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A bar for mom

Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall feels old-school, even though it isn’t

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Photo: C. Moon Reed
C. Moon Reed

To the untrained eye, Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon is Old Vegas. Short, squat and brown, it faces off against Caesars, Bellagio and Bally’s like Tonto to the Flamingo’s Lone Ranger. Refusing to give up its seat to the towering upstarts, the dwarf building is a plucky holdover from the Wild West days of Nevada.

But all that is wrong, sorta. “Bill” doesn’t stand for Buffalo Bill Cody. Instead, the casino is named after Harrah’s founder Bill Harrah, according to a 2007 press release announcing the casino’s opening.

When I brought my mom to Bill’s, neither of us knew any of that. Free from the burden of history, she fell in love with the casino’s “uninhibited exuberance.” After a long day of playing tour guide, I was delighted that she delighted in it. Really, it’s a tall order to find a bar you can take mom to, to create a haven of family time in the midst of Sodom and Gomorrah. Up until Bill’s, I was stuck hoping the Bellagio Conservatory would install a beer stand.

Honestly, I was surprised that any mom’s favorite bar would be Bill’s. As a general rule, I expect choosy moms to choose nice, fancy bars. But it just goes to show that moms don’t spend all day fulfilling stereotypes or shilling peanut butter.

My mom, a real human lady, likes Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall. Here’s why:

1. Wild West aura: Mom is a fifth-generation Texan, and the cowboy mascot made her feel right at home.

2. Rock-bottom prices: Saving money is suddenly fashionable. But my mom, who has retained prairie-day sensibilities, is flat-out cheap. As a souvenir, I snapped a picture of her posing with a $2 hot dog sign at the entrance to Bill’s.

3. Human scale: Unlike at mammoth casinos where noise disperses, my mom felt the small establishment’s “real human energy.” She said Bill’s was “the first place that sounds like a casino, because you can hear laughing and clapping.”

4. Old school: Mom recognized Bill’s from the only other time she passed through Vegas: the early ’60s, when she was 5.

I’m with her on Nos. 1-3, but after a little research, it turns out No. 4 isn’t true. Bill’s/Barbary Coast didn’t open until 1979, roughly 20 years after Mom’s original visit. I’ll save my amazement at Vegas’ ability to foster false memories for another article.

The Details

Place Guide
Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall
3595 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 737-2100.

Before this mother-daughter outing, when I thought of Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall, I thought of it as a literal hallway. (A natural assumption, considering the building’s rectangular shape.)

One exception was when I spent time post-clubbing with my drinking buddies at Bill’s bar. We were too underdressed to dare enter the famous Drai’s afterhours. So we leaned against the hallway bar and watched other post-clubbers hobble by carrying stilettos. Even in that tired state, I couldn’t help but admire the ornate ceiling and light fixtures. It looked old-fashioned, harkening back to a gambling culture predating even Old Vegas. But what exactly, I couldn’t place. Research reveals the original theme of the Barbary Coast to be Victorian-era San Francisco. Nobody can throw a party like the Victorians! Show me your ankles, baby!

Naturally, the 3 a.m. after-hours crowd is nothing like the 3 p.m. Big Elvis crowd. At 2:50 p.m. on a weekday, Mom and I were traversing the gambling hallway, and we stumbled upon something I’d never noticed before: Bill’s Lounge.

Drawn by the crowd, we saw an empty stage with video screens looping Elvis songs. The suspense was palpable. Circular tables and great ’70s lounge chairs cradled stereotypical tourists waiting for the King. We’re talking snow-birding Midwestern couples who belong to Elks clubs and display the “Dogs Playing Pool” fuzzy painting in their living room. (Come to think of it, some of these people must be moms, too. Out of those moms, some of them must also pick Bill’s Lounge as their favorite bar.)

The spirit of Elvis hovers over Bill’s like a patron saint. Every Monday through Friday, 3 to 7:15 p.m., his high priest is Pete “Big Elvis” Vallee. According to Bill’s website, Vallee won the “2006 Best of Las Vegas Elvis Impersonator.”

In all my time living in Vegas, I’d never seen a real, live singing Elvis. I couldn’t wait for this “first.” Except my mom isn’t an Elvis fan. Back to the Bellagio Conservatory. Sigh. But not before Mom marveled at the $3 Corona kiosk at Bill’s Strip entrance.

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