A modernized classic.
That’s what they’re trying to turn the old El Cortez Hotel & Casino, with its famous rooftop sign, into in downtown Las Vegas.
Jackie Gaughan unquestionably would be proud.
Gaughan used to own much of the downtown area, including El Cortez, where he lived for many years. He was a popular, hands-on owner who got inducted into the Gaming Hall of Fame in 1990.
Besides his Fun Book coupon giveaways, an idea that most of the other casinos copied, Gaughan was also well known for mentoring entrepreneurs around the community.
One of those is Mike Nolan, the general manager and chief operating officer at El Cortez. Nolan, who recently turned 60, first went to work for Gaughan back in 1978. He had met Gaughan when he was 16 years old while trying to become an Eagle Scout, the highest ranking for Boy Scouts. Gaughan was on the Eagle Scout Board of Review.
“Half of the town’s leaders worked with him,” said Nolan, who played football at Bishop Gorman High, studied business at UNLV and is now president of Fremont East, an emerging downtown district adjacent to the Fremont Street Experience.
Many of those who learned under Gaughan’s tutelage ended up pursuing other careers and working elsewhere.
“I just liked him and stayed,” said Nolan, who ran several of Gaughan’s properties throughout the years.
That experience and historical perspective from Nolan is a valuable asset for what El Cortez, which first opened in 1941, is trying to accomplish these days.
So, too, is the creativity and youthful vision of Alexandra Epstein, 31, one of the managing partners and the executive vice president.
Epstein’s father, Ken, is the top boss at El Cortez. Like Nolan, he learned the business from Gaughan, whom he met at age 16 while on vacation in Reno with his parents.
It’s this family affair that is leading El Cortez into the future, without forgetting its past, which includes once being owned by famous gangster Bugsy Siegel.
“There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not addressing the two demographics,” Alexandra said.
While El Cortez still features 50 of the original rooms to preserve its history, there are also newer, more colorful and updated suites that were designed to appeal to the younger generation.
The casino continues to offer an old-fashioned 3-to-2 payout on blackjack compared to 6-to-5 nearly everywhere else these days. A hotel restaurant that opened last year represents the past with its name: Siegel’s 1941.
Meanwhile, a new walkway, appropriately called Jackie Gaughan Parkway, helps connect El Cortez to the Fremont Street Experience area. It’s a constant juggling act of new and old.
“If you standstill, you’re working backwards,” Nolan said. “You always have to constantly progress. That’s where Alex comes in. We know gaming. Alex keeps us progressive.”
Epstein didn’t initially plan to work in the family business. She went to college at Columbia University, a private Ivy League school in New York City, and was studying pre-med.
However, she eventually decided that wasn’t her true passion. Epstein wanted to figure out the best way to use some of her other talents, particularly the creative and artistic side. She agreed to work for her dad, temporarily, while trying to determine her next move. As it turned out, that was the move.
“I kind of fell in love with it,” Epstein said. “To contribute to downtown was really exhilarating. It was exciting for me to have the ability to kind of change the perception of the El Cortez. In a family business, the highs are made more high and the lows are made more low. You feel everything just a little bit more.”
Not only is she behind much of what’s going on to modernize El Cortez, Epstein has become heavily involved in the overall revitalization projects throughout downtown.
She was the main force behind those Cabana Suites, a smaller boutique hotel located across the street from the main property.
Epstein knew the long-standing reputation of El Cortez, despite its popularity among locals over the years, was in need of a change.
“Crappy old place downtown, smells terribly of cigarette smoke, only old people hang out there,” she acknowledged. “Slowly but surely we’re reimaging ourselves. We’re not just about gaming. We care about the neighborhood.”
Epstein borrowed one of Gaughan’s popular lines to emphasize her point.
“What’s good for downtown,” she said, “is good for the El Cortez.”
Dave Dye is a former sportswriter for the Detroit News and FoxSportsDetroit.com. He has covered six Stanley Cup Finals, five Final Fours, three NBA Finals, three Rose Bowls and one World Series. Email: [email protected].