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April 19, 2014

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At his Klondike Hotel or the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, John Woodrum kept the lights on

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Las Vegas Sun

John Woodrum looks out from the Klondike in this 2006 photo.

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Klondike Sunset owner John Woodrum dresses up a 99-cent hamburger special Thursday, July 10, 2008.

Several years ago, long before any elected or appointed official authorized building a parking lot and staging area at the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, John Woodrum promoted doing just that.

Woodrum had for decades been concerned about the safety of “amateur models,” to use his term, racing across a busy Las Vegas Boulevard from his Klondike Hotel, which was built just across the street to the east of the sign.

In the summer of 2006, he said, “It happens at all hours. I’ve watched it every day for about 30 years, and it’s not getting any better.”

Sending out that warning was just one of Woodrum’s sensible moves. Years later, of course, an entrance and exit with parking spaces and even a staging area decorated by a patch of artificial grass were constructed to address the high volume of visitors to at that site.

By then, Woodrum’s Klondike had long been demolished. The little red motel-casino had previously been used as a sort of parking lot for the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, but it was a lot more than that.

The Klondike was a popular hideaway for such Vegas dignitaries as Bob Stupak and an array of entertainers ranging from Tom Jones to Cook E. Jarr, who had finished their shows and were looking for a convenient late-night hang.

So I was saddened to hear that Woodrum died just as the calendar was flipped to 2014, on Friday night at Summerlin Hospital of an undisclosed illness at age 75. He was an old-time Vegas figure, no question.

Woodrum was an original business partner of Bill Boyd who in 1975 split with Boyd to embark on his own hotel-casino venture, paying Ralph Engelstad $1.2 million for the Klondike. Woodrum began running the hotel on May 12, 1976, and even by then the 153-room hotel was already fairly aged, as it had been open since 1961, originally as a Motel 6. The Klondike was famous for its easy entrance and exit off Las Vegas Boulevard (maybe a little too easy, as hoards of pedestrians would discover), and also for its value.

The casino promoted its $2 limit blackjack tables and a pair of 10-cent-a-spin roulette wheels. The 24-hour cafe offered a 99-cent breakfast special of two hotcakes and an egg. The hotel closed in June 2006 as Woodrum accepted an offer of $48 million for the six-acre parcel from Royal Palm Communities of Boca Raton, Fla.

The investment group had planned to build a $1 billion condominium high-rise with an 80,000 to 90,000 square-foot casino that Woodrum said at the time would ascend to 25 stories. Construction was to begin in the first quarter of 2007, but the economic downturn doused plans for construction of the project.

In the meantime, Woodrum’s family, principally his son Mike, operated the Klondike Sunset in Henderson. Similar to the original Klondike, that little hotel-casino was favored by those looking for a good time at a fair price. As Woodrum said in the summer of 2008, “It’s like ‘Cheers’ all over again. People can just be themselves.”

Woodrum was vital in the preservation of Vegas history, especially helping sustain the very existence of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign on Las Vegas Boulevard. In 1976, just after he took over the Klondike, he ran a power line out to the sign, which had been dark for about three years.

But that move wasn’t exactly up to code, as they say.

“I fired it up,” Woodrum said in the spring of 2006, just a month before the Klondike closed. “It started running then. But someone cut the line — the County Commission didn’t like the line running from my place to the sign. There was a big dispute about who would pay for the power to the sign, and the meter had been turned off.”

So …

“I said, ‘I’ll keep the sign lit, and I’ll pay the power bill.”

The dispute was soon settled, with the county agreeing to pay to keep the sign illuminated, for all time. In the years since, the Klondike has been torn down and fenced off, and those taking photos probably have no idea the rich history forged on that nondescript patch of dirt.

But when I drive past all those crowds lining up for photos, I recall that crimson hotel, the glowing Klondike “CASINO” sign and remember John Woodrum.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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