A living Las Vegas legend, Jackie Gaughan, celebrated his 85th birthday last week at his downtown casino, the El Cortez.
The Tuesday (Oct. 25) celebration featured 18 huge sheet birthday cakes, free-flowing champagne and lots of congratulations from El Cortez customers.
For most of the day, Gaughan circulated among the casino’s long-time customers, chatting and exchanging pleasantries.
"The customers were so happy to be included in the celebration," said a casino employee. "Jackie, as he has always done, was cordial and generous with his time with his customers."
That willingness to mingle with customers has been a hallmark of Gaughan’s reign over the downtown casino market.
Ever since he first glimpsed Las Vegas in 1943 as a soldier at the Las Vegas Airbase, Gaughan has been enamored with the downtown casino crowd.
A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Gaughan was born on Oct. 24, 1920. As a boy, he had early exposure to gambling — his uncle, Eddie Barrick, had an interest in a gambling house in Omaha.
The young Gaughan started out running scratch sheets to many of the bars and poolrooms around town. He especially liked bookmaking, which is still his favorite aspect of the casino business.
Gaughan spent time in Nevada during World War II, first in Las Vegas and later in Tonopah, where he trained gunners for the Air Corps’ B-17 bombers.
After the war, he and his wife, Roberta (Bertie), and their two sons, Michael and Jackie Jr., settled in Las Vegas in 1951.
Gaughan entered the casino business by first buying a three percent interest in the old downtown Boulder Club on Fremont Street where Binion’s now stands.
Soon afterward he bought another three percent in the Flamingo on the Strip. At both casinos, Gaughan showed a particular talent as a handicapper and sports book operator.
He used that talent to open the Saratoga and Derby sports books.
In 1961, Gaughan opened the Las Vegas Club with Mel Exber and Larry Hazlewood. In 1963 he bought the historic El Cortez on Fremont Street, a joint that was once owned by Hollywood mobster, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel.
Over the years, Gaughan’s main focus was on the locals market and value-seeking customers. Thus the El Cortez became known for its inexpensive meals and loose games.
Over the past 40 years the El Cortez has grown, but Gaughan has never lost sight of his vision of a casino that prospered by offering value and gaming excitement.
Gaughan extended that philosophy to other hotels he either built or bought, including the Western Hotel and Bingo Hall, the Las Vegas Club, the Union Plaza (now the Plaza) and the Gold Spike.
Even though Gaughan sold the aforementioned hotel-casinos two years ago, he retains control of the El Cortez, which is as much a Las Vegas landmark as its owner is a true Las Vegas pioneer.