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El Rancho Vegas, one of the biggest resorts on the Las Vegas Strip, was destroyed by fire in 1960 that had started as Harry James and Betty Grable were performing a late show on stage

Stefan Andrews

The grand opening of El Rancho Vegas took place on 3 April 1941, in what was saluted as Las Vegas’ first resort hotel. The resort was built by California hotel-man, Thomas Hull, and the main building of the complex included a casino, restaurant, shops and Opera House Showroom.

Outside the central building, there were also low-rise bungalows and cottages. Operating with 110 rooms, it was one of the largest and most glamorous resorts in Vegas back in its day.

Worth fortunes, the site was designed by architect Wayne McAllister; it had a Spanish-style exterior with a cowboy interior. El Rancho also offered horseback riding, a large swimming pool, and top shows in the Opera House for its guests.

Run by Beldon Katleman since 1947, the resort attracted numerous guests and celebrities. Visitors could play blackjack, roulette, and craps, plus hook on some of the seventy slot machines. Regular performers included Jimmy Durante, Sophie Tucker, Julius LaRosa, opera star Roberta Sherwood, actresses Jane Russel, Eartha Kitt, Rita Moreno, Gloria DeHaven, the legendary Zsa Zsa Gabor, and comedians Joe E. Lewis and Buddy Hackett. The glamourous hotel was where Shirley Bassey also made her debut on the American stage in 1957.

Photo of Paul Newman and Joan Woodward, who got married there in 1958. photo credit

Unfortunately, the entire site was destroyed early on the morning of 17 June, 1960. According to reports, eyewitnesses were seen crying as the resort was engulfed by a huge fire. El Rancho symbolized many things – friendship, glamor, openness. Moreover, it was the first such major investment which helped Las Vegas pave its way to the future as a popular destination. Within an hour, the blaze had wiped out everything on the spot.

“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 whirling 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”, this came from a passage from Great Resorts of Las Vegas, prepared by George Stamos, a Las Vegas Sun reporter, who captured the events of the big fire in the first of series of articles that depicted classic casino resorts in the heart of Nevada.

Frasher Foto postcard showing the El Rancho Vegas, Las Vegas, circa 1940’s.

Robert Metler and Conrad Simmons had been the names of two Clark County Sherrif’s detectives who first noticed a smell of smoke in the facilities of the resort. Indeed, upon their round check, they had seen that flames were already engulfing the backstage of the luxurious Opera House theater where Harry James and Betty Grable were giving a late show on stage. “The place went up awfully fast, but the evacuation was very orderly”, Simmons had commented later on.

The smoke of the fire was so huge that it largely obstructed the surrounding area. Performers Pear Baily, Phil Ford, and Miami Hines were reported surviving a car accident after an effort to escape the bewildering flames which were coming out of El Rancho.

“I can picture exactly the way it happened. 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”, these were the words of Sue Ostanik, daughter of Harold Hind, the credit manager of the resort. Her father had brought her to watch the unfortunate event unfold.

Betty Grable’s famous pin-up photo. During the fire, she had lost lavish costumes that she kept backstage, worth $10,000 photo credit.

The following day, owner Beldon Katleman had displayed a batch of silver dollars. Approximately $417,000 in coin was destroyed by the blaze; the batch had been virtually fused together by the hot fire. He had remarked, “Do you think paper money can do any better?”

Read another story from us: Las Vegas casino manager Carl Cohen became a local folk hero after he knocked the caps off Frank Sinatra’s front teeth

After the fire, Katleman had plans to rebuild and reboot El Rancho, however, the project was soon abandoned and El Rancho was history.

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