One of the most significant events was the El Rancho Vegas Hotel and Casino fire on June 17, 1960 that completely destroyed the property. Despite the power of this disaster, it would soon become one of the lesser known hotel fires in the history of the Clark County Fire Department.
The grand opening of the El Rancho Vegas on April 3, 1941 hailed it as Las Vegas' first resort hotel. Built by California hotelman Thomas Hull, the main building contained a casino, restaurant, the Opera House Showroom, and several shops. Low rise bungalow and cottage buildings radiated outward from the main structure. In 1947, El Rancho Vegas was taken over by Beldon Katleman, an energetic and determined entrepreneur. Katelman's expansion and upgrade of the property marked the beginning of its glory days. El Rancho attracted crowds of guests and celebrities. Most notably was the marriage ceremony for Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward on Jan. 29, 1958.
However, the morning of June 17, 1960 changed everything. The resort was destroyed completely. Las Vegas Sun reporter George Stamos captured the events surrounding this spectacular fire in the first of a series of articles about the classic casino resorts in Las Vegas, Great Resorts of Las Vegas. Below is a portion of this article that originally appeared on April 1, 1979:
|From "Great Resorts of Las Vegas" by George Stamos
It was a spectacular fire. At 4:50 a.m. on the morning of June 17, 1960, three engine companies, a ladder truck, two pumpers, and a brand-spanking-new $50,000 aircraft crash truck sped with lights blazing and sirens whining to the corner of San Francisco Avenue and the Strip. Their destination: the venerable Hotel El Rancho Vegas. By the time the fire engines arrived, the main building of the hotel housing the casino, steak house, shops, and showroom, was almost completely engulfed in flames. Firemen began pouring what was to total over $30,000 gallons of water on the searing inferno, but despite this, and the heroics of the El Rancho Vegas employees who gamely fought off the flames from the surrounding bungalows, the efforts to save the main building and its landmark neon-lighted windmill, were in vain.
Eyewitnesses, many with tears in their eyes, recalled the toppling of the fifty-foot structure, once one of the best known symbols of Las Vegas gaming and hospitality, as it rapidly turned into a massive pyre of burning wood beams. The flames finally took their toll, relentlessly eating away at the windmill’s base, sending it careening to the ground, flailing its mock wind vanes in a last, futile gesture for help.
Clark County Sheriff’s detectives Robert Metler and Conrad Simmons had been two of the first people to notice the smell of smoke and the first hint of flames, almost casually lapping up the backstage of the plush and elegant Opera House Theatre. While Metler investigated the blaze in the showroom, Simmons went into the casino, which was sparsely occupied at the time, and informed the patrons of the fire.
“The place went up awfully fast,” Simmons recalled. “But the evacuation was very orderly. The fire was very hot.”
And hot it was. So hot that the next day owner Beldon Katleman displayed to the press a lump of metal that was once a batch of silver dollars. They had been literally fused together by the intense heat. Referring to the approximately $417,000 in coin that was destroyed by the blaze, Katleman sighed and said, “Do you think paper money can do any better?”
In an effort to rescue as much cash as possible Sheriff W.E. (Butch) Leypoldt and his Under-sheriff, Lloyd Bell, pried open the cavernous walk-in vault with a large crowbar and handed out scorched boxes of money to employees as the flames raged around them.
Performers Pear Bailey, Phil Ford and Mimi Hines were almost victims of the fire’s onslaught. They were driving in Miss Bailey’s car from Channel 13, then located behind the El Rancho. The smoke was so thick that it obscured almost everything, causing the singer to accidentally back her car into a tree in her frantic efforts to escape the flames. Ford, who had been doing a comedy routine at the hotel with wife Mimi, led the Ladies coughing and dazed from the smoke and flames to safety.
Betty Grable also felt the sting of loss from the El Rancho blaze. She had been starring at the hotel with a lavish revue and had lost over $10,000 worth of costumes in the fire. She stood outside weeping openly, and watched as the flames leaped higher and higher. Comedian Red Skelton showed up and took numerous photographs of the blaze. People lined the streets, some bringing their children to view the early morning pyrotechnics. Harold Hind, the credit manager for the hotel, brought his daughter, Sue, down to watch the sad event. “I can picture exactly the way it happened,” Sue Ostanik said some years later. “The tower was really burning, then it became just a frame and toppled over. That was the first time I saw my dad cry and he cried like a baby.”
Many wept that morning, because the El Rancho symbolized so many things about this town: it’s friendliness, its openness, the glamour of top stars, and above all, the pioneer spirit of the first major investors in Las Vegas’ gaming future. It took only an hour for the flames to destroy what for 20 years had stood as the epitome of the Las Vegas resort industry. She was the regal Grande Dame of the desert.
As firemen doused the last smoldering embers of El Rancho, little did they or anyone else realize that the fire would cause a legal conflagration in the coming years.
First reports, immediately after the fire, were that Katleman planned to rebuild El Rancho in an even grander style than it once was. As it turned out, however, the hotel was never rebuilt and the property became a motel operation that was a mere shell of its former self.