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August 21, 2014

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Retro secrets of the El Cortez, right under your nose

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Erin Ryan

This plaque is inlaid in the sidewalk outside the El Cortez, along with one that says 1938 was the year saddled horses were officially not allowed inside casinos anymore.

In 1941, for the cost of a single-family home today, Marion Hicks and J.C. Grayson built the El Cortez on the corner of 6th and Fremont. It changed hands a couple times before Jackie Gaughan bought it in 1963, but Jackie’s influence endures. Cleverly blending the vintage of his heyday and the modern pleasures that visitors demand is an El Cortez trademark, but a tour of the casino’s quirky nooks and crannies is all about the old days. Some highlights:

• The main building was once two, separated by a space only wide enough for one person to stand in. That space has been enclosed for many years and serves today as an employee locker room just off the casino floor.

• Some of the original rooms from 1941 have been preserved and sell out quickly, as many visitors hanker for the old Vegas experience. While the furnishings are kept updated, the doors and windows are just as they were when the casino opened. In that vein, the rooms are only accessible by stair.

• Also in the vintage wing is an old-fashioned barbershop, where you can still get a hot foam shave before a night of poker and Blood and Sands poured by bowtie-wearing bartenders at the Parlour Bar.

• The brick behemoth across the street from the El Cortez once housed the phone company. Mike Nolan says: “We had the only parking. Everybody paid 50 cents for parking and then got it back at the casino cage after their shift. We were packed at 5 o’clock.”

• Looking at an aerial view of Las Vegas, there are few buildings with tile roofing on the scale of the El Cortez, which stands out thanks to all that orange terra cotta. From the roof, right underneath the classic hotel sign, you can see a window into a room that was sealed over, the glass covered from the inside. You’d have to cut through the wall to find out what’s inside.

• There are 245 coin slot machines still in operation on the El Cortez casino floor, more than any other property in Vegas and probably the state. In the executive office, there are three cast-iron mechanical slots left over from the days when Jackie’s wife Bertie would bring her friends to play, smoke and hang out. Now that’s retro.

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