OLD VEGAS - Pair-O-Dice Club
by Byron Craft
Long before Bugsy Siegel had his epiphany, there was a casino that nobody remembers.
Early in the 1930’s, the popularity of nightclubs was growing in Downtown Las Vegas and casino-style nightclubs were beginning to be built several miles outside of the flourishing Fremont Street complex, on a site that would later become the Las Vegas Strip. At the time, the lonely thoroughfare (US-91) was known as the Los Angeles-Arrowhead Highway. Owners of these early highway casinos sought to attract motorists before they arrived Downtown.
The first of these nightclubs on the freeway was the Pair-O-Dice Club. Local residents, Frank Detra and his wife Angelina, purchased land on the highway in 1930 and launched the Pair-O-Dice as a private nightclub. Later that year the club opened and, as was the custom with many of the clubs in the area throughout the era, the Pair-O-Dice became a “speakeasy.” This was during the height of Prohibition and they offered illegal alcoholic beverages, as well as illegal gambling.
Although the Pair-O-Dice had a few slots and gaming tables, it was mainly used for nighttime dining and dancing. But on May 5, 1931, Clark County issued the Pair-O-Dice’s manager, Oscar E. Klawitter, a license to run a roulette table, a craps table, and a blackjack table – and after that, everything changed. The club was re-opened a few weeks later and it was a huge success. Its success blossomed even more when Prohibition was repealed in 1933; the county permitted the club to serve beer!
The facade of the Pair-O-Dice included Spanish-style archways and a two-story, octagon-shaped entry with a ceramic tiled roof. The interior décor included art deco ashtrays, and lamps with dice and playing card patterns. It is said that Frank Detra himself wove the linens used by the restaurant.
Frank and Angelina Detra’s club encountered some problems with the Feds, who threatened to close it down because of their prior illegal alcohol sales. However, unlike other casinos, the Pair-O-Dice had never been raided by federal agents. Right through most of the 1930’s, the Pair-O-Dice was more successful than its competitor, the Red Rooster, (where Treasure Island is now located), which was built a year later. The Pair-O-Dice featured gaming, live orchestras, singers, dancing, and Italian food.
Business growth in Las Vegas in the 1930’s, although moderate compared to the 1940’s, can mostly be attributed to the popularity of the Hoover Dam project. Around 230,000 people paid a visit to Las Vegas in 1933 and over 300,000 in 1934, all mainly to see the enormous dam project that was some thirty-five miles south of Sin City. Another contributing factor that added tourists to Vegas was the attraction of gaming. Back then, Nevada was the only state to permit casino gambling. Also, Nevada’s easy divorce laws (passed in 1931), on top of the repeal of Prohibition, brought a new infusion of visitor cash into the surrounding area, permitting business people to invest in new club ideas, as well as hotels.
The Detra’s agreed to sell the Pair-O-Dice Club in 1938 to Guy McAfee, a recent arrival from California. McAfee had been a vice squad captain for the Los Angeles police department, and in the 1920’s and 1930’s McAfee ran nightclubs in western Los Angeles. Some historians like to consider McAfee as the first person to refer to Highway 91 as “The Strip,” after envisioning that a line of nightclubs would eventually form there, similar to the clubs he had owned along the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. McAfee renovated the Pair-O-Dice with a more lavish eye towards the Hollywood-style clubs that he was familiar with. When it re-opened in 1939, he designated it the 91 Club, anticipating a wealthy Southern Californian clientele attracted by the club’s lush interior, a house orchestra, and low cost, multiple-course steak dinners, along with, of course, casino gaming.
The El Rancho hotel, considered the Strip’s first casino resort, debuted in 1941, a mile closer to Downtown than the 91 Club. Although it would not outlast the Red Rooster, the 91 Club would evolve into the second casino resort on the fledging Las Vegas Strip, when it was selected by R. E. Griffith, as the future site of his Hotel Last Frontier . Griffith was attracted to the 91 Club site, because it was farther south on Highway 91, so travelers from California would see it before the El Rancho. He bought the 91 Club from Guy McAfee in 1941, and Griffith’s Hotel Last Frontier was built in 1942, on and around the former Pair-O-Dice Club property. The original octagonal-shaped entrance was kept from demolition and was incorporated into the Hotel Last Frontier , as an entrance to the Gay Nineties Saloon and the Club 21 Casino. The building remained in constant use, and after numerous reincarnations, it was imploded in November of 2007.
While casinos such as the Hotel Last Frontier and the El Rancho may have seemed to spring up overnight in the barren desert, that area of the Strip had a bit of nightlife and glamour that pre-dated the larger hotels…it was known as the Club Pair-O-Dice.