SEARCHLIGHT (KSNV MyNews3.com) — Ask long-timers to name the top gambling promoters in Southern Nevada, and you'll probably hear Benny Binion, Jackie Gaughan, Bob Stupak and a few others. Men who came up with gimmicks and deals to keep the customers coming.
In his new book "King of Casinos", Andy Martello makes the case that Willie Martello (no relation) belongs on that list. Maybe it's a case of "out-of-sight, out-of-mind". Because Willie Martello's wild El Rey Casino was about 50 miles south of the Las Vegas Valley, in the much smaller town of Searchlight.
"After the mines dried up...I mean, it really was almost a ghost town," says Andy. "There was maybe 50 people in the entire town. About the only businesses that did survive were bars and casinos. There were actually a handful of casinos in the '40s, '50s and '60s out there."
Willie Martello first arrived in Searchlight in 1946 along with his brothers. They soon opened up a casino, naming it after their favorite brand of beer. But this was more than just a bar with a couple of slots, like the other casinos in town. Willie put in table games and Searchlight's first swimming pool. He imported chef Luigi Scirocco from Los Angeles to provide a quality dining experience.
To support this kind of operation, Willie needed more than locals.
Andy explains: "People that were on their way to Las Vegas ... he took it upon himself, 'I have to get people to stop. If all they do is stop for gas, maybe I can get them to gamble a little or buy a meal or something to that effect.'"
Searchlight may seem a bit off the beaten trail today. But in the '50s and '60s back before I-15 was built, the stretch of present-day U.S. 95 through Searchlight was part of the Arrowhead Trail, the main drag between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It was a handy pit stop for Strip-bound tourists or entertainers.
"Sometimes you just need gas money to get to the next town," explains Andy. "And this was a great place to make some ... make a little cash on your way. But Willie also had family in the Los Angeles and Palm Springs area. And he was very much in the Hollywood scene out there."
With that location and those connections, the entertainment scene was — let's say — eclectic.
"Christine Jorgenson, you know, the first sex change patient." Andy recounts some of the performers. "And most notably, a lot of people remember The DeCastro Sisters very, very famously playing there. On New Years Eve one yea,r he had the burlesque legend Sally Rand performing her beautiful fan dance routine."
The only known film of the interior comes from a terrible movie released in 1962 under the title of "Tonight For Sure." As bad as the movie is ("They call them 'nudie-cuties'. It was a topless film of the 1960s," explains Andy), it has a footnote in film history as the first movie credited as having been produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who went on to legendary director statues with "The Godfather" movies, "Apocalypse Now" and others.
This is not really accurate though. Coppola never set foot in the El Rey, and in fact didn't even sign on to the project until after the original shooting was complete. He took the raw footage and cobbled it together with another "nudie-cutie" he had been working on.
"Quite literally, he stole all the credit for this movie," says Andy. "He couldn't resist the opportunity to have a movie that said 'Written and directed by' or 'produced and directed by' Francis Coppola."
The success of the El Rey came at the expense of casinos in Las Vegas, since much of Willie's business came from intercepting tourists on the way to the bigger city. The boys up north didn't like that.
"Around 1957, he was trying to expand the club and make many, many improvements to it," says Andy. "And the Las Vegas mob would have none of that. He once paid five times for the same shipment of floor tiles. Every time they'd have new things delivered to them, somebody from Las Vegas would intercept the shipment, destroy it, and he'd just get rubble and ash sent to his casino."
Finally enough was enough, and casino operators summoned Willie to a sit-down at the Stardust. Andy recounts the story told to him by Willie's niece, who says the El Rey owner came to the meeting prepared.
"Had a big bag with him," says Andy. "They met in the showroom. He sends his niece off after lunch. And when he comes back out, he doesn't have this bag with him, and he says 'Everything's going to be all right now.' And essentially, he was basically paying to make sure that his casino would be untouched from then on."
With the mob paid off, life was good at the El Rey. High highway traffic brought a steady stream of customers which Willie supplemented with tour junkets arriving by bus and by air. Then right in the middle of a sale, disaster struck.
"A lot of people say when Willie's original club burned in '62, that's when the real El Rey died," sighs Andy. "Because he put his heart and soul into that one single place. And when that was gone, he lost his dream."
The El Rey did eventually re-open across the street, but it was not the same. The Arrowhead Trail did originally run through Searchlight. That was changed to approximately the present-day I-15 alignment in 1926.
Willie Martello died of a heart attack in 1968. But he definitely left his mark on southern Nevada gaming.
"He made a lot of noise. It was kind of the P.T. Barnum way of doing things," say Andy. "He made the loudest amount of noise, and so people thought, 'Oh, there must be something there.' Only to find when they got there, it was just Searchlight, Nevada."