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THE MEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS - CREATOR OF THE STRIP THOMAS HULL

THE MEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS
by Byron Craft

CREATOR OF THE STRIP
THOMAS HULL

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(photo: Betty Grable (the famous pinup poster actress, singer and dancer) appeared at Thomas Hull’s “El Rancho”, along with Tony Bennett, Nat “King” Cole and more.)

“I want to build on the road going into town,” the man said, pointing at the corner of San Francisco Avenue and the Los Angeles Highway (nowadays West Sahara Avenue and Highway 91, i.e. Las Vegas Boulevard). There is a widely held legend that he selected the site because he once had a flat tire there and idly counted the cars that drove by while waiting for a tow truck. The man realized that the traffic was heavy enough to support a roadside resort. As legends evolve, there is usually more than one version of the story. In this case, some say that the main reason he picked the site was that it was owned by a single individual who had no partners, so a deal to buy it could be closed quickly. Another, and a more likely account, has it that he fantasized about a large swimming pool in the Las Vegas desert. It was the germ of an idea that eventually inspired the notion of the first hotel casino on Highway 91. Consequently, he hired a man to stand at the corner for a month, counting how many cars with out-of-state license plates passed by. The number was so high that he bought the land for one hundred dollars per acre.

 

Whatever the reason, Thomas Hull (the legend of this story) put Las Vegas in the resort business and determined that there would be a Las Vegas Strip.

Thomas Hull was born in Colorado Springs on October 3, 1893. Hull grew up in the rocky mountain state and graduated from the Colorado Agricultural and Mining College in 1913. He then tried to pursue his mining trade in Mexico, but soon ran into trouble. It was violent revolutionary times in Mexico and he fled the country walking 600 miles back to safety. Tommy Hull was an adventurer and a risk taker, who had put both his life and his fortune in jeopardy when occasion demanded. He was not afraid to take chances.

Hull operated a movie theater in New Mexico, but the venture was unsuccessful. The United States entered World War I around that time and his college education awarded him an officer’s commission and he became a flight instructor for the Army Air Corp. After the war he had a moderate success running several movie theaters in Austin, Texas. Hull sold the theater chain to a larger corporation at a profit and joined his father in the hotel business in San Francisco. The entrepreneur was in his DNA, and in due course, he acquired the Bellevue Hotel in San Francisco (a 1910 Beaux Arts building that welcomed guests into a lobby bathed in natural light from large glass domes above and warmed by a floor-to-ceiling fireplace. The Bellevue shimmered with magic and drama. Thomas Hull traded upon his own background as a pilot to make the Bellevue Hotel a gathering spot for America’s first generation of aviation heroes, such as Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker, Wiley Post and Clyde (Upside-Down) Pangborn – a stunt pilot and the first person to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean. The results were overwhelming. The Bellevue was normally booked solid 365 days a year.

By September of 1932, Hull took over the venerable who’s-who of hotel properties, the Mayfair Hotel Los Angeles, and soon obtained the Hollywood Roosevelt, a twelve-story Spanish-style hotel named after Theodore Roosevelt and financed by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Louis B. Mayer. Then followed the acquisition of the Hotel Senator, a 400-room Italian Renaissance-style structure that was the Grande dame of the Sacramento hostelries. Eventually Thomas Hull placed eight other hotels under his management. One of Hull’s innovations was to extend the services and ambience of first-class hotels into a string of motels and auto courts – places where luxury had been previously unseen. He christened each of his new auto hotels the “El Rancho” – a name that not only stuck with him for the rest of his life, but he made internationally famous.

On that desolate Highway 91 landscape dotted with cacti, rocks and shifting sands, he built his Las Vegas version of the “El Rancho”. The El Rancho opened on April 3, 1941. Thomas Hull reckoned that the main functions of the hotel would be to offer refreshments and rest to travelers on the long hot journey from Los Angeles to Salt Lake. His key marketing strategy and attraction was a swimming pool built only a few feet from the highway. His original plan didn’t even include a casino. However, when Tommy Hull started his hotel, several of his friends in Las Vegas said, “Why don’t you build a casino?”

Thus the Hotel El Rancho Vegas (and casino), as it ended up, earned a place in the annals of gaming history. It was the first full-scale casino resort on Highway 91, and within ten years of the El Rancho’s opening, it would become known as the Las Vegas Strip. Although it did not have the glitz or notoriety of some of the other early casinos that followed years later (most notably, the Flamingo and the Desert Inn), it was nonetheless the Strip pioneer.

When the El Rancho Vegas opened, Southern Nevada was a very different place. There were only a few isolated gambling clubs on the Highway, but no full-fledged casino hotels. In actual fact, the idea of the casino resort, an integrated complex that included gaming, lodging, dining, entertainment, and retail conveniences, did not exist until then. Gambling in Nevada, barely a decade since its 1931 re-legalization, almost exclusively occurred in gambling halls in Reno, Las Vegas, and other small towns in Nevada.

Tommy Hull conceived of his hotel casino as a true destination resort, where all of a guest’s needs would be met. The resort’s patrons could now shun the rough-and-tumble sawdust and spittoon world of Fremont Street and Block 16 (Vegas’ red light district), for an elegant, controlled vacation on a secluded oasis of green, miles from downtown Sin City. 

The concept was revolutionary and marked a paradigm shift in patterns of American gaming. The El Rancho, as expected, was followed by several self-contained resorts on Highway 91, and by the early 1950’s, the roadway had become known fondly as the Las Vegas Strip.

The El Rancho resort was the largest hotel in Las Vegas at that time, opening with 63 rooms. It had 144 rooms by 1947, which eventually grew to 220. Thomas Hull (on right) was a successful marketer who wanted to give his guests more than just a room. He wanted his guests to be entertained as well. The El Rancho had good shows in Las Vegas. The showroom had a 10-piece band. Some of the stars who had appeared at the El Rancho were Betty Grable, Joe E. Lewis, Chico Marx, Abbott and Costello, Eartha Kitt, Guy Lombardo, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett, Buddy Hackett and Lena Horne.

The El Rancho was also the first “theme resort.” The dining room was built in the form of a corral, with the dance floor being the center. The walls were brick, the ceiling had open wood beams with chandeliers made out of wagon wheels and there was a wishing well against one wall. Each table was lit by a hurricane lamp with a leather lampshade and the chairs were also of stitched leather. There was a dinner theater room called the Round Up Room and a Chuck Wagon Buffet with seating for 250 people. All future hotels copied this buffet feature from El Rancho Vegas. Coffee was free and breakfast was on the house.

For its guests, El Rancho had an abundance of amenities, like shopping for men’s and women’s clothing, a health club, a pool, a barbershop, a beauty salon, a gift shop, laundry and valet services, horseback riding, year-round swimming, golfing, badminton courts and an outdoor barbecue. Imagine, if you will, it is 1941, mom and dad are driving along Highway 91 with a carload of kids, and all of sudden they hear, “Mommy, Daddy – look they’ve got a pool! Let’s stay there! Oh can we, can we?”

Thomas Hull was an intelligent businessman and an expert in marketing, but he didn’t know anything about the gambling business. He leased out the casino to people who knew the gaming trade. The casino opened with two blackjack tables, one roulette table, one dice table, and seventy slot machines, an intimate gambling environment. By 1945, the casino had several blackjack tables, two roulette tables and two dice tables. The El Rancho Vegas even had a yacht for its high rollers to use on Lake Mead.

One of the first bands to play the El Rancho was Garwood Van’s. The leader fell in love with the area and ended up spending the rest of his life in Las Vegas, founding a local music company. Locals booked the dining room for wedding parties and banquets. Many said that they had been waiting for a resort hotel for decades and they thought that the El Rancho was their best bet. It was greeted very well. Some were skeptical because it was clear out-of-town in those days, however, there was so much business, that guests needed reservations well in advance to stay at El Rancho Vegas. Even celebrities couldn’t always get a table. One evening, movie star Wallace Beery and his family were denied a table. “I don’t want to see no goddamned show, I just want to have dinner,” roared Beery. Garwood Van, who by that time had acquired some authority beyond his role as a bandleader, had a table set up for the family at poolside, converting an unavoidable snub into a memorable evening for the Beery family.

Tommy Hull was the fellow who was determined that the Las Vegas El Rancho wouldn’t be a black tie only resort. When opening night came, many Las Vegans wore formal evening wear. Hull showed up attired in jeans, boots and a cowboy shirt. An urbane sophisticate at this stage in his life, he reverted to his native western drawl, and according to reports, repeatedly uttered the words, which became his motto: “Come as you are.”

Hull’s resort hadn’t been open long when another western style casino would try to rustle some of their buckaroos away from the El Rancho. R.E. Griffith, who had built and run a chain of movie theaters in the South, and his nephew, were thinking of expanding into the hotel business in New Mexico, but when they made a business trip to Los Angeles coming through Las Vegas on their way home, they were so impressed that they immediately changed their plans.

In one of the rare ironies of history, which seemed to defy all of the odds, Griffith had planned to name their new hotel El Rancho, long before he had heard of Tommy Hull’s resort. Finding one already open with that name, Griffith settled on calling his hotel casino “The Last Frontier.” Like Hull, he and his partners chose to operate south of town on the Los Angeles Highway.

Griffith and his nephew were experienced promoters. They used their connections in the theatrical business to bring in stars to entertain their resort’s visitors. Tommy Hull had no such connections, so he raided their stable of performers to supply his own showroom, often offering the stars twice the salary they were making at The Last Frontier.

The El Rancho Vegas went through several changes before Beldon Katleman inherited a share of the resort from an uncle and bought out Hull and the the other shareholders, becoming the sole proprietor. Katleman renovated the El Rancho Vegas and it continued its career as a premier Vegas showplace throughout the 1950s. Though it expanded periodically, it never matched the size of newer resorts of that period, such as the Riviera, the Tropicana, and the Stardust.

The El Rancho Vegas was still a respected quality casino with good accommodations and entertainment when, in 1960, a catastrophic blaze burned its central structure to the ground. Harry James and Betty Grable were performing a late show on stage when the fire broke out. There were no deaths or injuries. After the fire, Beldon Katleman said that he would rebuild a fancier and bigger El Rancho Vegas, but he never did. He moved to Los Angeles and left the gaming business for good. The El Rancho struggled for a few years as a non-casino motel before being closed down.

Hull’s name was soon forgotten, when history was altered to show that Benjamin Siegel was the founder of the Strip. What is paradoxical is that Hull headed a group of investors in 1955 that bought Siegel’s most cherished possession... the Flamingo. There is no record of interviews or comments from Hull regarding the death of his dream, but many of his friends felt his sadness, knowing that it was no more. Just 13 months after the El Rancho was closed permanently, on July 17, 1964, at the age of 70, Thomas Hull passed away of a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home, where he lived with his wife, former entertainer, Lynn Starr Hull.

No one will ever know if the Strip would be where it is today, let alone the impact made by the creation of themed resorts, if it wasn’t for Tommy Hull and his dream of a place intended as rest and comfort for weary travelers.

The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft
chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.

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