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September 17, 2014

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John Woodrum, 1938-2013:

Former owner of the Klondike ‘saw opportunities to do things and then got things done’

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Klondike Sunset principal John Woodrum pictured in front of the Henderson casino in this file photo.

In the mid-1970s, the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign on the south end of the Strip went dark, the victim of electrical problems.

John Woodrum, the new owner of the nearby 153-room Klondike Hotel and Casino, which was then the southernmost casino on the Strip, felt it was vital that the prominent landmark that had long greeted visitors should be illuminated. So much so, he ran a power line from his resort to the sign and repowered it.

That led to a showdown between Clark County officials and Woodrum over just who was going to pay that electric bill. Woodrum ended the dispute by declaring, “I’ll keep the sign lit and I’ll pay the power bill.” The county, apparently shamed by Woodrum, eventually acquiesced, ran its own lines and paid to keep the iconic symbol shining brightly to this day.

John G. Woodrum, the son of a dirt-poor Kentucky tobacco sharecropper, who in just six short years rose from a casino sales representative to a downtown casino general manager and finally to owner of the Klondike — which later relocated to Henderson and became the Klondike Sunset — died Friday at Summerlin Hospital. He was 75.

The cause of death was complications of kidney and heart disease. Woodrum had been a kidney dialysis patient for 2 1/2 years, his family said.

Services for the Las Vegas resident of 49 years will be at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Dragon Ridge Country Club, 552 S. Stephanie St. in Henderson.

“When it came to Las Vegas, my father was old school,” said Michael Woodrum of Henderson. “He always had an affection for that sign. If it were not for my father, it likely would have fallen into decay and, like so many other old historic sites in Las Vegas, could have been torn down.

“My father saw opportunities to do things and then got things done.”

John Woodrum purchased the 7,700-square-foot Klondike on 6 acres from late Imperial Palace owner Ralph Englestad for $1.2 million on May 12, 1976. It had operated in Las Vegas since 1962, first as a Motel 6.

After buying the property, he and his wife, Ellen, drove southbound on the Strip so he could show her the acquisition. After they passed the old Hacienda Hotel at what was then the southernmost tip of the Strip, a growingly concerned Ellen exclaimed, “John, are you sure the place you bought is not in California?”

The Klondike, which in its heyday offered 99-cent breakfast specials and 10-cent roulette, was used as a location site for films including “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous” (2005) and “Vegas Vacation” (1997).

John Woodrum closed the Klondike in 2006 and later opened the Klondike Sunset, a neighborhood casino off North Boulder Highway.

Born Aug. 24, 1938, in Albany, Ky., he grew up in a wood plank house that had no indoor plumbing. He attended the University of Eastern Kentucky in Richmond, where he played basketball, and had a short stint in the National Guard before moving to Las Vegas in 1965.

From 1965 to 1970, John Woodrum was sales manager for three Las Vegas men’s clothiers.

In May 1970, he entered the gaming industry, working for Del E. Webb Corporation as western sales manager for the old Thunderbird Hotel on the Strip.

He then helped open two downtown casinos — the Union Plaza (today called the Plaza) in 1971 as director of sales and the California Hotel in 1974 as the first general manager of that Boyd family-owned operation. Two years later, he bought the Klondike.

In addition to his son and wife of 45 years, John Woodrum is survived by a daughter, Lisa Woodrum of Las Vegas; three grandchildren Lauren, Cole and Logan; and a sister, Kathy White of Kentucky.

Ed Koch is a former longtime Sun reporter.

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