Vegas circa 1950
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. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were married there in 1958.
The resort was destroyed completely early on the morning of June 17, 1960. The
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
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.
windmill tower colapses
Katleman and his people mourn El Rancho
Vegas, aerial view c. 1950
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 woodbeams.
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
“The fire was very hot,” he added.
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 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, now Sue Ostanik, down to watch
the sad event.
“I can picture exactly the way it happened,” she 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 epitomize 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
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.