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Jackie Gaughan, the El Cortez and the colorful comeback of old Vegas

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Jackie Gaughan bought the El Cortez in 1963. Over the years, he had stakes in many Las Vegas casinos, but this was his love, his baby. He held onto his majority stake until 2008, selling to his longtime friend and partner Kenny Epstein.
Las Vegas News Bureau

Jackie Gaughan won’t fold. Twice a day, he stays in every hand he’s dealt at a poker table inside the El Cortez, the casino he has nurtured and championed for five decades. His “baby.” At 91, he loses more than he wins. But once upon a time, Jackie 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, Jackie 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, Jackie 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 donut 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.

Mobsters and Strawberry Chicken

Jackie took bets on where the Skylab space station would crash in 1979, including one that reportedly got 10,000-to-1 odds it would land on the El Cortez.

Jackie took bets on where the Skylab space station would crash in 1979, including one that reportedly got 10,000-to-1 odds it would land on the El Cortez.

El Cortez CEO and Chairman Kenny Epstein met Jackie in Lake Tahoe in 1956. Kenny 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, Kenny took his father’s advice and became Jackie’s partner in the El Cortez. Four years later, he helped Jackie and Jackie’s son Michael open the Barbary Coast on the Strip, where the cinch occasionally bused tables and ordered the coffee shop’s strawberry chicken every night. There are a million stories: Jackie accepted more bets than he could cover on the infamous 1948 presidential election, and his friend Jack Novak helped him come up with $13,000 by emptying his savings, selling his cars and insurance and mortgaging his house (Jackie later repaid him with casino percentages worth orders of magnitude more). 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 Jackie owned 3 percent of the property. He took six waitresses out for dinner one night, just to be nice. His sweet tooth defied reason. His prop bet on where the Skylab space station would crash (one guy took 10,000-to-one 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 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,” Kenny says. “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,” Kenny 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 Kenny bought Jackie’s majority stake in 2008, right before the economy imploded like an old hotel. He had sleepless nights, much like those Jackie experienced when he bought the El Cortez from J. K. Houssels in 1963.

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“[Jackie] wanted to give it back to him a few months later, said, ‘This is unbelievable; I can’t make it.’ 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 okay.’ And it did work out,” says El Cortez General Manager and COO Mike Nolan.

He started with Jackie in the ’70s, when the El Cortez became the premier Vegas spot for slot manufacturers to debut games. Mike says Jackie 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 Mike, a 21-year-old greenhorn, a slot manager after only three weeks. Every morning they walked up and down Fremont, hitting the casinos Jackie 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 Jackie any time they wanted,” Mike says. “And that was the difference. A lot of owners back then didn’t even live in this town, but Jackie was right here.”

The Circle of Knowledge

Every day, the elder statesmen of the casino meet for lunch with Jackie (who always has ice cream for dessert). They tell stories and jokes and do comic voiceovers of soap operas, but they also talk business. Usually, the only woman crashing the party is Executive Vice President Alex Epstein.

Every day, the elder statesmen of the casino meet for lunch with Jackie (who always has ice cream for dessert). They tell stories and jokes and do comic voiceovers of soap operas, but they also talk business. Usually, the only woman crashing the party is Executive Vice President Alex Epstein.

He’s still here. Jackie heads to the office most days and sits at his desk. He doesn’t talk much, but he draws. Layers and layers of parallel lines. You could look at them as nothing more than doodles, but there’s a pattern to the whole, probably tied to the numbers that have never stopped running through his head. 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 nametag of a former employee named Flo. Executive assistant Linda Button, an El Cortez veteran of nearly 40 years, jokingly says they wanted to make sure Flo didn’t come back.

At lunch, Jackie joins Kenny and Mike and the resident wise guys at Cafe Cortez for the “Circle of Knowledge,” better known as the CON (if you don’t point out the misspelled acronym, they assume you want something). 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 legitimate shop. The El Cortez, says Civi, is like a country club for them and for the regulars, where the staff knows 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 says.

That fierce loyalty stems from Jackie’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, Jackie looked the other way when cocktail server Liz Butler socked patrons who got fresh. That’s probably why she still enjoys the exact same job after four decades, albeit without the right hooks.

When Slot Promotions Director Timmy Wojciechowski was a rookie slot floorman, Jackie loaned him $40,000 to buy land so he could build a house. Timmy, who calls himself the casino’s Michael Clayton (because he fixes things and has been told he looks a bit like George Clooney), says he wandered into the El Cortez in 1981 to make a football bet. He applied for a job and was hired the next day. He met his wife there. Austin, their 23-year-old son, splits his time between school and the slot floor, part of an informal effort to give the property’s many Liz Butlers more young protégés.

Young and Constructively Restless

El Cortez Executive Vice President Alex Epstein is a diehard Las Vegan and lover of its nostalgic heart. She moved back to town after college in 2008 and has steadily built a reputation as one of Downtown's key advocates, contributing time, resources and ideas to philanthropy projects and creative endeavors and business ventures that are fueling the fire of renewal.

El Cortez Executive Vice President Alex Epstein is a diehard Las Vegan and lover of its nostalgic heart. She moved back to town after college in 2008 and has steadily built a reputation as one of Downtown's key advocates, contributing time, resources and ideas to philanthropy projects and creative endeavors and business ventures that are fueling the fire of renewal.

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 CON’s 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’s daughter. Spend an hour talking with her about anything and the truth is pretty clear.

Like so many Vegas natives of her generation, Alex 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 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 says.

Her job wasn’t “temporary” for long. Alex’s 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 by Jennifer and Michael Cornthwaite, who turned it into the creative whirlwind and dynamic community space Emergency Arts.

“The biggest thing that we’ve been doing is just engaging at any level possible, in any way,” she says. “Everything that happens [Downtown], we like to be a part of.”

That includes sponsoring First Friday and hosting everything from Project Dinner Table and the Neon Museum’s Boneyard Bash to 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 Jackie. 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 Jackie. Almost daily, people call or visit the office Alex shares with Kenny and Mike to share ideas for how to keep the Downtown momentum going. Echoing Jackie’s customer service policy, they try never to say no.

“Not that we have the most amazing resources, but we have a group of people that are really committed to Las Vegas and to Downtown in particular, so we really try and do whatever we can, and I think that really is largely due to Jackie’s influence,” she says.

Given his many philanthropic endeavors, the cinch must be proud of the El Cortez’s co-founding of Downtown Cares. Last year, the Moonridge Group approached Alex 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.

Downtown Cares is the answer. Alex says the plan is to hold three 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 says. “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.”

Friendly Ghosts

Jackie Gaughan is a man of the people, which is why he still plays cards among them. Mike Nolan, general manager and COO of the El Cortez, says this of the old days, when he and Jackie used to make the rounds on Fremont: "Any customer, any employee could go up and talk to Jackie any time they wanted. And that was the difference. A lot of owners back then didn't even live in this town, but Jackie was right here."

Jackie Gaughan is a man of the people, which is why he still plays cards among them. Mike Nolan, general manager and COO of the El Cortez, says this of the old days, when he and Jackie used to make the rounds on Fremont: "Any customer, any employee could go up and talk to Jackie any time they wanted. And that was the difference. A lot of owners back then didn't even live in this town, but Jackie was right here."

While Jackie enjoys his well-deserved and long overdue retirement, Alex has taken over his Fremont rounds. Sometimes she walks with El Cortez Social Media Manager Jack Thalgott, who says 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. UNLV’s David Schwartz, director of the 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. … People who work there spend more time than they spend with their families, and I think they really build a family there and a community there,” Schwartz says. “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 says 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 says, where you’ll find casinos on the “ground level” with the community.

Jackie is a pioneer of that idea. Alex 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 Paradise and a copycat devotion to strawberry chicken. Throughout Alex’s childhood, Jackie was like a grandfather. Now she considers him the El Cortez’s patron saint, a reminder of the city’s strong foundation like a walnut floor under so much worn carpet.

“I’m crazy about the history, and I love the fact that we’re living and breathing it down here,” Alex says. “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 Jackie 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 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. Jackie 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.

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