El Cortez celebrates 75th anniversary this month

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Kenny Epstein stood in the lobby of the El Cortez hotel and casino in downtown Las Vegas, next to a classic Cadillac convertible he’d borrowed from the Maloof family for this month’s anniversary celebration.

Epstein was born in 1941. The hotel opened in 1941. The car was manufactured in 1941.

Happy 75th birthday to all.

“What a historic place this is,” said Epstein, who has been an owner at El Cortez since 1975 when the late Jackie Gaughan brought him in as a partner. “It’s had some very colorful owners.”

Those former owners include Bugsy Siegel, one of the most feared gangsters in American history. A restaurant at the El Cortez is named after Siegel.

While so many landmarks around Vegas – Stardust, Riviera, etc. – have been replaced over the years, the El Cortez lives on. It’s a family-run business in an era of corporate ownerships.

Three years ago, the property located at 600 East Fremont Street was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“That’s what makes the El Cortez more special,” Epstein said. “There’s not too many of these places left. We’re sort of in a time warp. A time warp with new bathrooms.”

A cake and champagne party is scheduled for Tuesday, November 1, in the hotel lobby. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman is expected to take part in a ceremony beginning at 4:30 p.m.

The hotel, built at a cost of $245,000, opened up with 59 rooms and has since expanded to 364 rooms, including a 15-story tower that was added in 1980, along with a more recent renovation featuring the Cabana Suites, a separate boutique hotel right across the street.

Epstein said he understands that Siegel’s gang bought El Cortez in 1945 while they were building the Flamingo, which opened in 1946.

“They had all the employees working here to prepare them for the Flamingo,” Epstein said, adding that Siegel then sold El Cortez back to the previous owner within about a year and a half.

In 1963, Gaughan purchased the hotel and casino from J. Kell Houssels for $4 million. Gaughan ended up owning much of downtown during his heyday, was extremely popular with his employees and customers, and became a Vegas legend before his death in 2014.

Epstein first met Gaughan when he was 15 years old during a family vacation to Lake Tahoe. Gaughan went on to mentor Epstein like he did many other top-level gaming executives around town, including Mike Nolan and Joe Woody, two of Epstein’s current partners.

“When you went to Jackie’s funeral, whatever they said was not good enough,” Epstein said. “He was a worker supreme. If you were good to him, he rewarded you. You just wanted to do all you could for him. Jackie was bigger than life.”

Epstein bought out Gaughan’s ownership of El Cortez shortly before the financial crisis hit in 2007-08.

“It wasn’t exactly the greatest timing,” Epstein said. “We had to struggle for a while, but it’s all worked out.”

Epstein likes to refer to El Cortez as “The Old Girl.”

But being such an aging facility, there’s constant maintenance required to keep her running smoothly.

“Whether it’s the elevators, the plumbing, we had electrical boxes that were wrong, it’s just on and on and on,” Epstein said. “In the past, sometimes they just fixed it when it broke. Now we’re taking care of it with preventive maintenance.”

His family team includes two daughters, Katie and Alexandra, who help push El Cortez into the future without letting go of the past.

Epstein said he typically embraces the ideas from the young blood on how to keep up with the times.

“I tell everybody, ‘The only old guy that’s going to be around here is me,’” Epstein said. “You’ve got to have young people. They’re excited. That’s what you need. That sets the stage for the whole place.”

Although he still wants to hold on to El Cortez’s history, Epstein understands why some landmark owners have gone in other directions, such as the Riviera, which was imploded over the summer after 60 years on The Strip.

“When you see what the Convention Center is going to do (on the Riviera site), it’s great for all of us,” Epstein said. “The more conventions that come here, the more facilities that we have for conventions, the better it is for everybody in Las Vegas, no matter what business you’re in.”

He’s 75 and he’s proud of the past, but he’s also bracing for the future, just like The Old Girl on Fremont Street.

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