segregation policy. Unlike Lloyd Katz, Cragin did not believe that blacks and whites should sit together in a movie theater. In the early days there was a mighty Wurlitzer organ, luxury box seats and chandeliers. The El Portal also pioneered late, late screenings to accommodate the men and women who worked swing shift and could not see the movies during regular business hours. Frank Sinatra's film "The Joker is Wild" premiered at the El Portal in 1957. Ernie Cragin was the mayor of Las Vegas during the 1940s
Today, the Cragin and Pike Insurance Building is the El Portal Luggage Shop. The El Portal Theater is no longer a movie theater but a souvenir and western gifts shop. Cragin and Pike is still in business located on West Charleston and run by Frank Kerestesi's son, Tom.
The businesses next door to El Portal
Next door to the El Portal Theater was Christensen's Mens Wear. This was a high end store that catered to men's fashions. The Christensen family is one of the oldest families in Las Vegas. It is now Coyote Accessories and Gifts. Next to Christensen's was Sam's Cafe, a small local restaurant. It is now the western side of Picadilly Circus and Pizza.
The eastern section of that building was at one time, one of the last remaining houses on Fremont Street. When neon designer, Brian Leming, was in high school he remembers cruising Fremont Street and seeing an elderly woman outside watering her lawn as the teenagers drove by and waved to her. The house was finally torn down in the mid-1960s and became Gallenkamp Shoes. My mother would take me in there every year to buy me saddle shoes for school.
On the corner was Trader Bill's, one of the best Leather and Western Gift Shops on Fremont Store. I used to love to go into that store just because it always smelled like leather. It had a large, flicker bulb arrow pointing down towards the door. he outside was made to look like a movie set Trading Post. Inside, it was leather heaven but they also carried lots of Indian rugs and jewelry. Originally, it had a wooden sidewalk before paved sidewalks were installed in the 1950s. It is now a Harley Davidson store. Kudos to Harley Davidson for keeping the sign and the facade.
Special thanks to Allen Sandquist and UNLV