They may not have all their history correct but this Friday evening, August 24th, the Fremont East Entertainment District is throwing a gala street party and neon sign lighting party. We hope to see you there!
North Side of the Street
Fourth to Fifth (Las Vegas Blvd South), the El Cortez and Honorable Mentions
Where Neonopolis is today used to be a thriving business community. On the corner across from Trader Bill's was one of the favorite hang-outs of teenagers in the 1950s. Corey's Restaurant. Locally owned, Corey's served up hamburgers, fries and milk shakes as well as the usual steak dinners. Next door was everyone's favorite department store, Ronzoni's.
Ronzoni's had originally been located up on Second Street (now Casino Center) and Fremont but with the expanding saloons and gaming joints, moved further east and expanded their store. Owned and operated by the Ronzoni family, they had come down from Tonopah where the matriarch of the family had supplied the miners in Tonopah with clothes and supplies. When business in Tonopah began to wane, she packed up the family and believing that Las Vegas was the next boom town, headed south. Ronzoni's had everything. When I was a kid, that's where you went to get back to school clothes, they would x-ray your feet to see how much they had grown and fit you for a new pair of shoes. Above all else, they prided themselves on customer service.
On the corner of Fifth and Fremont was Woolworth's. With it's shiny wraparound Streamline Moderne front proclaiming 5, 10 and 25 cents and its name in the terrazo sidewalk at the ront door, it was a beauty to behold as it anchored the corner. It had a soda fountain and grill inside where many a youngster could be found twirling on the bar seats enjoying a frosty root beer float. It opened in 1948 and stood proudly on that corner for almost fifty years. In 1968, with the changing face of Fremont Street giving way to more gambling and less family oriented business, Woolworth's opened a store in the Boulevard Mall. That store finally closed in 1997 when the chain closed the remaining Woolworth's around the country.
On the corner of Sixth and Fremont sits the El Cortez. It's brick facade dates back to 1941 when J. Kell Houssels,Sr built the small casino with 59 rooms. When Bugsy Siegel finally made that long drive up the highway in the early 1940s, it was not to have a fever dream about building a carpet joint on the Strip but to muscle his way into the race wire at the El Cortez. But the Hollywood story sounds better no doubt. Siegel finally got his hands on the El Cortez when Houssels sold the property to him in 1946. Renowned Southern California architect, Wayne McAllister did the remodel on the El Cortez in 1946. In 1963, young Jackie Gaughan, who had come to Las Vegas in 1943 when he was stationed at the old Air Base (that would become Nellis). He moved his wife Roberta and two sons, Michael and Jackie, jr to Las Vegas in 1951. He bought a small 3% of the Boulder Club and 3% of the Flamingo with partner Eddie Barrick. Jackie had a knack for sports books and handicapping. In 1961, he and partner Mel Exber bought the Las Vegas Club and in 1963, they bought the El Cortez. Gaughan hired Wayne McAllister to oversee the design and construction of a new room tower.
Jackie invented the Fun Book, filled with coupons for free drinks, free slot pulls and two for one dinners. Like Benny Binion, he had a knack for understanding and treating his customers like kings.
Today, the El Cortez still stands and is still owned by Jackie Gaughan and his family. Gaughan lives on the 15th floor. He still goes into the offic everyday and can often be seen talking with guests and can usually be found at one of the poker tables betting with his customers.
The El Cortez is one of the favorite spots of the CheapoVegas/Big Empire crowd and they are holding their annual Soiree at the El Cortez this June.
Buy Chris Nichol's new book on Architect Wayne McAllister
The Rancho Market on Fifth Street (Las Vegas Blvd) which was an operating market from the late 1940s until it was torn down for Neonopolis.
World's Largest Watch Display
Not for what it is today but because of the pole. On that pole used to revolve a three-sided sign for the Horseshoe, the Fremont and the Golden Nugget.
Fremont Medical Center
This was the second location of JC Penney's. The Catalogue Pick Up and Elevator entrance was on 6th Street across the street from the El Cortez. It had all glass windows that fronted on Fremont Street. A couple of the windows broke during one of the above ground Atomic Tests in the 1950s.
Special thanks to Allen Sandquist, Cheapo Vegas, Chris Nichols and LA Time Machines.
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
North Side of the Street - Second to Third
The Fremont Hotel
On the eastern corner of Second Street once stood a Shell Gas Station. This station opened in 1930 and remained on the corner until the Fremont Hotel was built in 1956. Next to the Shell Station was a Wimpie's Drive-In with the iconic Wimpie's logo. This was one of the places to see and be seen for Las Vegas High students. It was demolished when construction began on a new hotel and casino in 1955.
The original building for the Fremont was designed by architect Wayne McAllister. McAllister was a renowned architect who had also designed the original El Rancho Vegas, the original Sands Hotel and the original Desert Inn on the Strip. Downtown, in addition to the Fremont, he had created the plans for the El Cortez. The owner was Lou Lurie, a man, according to History Professor, Michael Green, who was involved with San Francisco andMiami hotels. He was partnered with Eddie Levenson who arrived via Havana, Cuba. Levenson owned a percentage of the Sands and was reputed to have ties with Meyer Lansky. Lurie also sought out Jerome Mack and Parry Thomas who were with the famed Bank of Las Vegas, the one bank who would loan money to casino owners.
The Fremont cost $6 million dollars to build. Compare that to today, where a new hotel can set you back over one or two billion, and you realize quickly how times have changed in Las Vegas. According to author Alan Hess "Breaking the dominance of the Old West style, the state's tallest building was strictly modern.. it brought Strip amenities and style to Fremont for the first time. It had a pool, a showroom and hotel rooms. It distinguished the large horizontal public spaces on the ground floor from the modular room units in a vertical slab. The tower was faced with a multicolored curtain wall system of interlocking concrete panels and sunscreens. Pinks and red-browns were integral colors. Unlike the Strip of this era that invoked memories of grand Miami resorts, California Modern had come to Fremont Street." (Viva Las Vegas: After Hours Architecture, Alan Hess).
The first high rise on Fremont Street
When the Fremont Hotel opened in 1956 it was the first high rise on Fremont Street. At the time, it was the tallest building in the State. People and critics were skeptical that there would be enough tourists and gamblers to fill the 447 rooms. However, the owners had done their homework. They invited Channel 13, the local ABC affiliate, to broadcast from the premises. One of the announcers was local African American businessman, Bob Bailey. Mr. Bailey, of course, could not enter the Fremont via the front door. He mentioned on the air that the Fremont was making his life difficult. While the owners complained, Mr. Bailey won the right to walk through the front door.
It was here that a young singer, working with his brother, got his first taste for performing in Las Vegas. Wayne Newton was barely in his teens when he and his older brother, Jerry, caught their first big break and began performing in the lounge of the Fremont in 1958. Newton, who was too young to be in the casino when he wasn't performing, had to leave the hotel between sets. He could often be found across the street at the soda fountain in White Cross Drugs enjoying a coke or milk shake waiting for his next set to begin. Originally signed for two weeks, the Newton Brothers ended up playing the Fremont for five years, performing six shows a day.
By the mid-1960s, Newton had become a solo act and had been mentored by some of the best of old Hollywood, including Lucille Ball, Jack Benny (for whom Newton was the opening act when Benny took to the road), George Burns and Danny Thomas. When the Flamingo made him offer, he became a headliner and began working the Las Vegas Strip. His days of performing down on Fremont Street would be behind him from that point on.
The Fremont Hotel trades hands
Levenson and Lurie sold the Fremont Hotel in 1974 to a group headed by local businessman Al Parvin. They, in turn, sold the hotel to the Argent Corp. The Argent Corp. became notorious during the late 1970s and early 1980s for their ownership of the Stardust and Tropicana Hotels as well as their skimming practices. Nick Pileggi and Marty Scorscese immortalized that story, of course, in Casino. According to Dr. Green, Allen Glick the head of the Argent Corp. bought the Fremont for $62 million on a loan from the Teamsters. Though much has been written about the Stardust, Tropicana and the Aladdin's roles in the Casino era, the Fremont was caught up in the scandal as well. Glick and Argent were forced, by federal prosecutors and state gaming officials, to sell the properties and ordered to leave.
The new owners were unable to make a go of the Fremont and for awhile it looked like the hotels days might be numbered. However, Boyd Gaming stepped in and bought the property. Since then they have put a new neon facade on much of the exterior covering McAllister's beautiful mid-century design. However, the tower still has its original facade and gives a visual distinction to what the property once looked like.
When I was much younger, the Fremont Hotel did not take up the entire block. Next to the hotel was the Fremont Theater, the Las Vegas Booteryand Shoe Shine and the Desert Sands Pottery and Trading Post.
The Fremont Theatre
The Fremont Theater (approximately where the FDC Feeds Garage Dry Sign is today, was owned by the Nevada Theater Group and run by Lloyd and Edythe Katz. They also ran the Huntridge Theater on East Charleston at Maryland Parkway. The Fremont Theater opened in 1948. The seating capacity was reported to be 800 with a small balcony. Katz had come from Los Angeles after World War II. Katz had many Hollywood connections and a flair for showmanship. He loved to bring out the kleig lights and have old fashioned movie premieres.
The Las Vegas Story, Suddenly and Ocean's Eleven all premiered at the Fremont Theater. The Suddenly premiere had the added bonus of Frank Sinatra working the box office. Locals crowded into Fremont Street to see the men in tuxedos and women in fur coats and evening gowns going into the theater for the evening. The Ocean's Eleven premiere was held on August 3rd,1960 with the stars of the film in attendance. After the premiere, the party continued as the revelers took over the Copa Room at the Sands for the Rat Pack's dinner show. By the mid-1970s, the theater changed hands and became the place to see low-budget horror and Chuck Norris karate films. It was cut up into a small multi-plex before finally being annexed when the Fremont Hotel expanded.
Melodie Lane Restaurant
On the western corner of Third and Fremont once stood the Melodie Lane Restaurant. The Melodie Lane was a 20 year landmark on Fremont Street with its dancing letter neon sign beckoning one and all. Owned by Tom and Wilma Panos, the Melodie Lane opened on Dec. 1, 1951 with 24 stools, 30 booths and 29 employees. Sirloin Steak with all the trimmings would set you back $2.50 and a half chicken with rice cost $1.75.
When Wayne Newton got hungry in between sets he could be found at the Melodie Lane. Other notables who came there for the food include Western star, local businessman and eventual Lt. Governor, Rex Bell, Marlene Dietrich and Senators Pat McCarran and Alan Bible. In 1971, the Panos' closed the popular eatery and it became the Red Garter before being annexed by the Fremont when they expanded to take over the entire block.
Today the corner where the Melodie Lane once stood:
Special thanks to Allen Sandquist and Dr. Michael Green.
For more information on Wayne McAllister be sure to read:
The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister by Chris Nichols
For more information on Las Vegas Architecture:
Viva Las Vegas: After Hours Architecture by Alan Hess