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Vegas Casino History - Hotel Last Frontier

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Photo Courtesy (Nevada Casino History)

$25 Last Frontier Chip

Photo Courtesy (Nevada Casino History)

Las Vegas casino history tells us that the Hotel Last Frontier was the second major casino built on the Las Vegas Strip – opening in 1942, but even before the new resort opened, the property already had a ten-year history of on-again-off-again gaming and liquor sales.

One of the first casino properties to receive a gaming license from the Las Vegas Sheriff’s office was the Pair-O-Dice club on Highway 91, a long ways from the casinos of downtown Las Vegas. It opened in 1930 and was licensed in 1931 when Nevada legalized open gaming. It was small, basically a nightclub with a few table games like Chuck-a-luck, roulette, 21, and a tub craps table. Later, 10 slot machines were added. It was renamed the Ambassador Night Club in 1936 and then became the 91 Club when Guy McAfee bought the property.

McAfee was a Captain in the Los Angeles Police Department in charge of the Vice Squad, and he filled his pockets weekly with graft from every unlawful avenue his officers came across. Once he had enough cash, he opened his own speakeasies with hookers and gambling. His wife took care of the girls, working as one of Hollywood’s most talked-about madams, but nothing lasts forever, and after nearly two decades of working both sides of the street, McAfee had to resign his post when Judge Fletcher Bowron was elected mayor of Los Angeles.

McAfee was allowed to leave the city without an indictment, and arrived in Las Vegas in 1938. In 1939, McAfee purchased the Ambassador Night Club and renamed it the 91 Club, timing his opening to coincide with six-week cure residents Clark Gable and wife Ria Langham’s infamous divorce in March. Friends like Billy Wilkerson at the Hollywood Reporter gave him free publicity he could never have bought. But he wasn’t able to get a gaming license from Nevada at the time.

Frustrated by his inability to get licensed, McAfee sold the land for $1,000 an acre plus $38,000 for the 91 Club building. McAfee felt like a bandit, happy to get out of the dying business, but actually came back to repurchase the club years later. The buyer, R.E. Griffith, brought his architect, William J. Moore to town and they built the Hotel Last Frontier, which opened on October 30, 1942. The hotel’s slogan, “The Early West in Modern Splendor,” attracted plenty of interest, and the property was fashioned as an Old West town with hundreds of trees, plants, and other shrubs that demanded plenty of water.

Last Frontier Casino

The casino was small, with less than a dozen table games and 40 slot machines, but the resort was a favorite of Hollywood types, like Howard Hughes and a bevy of beauties that he brought to town. According to Vegas and the Mob, in just a few years of opening the licensed owners had pit bosses from the downtown casinos El Cortez and Las Vegas Club helping them with their operation. Bugsy Siegel, who was a partner with Moe Seday (and of course Frank Costello via Meyer Lansky), had a suite at the Last Frontier, which the FBI bugged during his move to take over the building of the Flamingo.

The casino did quite well as Vegas and the Mob became better acquainted. Griffith died in ’43, and Moore was forced out in 1951 when the resorts other shareholders sold the property to Jake Kozloff, Guy McAfee, and Beldon Katleman. Jake wanted a new name, so the resort became “The New Frontier.”

The resort was successful while offering big-name entertainment like the Marx Brothers, Judy Garland, Ronald Regan, and eventually Sammy Davis, Jr. and even Frank Sinatra. In 1956, Elvis Presley made his first Las Vegas appearance.

In the early ‘60’s, the casino was again closed, unable to find a suitable casino owner. In 1966, the Frontier Operating Company was formed and one of the owners was a young Steve Wynn, unaware at the time that the current owners included Detroit Mob bosses Michael Polizzi and Anthony Zerilli. Howard Hughes bought the struggling (both privately and publicly) property for $14 million in September of ’67 and changed the name to “The Frontier.” Strangely enough, with no skim going out of the property, even Howard Hughes was able to turn a profit and run the casino in the black.

The Frontier continued to bring big-name entertainment to their showroom, featuring acts like The Supremes, Flip Wilson, Bob Newhart, Wayne and Jerry Newton, and Bobby Darin. Hughes’s company, Summa Corp., sold the property in 1988 to Margaret Elardi. In a cost-saving measure, she closed the showroom, which had featured Siegfried and Roy. It was the beginning of a long, torturous slide for the property.

In further cost-saving measures, worker pay was cut, along with the loss of hotel and welfare benefits. Union workers from four local groups went on strike. A picket line was manned, and traffic to the property was impacted by the pickets. The strike lasted 61 months until Phil Ruffin bought the property in 1997 for $167 million and agreed to a new five-year contract to end the strike. He also changed the name of the property back to the “New Frontier.”

The Las Vegas resort, variously named the Hotel Last Frontier and the New Frontier, kept its casino doors open for a total of 65 years until July 16, 2007. On November 13, 2007, the property was imploded.

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