Western Passage & the new Rat (Rod) Pack

By David McKee ~ September 8th, 2010 @ 10:40 am

Let’s try this again …

Today’s guest blog hails from the keyboard of reader Jeff_in_OKC who recently paid not one, not two but three (brave man!) visits to the Western Hotel, on the fringe of downtown Las Vegas. The Western stands in isolation, kitty-corner from the flattened remnants of the Ambassador East Motel, yet another fine real estate play by Tamares Group.

I have noticed the last few years that I am more drawn to Downtown when I read about Las Vegas. It seems like it is more fun and less crowded. Maybe it’s because it seems so much less monolithic that the overcrowded, megaresorts on the Strip. Probably it’s because I lived in downtown Oklahoma City during most of the 1990s and learned to embrace the “urban life.”

The romance and history of the older parts of Vegas, along with the chance to restore something to its faded glory is very attractive to me. Add in low prices and the heightened sense of awareness needed to stay safe in the urban environment and you’ve got my blood pumping

One of the people I have most admired in my downtown studies is Jackie Gaughan. I have read all the stories about him I can find and have a half-dozen El Cortez shirts I usually wear to work. I see him playing poker at the El Cortez and hope to work up the nerve to shake his hand and thank him for all he has done for Downtown. Haven’t been able to do it yet.

The reason for my idolatry is simple enough; here’s a man who went to work every day, and cared about his employees and customers in a challenging environment. The beautiful people this ain’t. Just working-class, typical Americans. I was touched when I read the story where Mr. Gaughan told his son, Michael Gaughan, that he just couldn’t close down the Western in 2003 or 2004, even though it was losing money, because he had over 100 employees who were like family to him and he had more money than he could ever spend.

Overview of old Las Vegas, found at the Western Hotel.

Going … going … Gaughan. Fast-forward a few years and Jackie has sold out. No, really, sold out in a good way. He’s near 90 and widowed, he needs to get his estate in order and enjoy the time he has left. He gets to stay on his floor of the El Cortez for the rest of his life and play poker every day. Pretty good living, I think. The Las Vegas market has become so overheated that the Gold Spike is actually flipped for a multi-million-dollar profit [Tamares Group], who bought it from Jackie!

One Friday evening my wife and I are in Las Vegas at the same time that there is a dedication ceremony for something called Fremont East. Because I am a Las Vegas sponge and Downtown lover, I thought that listening to the city manager, city councilman, and Mayor Oscar Goodman speak was nirvana. Oscar passed out from the gout and dehydration right in front of our eyes, leaving his showgirl escorts to look down upon him and say, “Are you OK?” He recovered enough to walk off stage and leave some El Cortez honcho named Mike Nolan to whip out his four-page speech and start reading.

The crowd quickly dissipated, but I stood there listening to a pudgy, middle-aged man ramble about repairing Downtown. I loved it and when he got to the part where he said, “We can improve. (pounds the podium) We WILL improve!” I was all in. Downtown revitalization takes time. Lots of time. We’ve been working on downtown Oklahoma City for over 20 years and, within the last five years, really begun to see amazing results. It is not for the impatient, lazy or faint of heart. Nolan sounded like he was up for it.

In truth, I knew nothing about Nolan, it was very possible that he had been working Downtown or at the El Cortez for 25 years and was quite familiar with the task at hand. The concern I had about the El Cortez leadership was, frankly, the condition of the Gaughan properties when he sold them. I had been in the Gold Spike and recalled it as run down, dirty and smoky, with a crappy snack bar and a Skid Row clientele. The El Cortez wasn’t much better, the main thing I remember being the gaming floor being wall-to-wall slot machines. As for the Western, well, tourists never went to the Western. And I think people who lived south of Charleston Boulevard were considered “tourists” there. Was it an old man’s inertia that had the properties in that shape, or was it so ingrained that it could not be overcome?

The reality was that the El Cortez ownership group was up to the task, in both financial and visionary terms. Young ideas from Alexandra Epstein and others helped create the concepts of the beautiful Cabana Suites and the current suite-remodeling competition, which is pure genius. The Fremont East district is improving on a monthly basis. I come to Las Vegas every three or four months and the improvement in that block is noticeable each time I arrive. Storefronts and whole buildings are being worked over, turning the block into the vibrant area the city fathers envisioned.

The Emergency Arts building is the crown jewel, in my opinion. A converted medical clinic that still has most of the medical built-ins, it is the most eclectic mix of small, artist spaces and items such as the Burlesque Hall of Fame. The lobby is The Beat Coffee Shop, which has an outstanding sandwich menu and other excellent items. This is one of the most unique places in all of Las Vegas. Leased from the El Cortez, it is operated by Michael & Jennifer Cornthwaite, an energetic young couple who could be the prototype for any city’s urban-revitalization/arts-district efforts. Attractive, articulate, funny and hard-working, they are more than Oscar Goodman and his cronies could have dreamed when they cooked up this idea a few years ago.

Proceeding eastward, one passes the block that the El Cortez occupies on the north and — on the south — the brown-brick, windowless building that Terry Caudill (owner of the Four Queens and Binion’s Gambling Hall) and other partners have recently secured from the city. I think they plan to develop it with retail, entertainment and residential purposes in mind. My dream for this block would be that the east end of the El Cortez property, which is a parking garage, would include some storefronts or entryways into the property. Having to walk a half block in that area without any haven can give a person pause, I think. Which is a fancy way of saying that I was nervous walking that half-block because I was afraid I might get accosted without any help or protection.

Drugs, disrepair and despair. The block east of the El Cortez includes a Days Inn, Motel 6 or something like that. Some club/Mexican joint. Beige, probably OK. East of that is … THE WESTERN.

I had never been in the Western. What little I could find to read about it was not very helpful. It was usually described as dirty and run down, with a matching clientele. An unsafe place; to be avoided. The hotel had closed a couple years ago, some reports say it was losing money and others say it was in a deplorable state of disrepair where even the doors didn’t lock properly and drugs and prostitution were rampant.

Despite — or because of — all that I was drawn to the Western. It doesn’t look sinister from the outside: a white, concrete building, with some 1970s style decorative panels on the front that give it a splash of color. The hotel on the west side looks like an old, outside-entry motel. There isn’t much left in the blocks north and east of it. Old hotels and stuff that have been demolished while the property owners wait for the real estate market to come back, and come to this area for the first time.

So on a Saturday afternoon, I went in there with David McKee, and on Monday went back, first alone and later with my wife. The following is a recount of those trips blended together. The first impression, coming in from Fremont Street, is of a basic, locals casino. The thing I noticed immediately is that the small portion of the floor that is carpeted uses the same carpet that is in the Union Plaza. A unique and bright retro design.

A pleasant surprise. I decided to take a quick lap and figure out if we were safe, or if we should run to our car as quickly as possible, writing it off as another one of my dumb-ass schemes. Three-quarters of the way through the lap, I turned to David and said, “There isn’t a damn thing wrong with this place.” Inside the front door are the tables. They have four table games; two blackjack tables, one each for craps and roulette. On the west (or right) side is a small stage, along with open floor space. I’m guessing it was used for bingo, as well as some performances.

Continuing toward the back of the casino, the coffee shop (below) looks basic, but clean and attractive, with seating for 50 or so. The far south (or back) end contains offices, elevators, restrooms and employee areas. The east (or left) side contains slot machines at the back, and going toward the front is another performance stage, along with space for dancing or chairs. North (or in front) of that area is a good-sized, rectangular bar, with eight-10 flat-screen TVs, tying both areas together and showing a good assortment of sporting events.

The center section is filled with slot machines. I’m guessing the entire casino has about 300 machines, most of which are older and accept coins. No Sex and the City or Star Trek machines here. The floors are medium brown, wooden planks with two faux black “nails” at each end. A style popular in the 1980′s. The wall colors are kinda Santa Fe-type array of pink, green, burgundy and taupe. Bathrooms have metal wall stalls, with spring-loaded faucet handles. Again, something from the 1970s or 80s. Clean, just old-ish.

The customer base looked mostly working class, kinda poor and featured a pretty fair percentage of older people. All races and ethnic groups were represented. I went straight to security to get permission to take pictures. While speaking to the security people and other employees, one common theme came out repeatedly; the Western gets a bum rap! The first thing I told them is how I wanted to write a trip report and all the Las Vegas Web sites I visit think, as I did, that the Western is the dirtiest, roughest casino in town. “That isn’t true,” I told them and they agreed, almost in defiant tones.

They told stories of how they get pitying or derisive comments the first time they tell anyone they work at the Western — even from employees of the Plaza or Las Vegas Club! They admit that it was not a good place four or five years ago, but they say it has gotten much better the last year, or so, and has really been cleaned up. I’m not saying they’re all doing jumping jacks in the parking lot a half-hour before their shift, but they seem happy enough with their jobs and the Western.

So how would I describe the Western? A working class, locals casino, that reminds me most of the Joker’s Wild, in Henderson. I could make an argument for one of the places in Laughlin, such as the Pioneer Gambling Hall. Inexpensive and laid back. Nothing wrong with hanging out there.

Is it dirty? Well, I think it’s cleaner than the Sahara, Circus-Circus, Imperial Palace or Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall on the Strip, or [Sue Lowden's] Pioneer in Laughlin. Would I go there in the daylight with my wife? Yes, without reservation. Would I go there after dark? Probably. We keep getting braver and braver Downtown. Walking to the Gold Spike isn’t a big deal for us anymore. But we are also very aware on our surroundings and our travel path. [Editor's note: The Lowden Theatre, home to the excellent stage productions of Las Vegas Academy, lies a couple of blocks south of the Western.] I don’t think we’ll make it a must visit on each trip to Las Vegas, but I plan to spend much more time there.

Western Dreamin’. I’ve got a handful of ideas that might help increase the business and improve the image of the Western — while staying on a small budget. They are simple and narrowly focused.

End To End On Fremont Street. This is a promotion that unites parent company Tamares’ casinos on Fremont. On a rotating basis each week, one of the featured performers of the Rat Pack Is Back show at the Plaza would be featured in a star turn at the Western about one hour after the end of the Rat Pack show. For instance, the person who portrays Dean Martin would do a 60-minute set, performing a couple Dino songs, mixed with whatever else strikes his fancy. Showcasing their own talents, this could draw fans, friends and family, as well as local and regional talent scouts. It could also possibly turn into a Fremont Street version of “Industry Night.”

Beatnik Casino. I have mentioned this before: Tying into the young, hip, low-buck, urban-hipster scene that is Fremont East. Giving that market a more intimate and grungy casino venue than even El Cortez can provide. Beside, the El Cortez has kinda elevated itself from that segment the last few years. This ties into my big idea …

Rat Rods, Bettie Page, The Burlesque Hall OF Fame and Emergency Arts! The Western has a goodly amount of surface parking within view of the front door, as well as out back. This would be perfect for meetings and shows of Rat Rod groups. For the uninitiated, Rat Rods are hopped-up cars from the 1930s-1950s that are defiantly unfinished. They take pride in their authentic, rough-edged, unfinished appearance. Much like the non-conformists built in the 1950′s. A complete opposite of what the traditional Street Rod scene has turned into: Old men showing super-expensive, perfectly built new cars with old-looking skins. With every new car gadget and feature, many Street Rods cost over $100,000.

Rat Rod men are mainly smart, younger, non-conformist gearheads. They usually look like a mix between Sandra Bullock‘s ex, Jesse James, Bowzer from Sha-Na-Na and the X-Games crowd. Their young ladies, also very smart; look like the models at the Bettie Page Store and the classic images at the Burlesque Hall Of Fame. Beauty from the most truly American time. It is a vibrant and exciting group of people. Many of the same qualities found in “The Beat” coffee shop and other spaces in the Emergency Arts building. Tied together, this could make the Fremont East district, in reality, four blocks long. If they add other types of car clubs and shows, the Western could be busy from the automotive market alone almost every weekend, if they wish. Please note that all my ideas are low cost, yet could be a sea change in the image of the Western.

(Editor’s note: What? Like you thought I wasn’t gonna sneak a Sandra Bullock photo in there?)

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