What's going on with the Golden Nugget?

We went on an Architecture Tour given by our good friend, Mary Margaret Stratton and the Atomic Age Alliance last Friday.  The double decker bus was filled with folks who love mid-century architecture and signage.  One of the stops was downtown Fremont Street where we took a short walking tour.  Imagine our surprise when we noticed construction at the Golden Nugget.

After much asking around, we have decided to offer a free Classic Las Vegas tee-shirt to the first reader who can acurately tell us why the western bullnose of the Golden Nugget is down and there is a fence around the western corner.

Thanks to Allen Sandquist (RoadsidePictures) for letting us use this picture. 

  Golden Nugget

Golden Nugget

A Brief History of Fremont Street (cont.)

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.

  Corey's Restaurant with Helldorado horses

Corey's Restaurant with Helldorado horses

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.

Woolworth's

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. 

El Cortez

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

  McAllister Book

McAllister Book

  El Cortez in the 1940s

El Cortez in the 1940s

  El Cortez in the 1950s

El Cortez in the 1950s

  El Cortez roof sign

El Cortez roof sign

  El Cortez today at night

El Cortez today at night

  Jackie Gaughan as airman in the Air Force

Jackie Gaughan as airman in the Air Force

  Jackie's Funbook

Jackie's Funbook

Honorable Mentions

Rancho Market

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. 

  Rancho Market

Rancho Market

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.

  The Former JC Penney's - today the Fremont Medical Center

The Former JC Penney's - today the Fremont Medical Center

  The former entrance to Catalogue Pick-Up and the elevator entrance

The former entrance to Catalogue Pick-Up and the elevator entrance

Special thanks to Allen Sandquist, Cheapo Vegas, Chris Nichols and LA Time Machines. 

A Brief History of Fremont Street (cont.)

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.

  El Portal Wurlitzer and curtain - 1928

El Portal Wurlitzer and curtain - 1928

  El Portal Refrigeration - advertising cool-air and the original marquee

El Portal Refrigeration - advertising cool-air and the original marquee

  El Portal chandelier and interior beams - 1928

El Portal chandelier and interior beams - 1928

  El Portal Theatre - "The Gateway"

El Portal Theatre - "The Gateway"

  El Portal before the Fremont Street Canopy

El Portal before the Fremont Street Canopy

  El Portal 1991

El Portal 1991

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.

  Trader Bill's circa 1960

Trader Bill's circa 1960

  Trader Bill's today

Trader Bill's today

Special thanks to Allen Sandquist and UNLV