Las Vegas News Bureau
Sunday, May 6, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Jackie Gaughan won’t fold. Twice a day, he stays in every hand he’s dealt at a poker table at the El Cortez, the downtown casino he has nurtured and championed for five decades. His “baby.” At 91, he loses more than he wins. But once upon a time, Gaughan owned a third of downtown Las Vegas, from resorts to real estate. He’s celebrated as a gaming innovator, a bookmaker who loved wild prop bets and revolutionized customer promotions. Yet most of the stories you hear are about his kindness, whether you’re talking to a cocktail waitress or Steve Wynn.
In a business known for sharks and gangsters, Gaughan gave everyone a fair shake. Maybe that’s why he was drawn to downtown’s electric, welcome-all-comers landscape. Even when it lost its luster (Mayor Carolyn Goodman compared the late-’90s atmosphere to the “rotted core of an apple” in her recent State of the City address), when investors and visitors fled to the Strip, he didn’t give up on the place where Vegas started.
Today, in the midst of downtown’s renaissance, Gaughan is the only legend left to see it. He has ringside seats in his apartment on the top floor of the El Cortez, though he doesn’t own the property anymore. He can’t manage the morning rounds on Fremont with a Coke in one hand and a doughnut in the other, but his iconic presence, his mantra that what’s good for the community is good for the El Cortez, has inspired its professional family to engage with artists and entrepreneurs, foodies and techies, CEOs and residents. More than “a good room, good food and a good gamble,” the city’s oldest continuously operating casino is a creative hub and connector of dots when it comes to making old Vegas new again.
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El Cortez CEO and Chairman Kenny Epstein met Gaughan in Lake Tahoe in 1956. Epstein was 15. His father Ike was a bookie, and he knew a lot of movers and shakers in gaming. They got a tour of the Biltmore from its owner, “Mr. Gaughan,” whom Ike called a triple-threat cinch because he was a go-getter and a hard worker and, most importantly, he was on the square. If his son ever wanted to break into the business, he said, this was the guy to shadow.
In 1975, the younger Epstein took his father’s advice and became Gaughan’s partner in the El Cortez. Four years later, he helped Gaughan and Gaughan’s son Michael open the Barbary Coast on the Strip, where the elder Gaughan occasionally bused tables and ordered the coffee shop’s strawberry chicken every night.
There are a million stories: Gaughan accepted more bets than he could cover on the infamous 1948 presidential election. He quit his job at the Flamingo after mobster Davie Berman called him a dime-a-dozen punk for asking a favor of the maître d’, even though Gaughan owned 3 percent of the property. He took six waitresses out for dinner one night, just to be nice. His prop bet on where the Skylab space station would crash (one guy took 10,000-to-1 odds it would land on the El Cortez) was the straw that broke the Gaming Control Board’s back regarding off-the-wall wagers. Despite his wealth, he drove an old Ford Bronco perfumed by his canine copilot and the gas cans he always carried in case someone needed a hand.
“Jackie’s just a regular guy, but you’ve never met anybody like him. … All these other guys, some were sort of mean, they had this certain aura about them. But Jackie was just a wholesome, nice person. Not secretive, you know? Jackie, you could read him like a book. He was straight up,” Epstein said. “You could be here forever, and I could never tell you enough stories. … He’s the one who made all of this possible.”
By “all of this,” Epstein means the El Cortez, which is paying its bills while revamping and expanding its footprint, and facilitating and creating more opportunities downtown. It’s more impressive when you consider that Epstein bought Gaughan’s majority stake in 2008, right before the economy imploded like an old hotel. He had sleepless nights, much like those Gaughan experienced when he bought the El Cortez from J. K. Houssels in 1963.
Gaughan “wanted to give it back to him a few months later and said, ‘This is unbelievable; I can’t make it,’” said El Cortez General Manager and COO Mike Nolan. “And Houssels goes, ‘Listen, you’ll shed a tear. I shed many a tear there; you’ll shed many a tear. But you’ll be OK.’ And it did work out.”
Nolan started with Gaughan in the ’70s, when the El Cortez became the premier Vegas spot for slot manufacturers to debut games. Nolan said Gaughan was the only owner who understood that volume could outdo percentage, and, true to form, he showed guys like Kirk Kerkorian and Benny Binion his figures when they wised up. He made Nolan, a 21-year-old greenhorn, a slot manager after only three weeks. Every morning they walked up and down Fremont, hitting the casinos Gaughan had a stake in, which at various times included the Showboat, Golden Nugget, Plaza, Boulder Club, Gold Spike, Las Vegas Club, Western and others. He might as well have been the mayor.
“Any customer, any employee could go up and talk to Gaughan anytime they wanted,” Nolan said. “And that was the difference. A lot of owners back then didn’t even live in this town, but Gaughan was right here.”
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These days, Gaughan usually heads to the office and sits at his desk. The walls are crowded with black-and-white photos of him with other Vegas elite and with his wife, Bertie. A still of Dorothy and Glinda the Good Witch from “The Wizard of Oz” fits just as well as a glass case displaying chips, matchbooks and the name tag of a former employee named Flo. Executive assistant Linda Button, an El Cortez veteran of nearly 40 years, jokingly said they wanted to make sure Flo didn’t come back.
At lunch, Gaughan joins Epstein and Nolan and the resident wise guys at Cafe Cortez for the “Circle of Knowledge.” They tell stories about a heavy guy named Tiny and a disabled guy named Lucky and laugh loud and long about the mysterious onion-flavored watermelon that will haunt Food and Beverage Director John “Civi” Civitello forever. They do comic voiceovers of “The Bold and the Beautiful,” and they talk a lot of shop. The El Cortez, said Civitello, is like a country club for them and for the regulars, where the staff know their names, how they like their eggs and when to cut them off.
“I could set my watch by looking at who’s at the bar,” he said.
That fierce loyalty stems from Gaughan’s standard of care. His customers got the best deals; his employees got generous pensions. He paid for a lot of funerals, even stewarded the ashes of those without families (making the hotel basement an interesting place). In the old days, Gaughan looked the other way when cocktail server Liz Butler socked patrons who got fresh. That’s probably why she still enjoys the same job after four decades, albeit without the right hooks.
Like downtown itself, the El Cortez is a charming blur of aesthetics and demographics. Through major renovations, from painting the main building’s entire exterior to gutting the Ogden House to make room for the swank Cabana Suites, administrators have been careful not to lose the essence of the place. And while diving into current pop culture, from DJs spinning in the Parlour Bar to lively feeds on Facebook and Twitter, they never forget that longtime regulars are the casino’s lifeblood.
The not-so-secret weapon is Alex Epstein.
The 27-year-old Columbia grad is the only woman on the executive team. Most of her peers in high-level meetings have been in the industry longer than she’s been alive, though she more than holds her own. She’s naturally driven. But extra motivation comes from the sincere desire to prove that she hasn’t advanced into the role of executive vice president because she’s Kenny Epstein’s daughter.
Like so many Vegas natives of her generation, she swore she wouldn’t get sucked in. She was bound for medical school with nothing holding her back. But her heart wasn’t in it, so she came home to regroup just as her father was taking over the El Cortez.
“East Fremont had been dedicated. DCR (Downtown Cocktail Room) had just opened; Beauty Bar was here. There was this underground vibe to downtown, this underground locals scene that I really found attractive coming from New York,” she said.
Her first major project was managing the overhaul of the Cabana Suites, but she made her mark as a downtown advocate when she coordinated the use of a shuttered Fremont building, which owners Jennifer and Michael Cornthwaite turned into the community space Emergency Arts.
“The biggest thing that we’ve been doing is just engaging at any level possible, in any way,” she said. “Everything that happens (downtown), we like to be a part of.”
That includes sponsoring First Friday and hosting such events as Project Dinner Table, the Neon Museum’s Boneyard Bash, a tech start-up convention and a Tweetup on downtown’s future. The El Cortez is a founding partner in Vegas StrEATS, the festival of food, art and style held every second Saturday in a plaza named for Gaughan. The property recently supplied a neighborhood charter school with casino throwaways so students could make repurposed art, and is collaborating with the Mob Museum to make plaques for some of the vintage suites dedicated to Bugsy Siegel and his brood, who owned the El Cortez before Gaughan.
Given his many philanthropic endeavors, Gaughan must be proud of the El Cortez’s co-founding of Downtown Cares. It was born last year, when the Moonridge Group approached Alex Epstein about a day of volunteerism, a one-off event that would touch downtown beyond the revival zone. More than 200 people showed up to renovate a senior center half a mile from the El Cortez, and many of them asked about the next feel-good gig.
Alex Epstein said the plan is to hold three Downtown Cares events a year. Next up, a partnership with the Las Vegas Chamber and Vegas Young Professionals to spruce up Halle Hewetson Elementary School.
“There are a lot of glamorous, exciting things happening downtown, but there are some other areas that unfortunately are forgotten and almost neglected and deserve to be cared for, too. So we really want to get people who care about downtown to care about all the things happening downtown,” Alex Epstein said. “It’s not a master-planned community; it’s not being gentrified. It’s a collective of small, individual businesses and residents that are coming in and demanding a certain thing. It’s not building it and they will come. It’s the opposite. People are coming, and now we’re going to be able to meet the demand.”
While Gaughan enjoys his well-deserved and long overdue retirement, Alex Epstein has taken over his Fremont rounds. Sometimes she walks with El Cortez Social Media Manager Jack Thalgott, who said the area’s rebirth is still so new and organic that it’s impossible to describe and even more difficult to predict.
Fortunately, widespread casino renovations and new businesses are including nods to old downtown, from the relics on display at the 107-year-old Golden Gate to Mob Bar’s hip take on a speakeasy. David Schwartz, director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research, is in the beginning stages of an oral history project on the El Cortez.
“I think it will show people that casinos really do have a history of their own, and it’s a valuable one,” Schwartz said.
“People who work there spend more time there than they spend with their families, and I think they really build a family there and a community there. El Cortez is one of the best examples. It’s also a place where a lot of people who’ve gone very far in the gaming industry broke in. … It’s a very important property.”
Despite the historic and economic value of the casinos on and around Fremont, Alex Epstein said some downtown advocates would rather see the presence of gaming diminish. But it’s the reason this city ever grew beyond a sleepy railway stop. It’s the only place in the world, she said, where you’ll find casinos on the “ground level” with the community.
Gaughan is a pioneer of that idea. Alex Epstein respects him deeply as a mentor, and she loves him like any member of her family. He dines with the Epsteins most nights, which stirs up memories of playing with his cartoon ties during Sunday dinners at Piero’s on Convention Center Way.
“I’m crazy about the history, and I love the fact that we’re living and breathing it down here,” Alex Epstein said. “Even as progressive as we’re trying to be and as much as we’re trying to be a part of all the changes going on in East Fremont, it really is the last bastion of true vintage Vegas.”
When Gaughan plays his last hand, the neon will dim on an era that sells Vegas to this day, the stylized world of fast money, outsize glamour and “madcappers,” as Kenny Epstein calls them, who were larger than life.
Friends and fans should look to the story of Irish Green, who did right by Bugsy Siegel and got put up in the El Cortez for life. Gaughan inherited Irish when he bought the joint, and in his sweet way, even though it irked him, he looked out for the old mobster till the day he died. The employees swear his ghost haunts the hotel’s vintage wing.
If there is any magic left in Vegas, these two vintage spirits will end up roaming the halls together, making wild bets on what downtown will do next.