Living history: El Cortez celebrates its 80th anniversary with fireworks

Living history: El Cortez celebrates its 80th anniversary with fireworks

If you’re looking for living Las Vegas history, walk through the doors of the El Cortez. The venerable and vaunted downtown gambling institution recently celebrated its 80th anniversary with fireworks and a toast to its remarkable run in a business brimming with tales of ruthless competition.

The place has literally been around since the beginning of what most people probably call modern Las Vegas. Its early owners were as infamous as the great American legalized gambling experiment itself: Siegel, Lansky, Greenbaum.

What I’ve always appreciated about the place is its amazing staying power. In an industry that has experienced constant reinvention and the mass migration of the action from Fremont Street to Las Vegas Boulevard, the El Cortez has been a constant.

That didn’t happen by accident, I believe, but by embracing of its customers and understanding their definition of value.

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A parade of other operators has come and gone over the decades. The El Cortez has managed not only to outlast them all, but also to up its game for a new generation of players.

For me, just about any discussion about the El Cortez begins with John D. Gaughan. I was fortunate enough to interview him several times and watch him in action.

Jackie was like a small-town mayor. He was the epitome of the traditional operator who made an effort to know the employees and customers.

Raised around sports betting and bookmaking, Jackie Gaughan brought a customer-service sensibility to just about everything he did. He also recognized the importance of loyalty to his employees. The El Cortez pension program gave common workers in unglamorous jobs the chance for a dignified and comfortable retirement.

While other casino operators practiced better public relations and offered more sophisticated marketing programs, the El Cortez under Gaughan and his partner Kenny Epstein were comparatively old-school. Epstein has carried on a tradition that combines customer service and value. The results are a reminder that the old school is still a pretty good school to be from.

I realize such a description might lead strangers to the El Cortez to believe that the place that turned on the lights in November 1941 remains part of Las Vegas’s Past. Visitors anchored to the Strip and locals attached to their neighborhood casinos perhaps labor under that impression.

That’s what’s refreshing about the El Cortez. It has spent years evolving, along with Las Vegas, without losing its tip-of-the-hat for its history. A place once known most for its inexpensive slabs of prime rib now sports Siegel’s 1941 and Eureka!

In a 2017 oral history for UNLV Gaming Law Journal, Epstein discussed the evolving place he’s called home for decades.

“The El Cortez is getting better and better,” he said. “We’re getting younger people who are coming down here. That means they’re shifting their loyalty from the Strip. The Strip used to be the main deal. But it’s too expensive. … And forget about the expense, it’s also a pain. The traffic and parking … it’s just easier to get around downtown.”

So it’s not your grandad’s El Cortez. At 80, it still has the moves.

Perhaps one day, an academic will conduct an in-depth study of the business philosophy defined by the El Cortez under Gaughan and his successors. Something more is going on there than giving basic gambling value and setting affordable menu prices.

In my admittedly nonacademic view, a familial spirit there is carried on by the Epsteins and their extended family in the gambling business. That baseline of service and consistency is hard to duplicate and a lot of larger properties downtown and on the Strip have foundered by failing to respect the importance of the link between the front office and the pit floor.

As Epstein observed, “If we took the El Cortez, ripped it down, and built a brand-new place, it wouldn’t be the same. We’re like the Alamo. We’ve got history here.”

The gaming operators of tomorrow can learn a lot from the history of the El Cortez, and especially how it gets the job done today.