Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014 | 8 p.m.
Robin Leach has finished his annual summer vacation under the Tuscan sun in Italy, and many of our Strip personalities again stepped forward in his absence to pen their own words of wisdom. As Robin enjoys the final birthday week of his working vacation with his family, we continue today with our popular guest columns. Here is Mark Brandenburg, co-owner and president of the Golden Gate downtown.
One hot summer afternoon in 2006, I was sitting in my small, antiquated office in Las Vegas’ oldest hotel and casino searching for ideas and money (mostly money) to enable this classic property to compete against the mega-resorts with their volcanoes and fountains. In the 100 years since its doors first opened, this hotel had weathered financial challenges such as The Great Depression and — so far — had escaped the wrecking ball of the modern era. The phone rang and the unsure voice of an assistant announced that “some men are asking to talk to the owner."
Standing in the hallway were two men wearing T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops. I managed a smile and introduced myself. One of the flip-flop wearers promptly and politely replied, “My name is Derek Stevens. I apologize for stopping by without an appointment. We are in town for the Riviera shareholder meeting tomorrow and happened to be walking through your casino. I saw a newspaper article on the wall that said you’re a small family-owned business. I have a small family-owned business, and I was just wondering if you have any capital needs.”
Thirty seconds later, we were all sitting in my office while I explained that my vintage Las Vegas casino was the last to operate without a slot marketing system and ticket-in, ticket-out technology. I was selling 8-track tapes in an iPod market. The cost for a slot system, plus renovation of hotel rooms, would be about $5 million.
On the other end of the spectrum, I had explored the possibility of building a high-rise tower in my parking lot for a cost of about $180 million. Derek responded matter-of-factly that he would be interested at either one of those levels. Thus began the newest chapter in the history of the Las Vegas original, a legacy that started with the birth of Las Vegas and roared through The Roaring ’20s, The Rat Pack era and on into the 21st century.
The story of this vintage Las Vegas property begins in 1905 when J.F. Miller attended the railroad auction that started the Las Vegas town site and paid $1,750 for a patch of dirt at One Fremont Street. Then he built this hotel (then called Hotel Nevada) — and he built it to last. Little did he know that his hotel would one day be adorned with neon as the sole survivor from the birth of the Las Vegas town site to 21st century Fabulous Las Vegas. What happens in Vegas … started here!
Birth pangs aside, many challenges would lie ahead. A case in point was 1955. My stepfather, Italo Ghelfi, and his Bay Area partners leased the hotel ground floor and transformed it into Golden Gate Casino, the classiest casino in town. Ghelfi came here with a serious work ethic, a knowledge of gambling and street smarts that belied his seventh-grade education. Then he proceeded to lose his entire bankroll within three weeks.
Ghelfi was the new guy in town, and some of the local characters he hired to run his table games were less than trustworthy. He shut down the tables and spent the next few months rebuilding his bankroll relying solely on slots and keno. Next he installed two-way mirrors over the pit and throughout the casino for surveillance. On one occasion, when Ghelfi spotted a slot cheat rubbernecking to see if anyone was watching, Ghelfi’s partner snuck around the slot bank on all fours and whacked the cheat in the foot with a hammer. He hopped out the door and never hopped back.
Having survived an initial brush with financial disaster, the Golden Gate would prosper for the next three decades, becoming a hangout for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. during The Rat Pack era and bringing a saucy shrimp cocktail to this desert town that developed an iconic status that continues to attract visitors from all over the world to this day.
So sitting in my office with Derek Stevens in 2006, we talked about the Las Vegas mystique embodied by this sole survivor and the opportunity to renovate the property to reflect its history — combining its authentic Las Vegas character with a high-energy, cutting-edge attitude that has manifested itself here in so many ways since Day One.
The result was a renovation that blended themes across 100 years — deco, pinstripes, Rat Pack and modern — with the contemporary technology that has characterized this hotel since 1907 when Las Vegas’ first telephone was installed here (the phone number? “Ring 1, please.”)
The exterior of this 100-year-old structure was accented with contemporary LED lighting. Inside, rich deco styling is juxtaposed with contemporary technology such as Nevada’s first Gen-2 energy-generating elevator and first HD surveillance system (although the two-way mirror was preserved). Many of our new suites are designed as a tribute to Frank, Dean and Sammy, and our signature dancing dealers are a modern throwback to The Roaring 20s flappers, partying to high-energy music that is unmistakably 21st century.
When you walk through our doors, you will feel the authenticity, intimacy and energy of a uniquely Las Vegas hotel and casino. After all these years, the Golden Gate is still here — and still dancing to the music.
Be sure to check out our other guest columnist today, Cyril Francis Martin Kenny of Ri Ra Irish Pub in Mandalay Place. On Thursday, we’ll meet up with Ryan Growney of South Point and learn about Las Vegas Party Petition from Greg Costello.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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