THIEF! The Gutsy, True Story of an Ex-Con Artist

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Slick's Las Vegas Then & Now: 21st in Series

El Rancho Vegas: First Strip Casino

When you think of old Las Vegas, two casinos always pop up: Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo and the El Rancho Vegas because of its history. On April 23, 1941, the $25,000 western-themed El Rancho Vegas opened on 66,000 acres. It was the first hotel on what would become the Las Vegas Strip.

I went into the army at 15 years old and got discharged at 17. The year was 1949, just two years after Bugsy Siegel was murdered. One of the biggest U.S. singing sensations was Frankie Laine who was appearing at the El Rancho while I was stationed in Las Vegas. Frankie was on every jukebox in the country.

Well, I was from Chicago and Frankie hailed from the windy city too, so I decided to introduce myself to him. I got a lift from Las Vegas Air Force Base (now Nellis) 15 miles away to meet my idol. I saw Frankie talking with some people and I walked over to shake his hand. Instead of brushing me off, Frankie realized I was just a homesick kid and befriended me.

Frankie was appearing at the El Rancho with his longtime friend and pianist, Carl Fisher. One lucky day, Frankie invited me to go with him and Carl Fisher to visit Las Vegas High School. At the time it was the only high school in Las Vegas. Here I was 17, in uniform and hanging out with one of the biggest entertainers of the time. I broke a lot of young girl’s hearts.

Other entertainers appearing at the El Rancho were Pearl Bailey, Milton Berle, Ben Blue, Billy Daniels, Lena Horne, Joe E. Lewis, Kay Starr and Betty Grable along with her husband, Harry James. Young folks probably never heard of any of them.

The resort hosted the weddings of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme (who at one time worked as a United Nations interpreter), and also Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

In 1960, I heard from close friends that fearsome Outfit enforcer, Marshall Caifano, burnt the El Rancho down because he was kicked out. But who knows? The first to notice the flames was none other than Betty Grable who ran outside with husband Harry James. El Rancho owner at the time, Beldon Katleman, didn’t get too upset since he collected a nice insurance settlement on the place. The El Rancho Vegas was losing money due to the opening of the Sahara across the street. An empty lot is all that remains of the legendary resort.

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