first resort on the Strip began as an idea in 1938 when Tommy Hull's car
broke down in front of a vacant lot right next to the Las Vegas City
Limits. The desert was blistering hot and while Hull was waiting for
help, he couldn't stop thinking about how wonderful it would be to jump
into a nice pool. He then proceeded to build a resort with a pool on the
vacant lot. The idea of adding a casino was actually an afterthought.
Hull was in the hotel business owning eight including the San
Francisco Bellevue, Los Angeles Mayfair, Hollywood Roosevelt, and
Sacramento Hotel Senator. Hull wanted was to have all the luxuries of
resorts built into motels and auto courts. He then started naming these
new types of resorts "El Rancho," including El Rancho Fresno and El
On April 3, 1941, the El Rancho Las Vegas opened on 57 acres
of land with a simple sign lifted on stone pillars advertising the new
resort. A neon-lit windmill was located on top of the casino. "Stop at
the Sign of the Windmill" was one of its slogans. Added was a gas
station to encourage people to stop. A white wooden fence ran alongside
the highway; the pool was visible behind a wood trellis palms, and
shrubs. The grounds featured a waterfall running over native rock.
A sprawling wagon-train ring of one story Yosemite style
cabins housed 63 rooms but later added 47 more. It was rustic &
friendly, sort of a dude ranch, complete with riding stables. Named the
"Village", El Rancho catered to
families. Each cottage could be reached by driving through carefully
paved and lighted streets, and had its own well-tended lawn, a shaded
porch, and all the comforts of home with well-equipped kitchens and
every possible combination of living-dining-bedroom suites. The property
contained badminton courts, dinner dancing, and an outdoor barbecue
serving the terrace. The Chuck Wagon Buffet had seating for 250 people
and was the largest in town.
El Rancho maintained its own laundry facilities on the
premises and a staff of 15 worked to iron shirts with a promise to have
them back to the guest within six hours. Ten gardeners worked the year
round keeping up the grounds. El Rancho used as much as 10 million
gallons of water a month in the dry summer periods.
The El Rancho had its own cruiser which was located on Lake
Mead that guests could charter for fishing or boating.
Stars showcased at the resort included Pearl Bailey, Lita
Baron, John and June Belmont, Milton Berle, Ben Blue, famous stripper
Lili St. Cyr, Billy Daniels, Jim Di Stephano, Katherine Dunham, The
Dunhills, Paul Gardos, Lena Horne, Guy Landis, Joe E. Lewis, Lenny
Maxwell, Chuy Miranda, Benny Payne, Harry Richman, Andy Russell and
Della, Bill Skipper, Ann Southern, Sophie Tucker, and Rudy Vallee.
The resort hosted the weddings of Eydie Gorme and Steve
Lawrence, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and Bud Abbott's daughter
Vici and Donald Wheeler.
On January 16, 1942, the El Rancho became a place of mourning
for Clark Gable and his long-time friend Spencer Tracy. One of Howard
Hughes' TWA planes carrying Gable's wife, Carole Lombard, left the small
Las Vegas Airport with 15 United States Army pilots to campaign for
savings bonds. The plane had crashed in Mt. Potosi killing all aboard.
Gable was in Los Angeles when he heard the news, and he and Tracy went
to Las Vegas to claim her body. It is rumored that Gable spent the
entire time at the El Rancho pacing his room.
Hull subsequently sold the resort and it had many owners
including Joe Drown, and Wilbur Clark. The last owner was Beldon
Betty Grable and her husband, band leader Harry James, were
on the stage in the cocktail lounge in an ad lib comedy routine with
Dave Burton, lounge entertainer, on June 17, 1960, when a blaze erupted.
Grable, spotted the flames, gasped and ran out with her husband through
a side door.
No one was injured in the fire but all that was left of the
central building after more than two hours of burning was a charred
shell. Damage was estimated at $5,000,000. Rumors stated it was arson
but in July of 1960, two sheriff's deputies on the scene believed the
fire started in the dressing rooms close to the kitchen and spread from
there. Katleman had promised that he would replace the existing resort
with an ultra-modern concrete building. The rest of the buildings were
razed shortly thereafter. Katleman's dream was never built. It remained
an empty lot, across the street from the Sahara Hotel & Casino.
Howard Hughes bought the property in 1970, then visionary
Bill Bennett of Circus Circus/Mandalay fame purchased it. In May of
2000, Hilton Hotels Corporation placed a 10 acre land parcel under
contract. The rest of the property is under speculation and remains