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July 28, 2014

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Downtown Renaissance, Part 2: Did the shrimp cocktail trigger rebirth?

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The Golden Gate — it was Sal Sagev (Las Vegas spelled backward) pictured here in 1931 — in downtown Las Vegas.

Golden Gate History

The original partners of Golden Gate in downtown Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

Editor’s Note: On Wednesday, Christopher LaPorte of Insert Coin(s) discussed a new night out in downtown Las Vegas. Today, we continue our downtown renaissance stories where it all started — the Golden Gate.

With all the talk and news focus on the downtown renaissance, it’s time to go back to the beginning — time for a little history lesson of how it all began.

Our beloved former Mayor Oscar Goodman made the cleanup and rebirth of downtown a key component of his three terms in office. He succeeded in the kick-start with the gorgeous buildings for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and the Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

Give him credit, also, for putting his stamp of Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads that opened in December 2011 at the Plaza. Read Oscar’s views about downtown, which was part of the three one-on-one interviews we posted with him in May.

“When I was elected, downtown was really in a sorry state. There was no energy at all, so I made up my mind I was going to concentrate on creating a renaissance for revitalizing downtown,” Oscar told me. “When we built a new City Hall, everybody was screaming, ‘Don’t do that!’

“We would have been left with this very monolithic, old City Hall, empty, which would have been a blight, but because I’m a lucky fella, we were able to sell it to Zappos and keep on going, and everything turned out just the way we wanted it. I wanted culture, and although we started very slowly, we did start building from that.”

Detroit high-roller Derek Stevens took over the fading Fitzgerald’s and, with exciting renovations and a major makeover, turned it into the D, which celebrates its first anniversary in September with stars including Kid Rock, Uncle Kracker and Stone Temple Pilots with Chester Bennington. Derek’s guest column was posted on Aug. 4.

Next up comes the opening within the next few months of the 650-suite, two-tower Downtown Grand, built from the shell of Lady Luck. It will sit at the center of the new Downtown 3rd neighborhood and entertainment district. CIM Group and partner Fifth Street Gaming purchased the casino in June 2007, and construction began in 2011. The project with 12 penthouse suites and a 35,000-square-foot rooftop pool was previewed Feb. 12.

“The only thing left of the old Lady Luck is the walls, the ceilings, a little bit of steel and a lot of love,” said Zachary Conine, chief business development officer for Fifth Street Gaming.

But as I said, it’s time to wind the clock back to the beginning. The history of the city’s original casino, which opened its doors at 1 Fremont St. in 1906, spans the Roaring ’20s, Prohibition, the Rat Pack era and then moved into the 21st century; about a year ago (Sept. 21, 2012), it celebrated the completion of its first major expansion in 50 years.

What happens in Vegas — always started at the Golden Gate.

Land for the then-Hotel Nevada was purchased in 1905 for $1,750, and in 1907, a year after the hotel opened with a room rate of $1 a day (no air conditioning back then), the first telephone in town, #1, was installed. Detroit brothers Derek and Greg Stevens partnered with co-owner Mark Brandenburg for its 2008 opening with Mayor Oscar for a new chapter in the downtown jewel’s history.

Golden Gate Celebrates First Renovation in 50 Years

Golden Gate, which opened downtown in 1906, celebrated its first renovation and expansion in 50 years on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Last year, the Golden Gate welcomed its 35,000-square-foot luxury tower and an extended gaming floor with its signature dancing dealers. It remains true to its Vintage Vegas character but with a new contemporary look. Next month, the owners unveil their makeover of Flair Bar on Fremont Street.

In 1991, the Golden Gate sold its 25 millionth shrimp cocktail. Food critics always poked Las Vegas in the ribs, saying we were only a shrimp cocktail city, but it was a favorite with tourists from the beginning. In fact, Mark asks a fun question: “Did shrimp cocktail help drive the Mob out of Las Vegas in the 1950s?”

Here’s his answer: Let’s just say they are ... connected. Italo Ghelfi, a restaurant/bar owner from the San Francisco Bay Area and a founding partner at the Golden Gate, introduced the shrimp cocktail to the Las Vegas casino scene in 1959. What brought Ghelfi from the Bay Area to Las Vegas’ most historic hotel and casino — and what did this have to do with the sudden departure of a notorious illegal gambling kingpin?

This Las Vegas story starts with Emilio “Gomba” Giorgetti, who controlled illegal slot operations, liquor sales and powerful politicians in the Bay Area. In 1948, Giorgetti came to Las Vegas to form a partnership with Benny Binion at the Westerner Casino on Fremont Street. When the two men knocked heads over management differences, those differences were resolved in classic Vegas style — with the flip of a coin.

Binion lost the coin toss, but as fate would have it, he later moved across the street to the Horseshoe, where he became — as Robin Leach would say — rich and famous. As for Giorgetti, the victory was short-lived. Sen. Estes Kefauver came to Las Vegas to hold a nationally televised hearing on organized crime in the Federal Courthouse (now wonderfully restored as the Mob Museum).

At the time, television was new to the average American home, and Sen. Kefauver’s live broadcasts of testimony by reputed Mob bosses attracted more viewers than the World Series. When Giorgetti was subpoenaed to appear before the Kefauver committee, the negative publicity was so intense that he decided it was time to sell and get out of town. Like any smart, sophisticated mobster, he called his lawyer.

Giorgetti’s lawyer was Joseph Alioto, who later became mayor of San Francisco. Alioto called one of Ghelfi’s partners to ask if he wanted to buy a casino in Las Vegas. When Ghelfi saw the casino’s books, his jaw dropped. He ran a successful bar in Oakland with the longest bar west of the Mississippi (a distinction that now belongs to Long Bar at the D), but he had never seen numbers like these. He was ready to come to Las Vegas.

Ghelfi and his partners bought the Westerner from Giorgetti, then sold it for a profit just two years later. Ghelfi’s next stop was 1 Fremont St., where he opened the Golden Gate on the main floor of what was then the Sal Sagev (Las Vegas spelled backward). With all the original Nevada stories at this special address, the Golden Gate quite simply became and remains the embodiment of Las Vegas history.

In this story, Ghelfi established a colorful reputation as a gaming pioneer and a beloved member of the Las Vegas community. In doing so, Ghelfi displaced a mobster and started a shrimp cocktail tradition that still thrives today. And that’s the connection!

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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