LAS VEGAS — One of the last surviving legends of old Las Vegas has died.
John “Jackie” Gaughan once owned as much as a third of the property in downtown Las Vegas, and he lived out his last years in the penthouse of the smoky, cacophonous historic El Cortez casino.
He died Wednesday in hospice care at 93.
Gaughan, sometimes called the king of downtown Las Vegas, was born to a Nebraska bookmaker and raised in Omaha.
He graduated from Creighton University and moved to Las Vegas with his family in 1951, after a local gambling tax hike crippled the Nebraska bookmaking industry.
That year, the family bought a stake in the Flamingo Hotel on the Strip. Gaughan soon refocused on the downtown core of the city, favored by the rat pack and nicknamed “glitter gulch” after the old casinos’ sparkling marquees. During his decades-long career, Gaughan owned parts of the Plaza, Golden Nugget, Showboat, Boulder Club, Gold Spike, the Western and Las Vegas Club, as well as other local institutions.
He became a beloved figure in an often cutthroat town filled with big egos.
Wynn Resorts Ltd. CEO Steve Wynn called him “impossible to replace” in a statement Wednesday.
“I believe it would take a month to name all of the friends that Jackie Gaughan had in the state of Nevada. It would take that long to list all of the people from Reno to Las Vegas, from Elko to Laughlin who respected Jackie for his warmth, his business integrity, his affection for his employees and above all, for his happy, positive personality. I am one of those people whose life was brightened by a friendship and association with that delightful man,” Wynn said.
Alan Feldman, vice president of global government and industry affairs at MGM Resorts International, recalled a time many years ago when he was asked to coordinate speeches for an event honoring another industry fixture. Feldman asked speakers to keep their remarks to one minute, but Gaughan sent in five pages of notes, which Feldman proceeded to edit down.
“I called and explained what I was doing and, in typical Jackie fashion, he put me completely at ease telling me he fully understood,” Feldman said. “When the day came, he read every single word from his original draft, taking almost 10 minutes to do so and bringing the house down in the process. Several of the esteemed speakers knew of the back story, which made them love his remarks all the more. They were heartfelt, honest and touching, just like him.”
Gaughan is most closely associated with the El Cortez casino, built in 1941.
He bought the casino in 1963, and his wife oversaw the coin room while his sons Jackie Jr. and Michael worked low-level jobs. Gaughan told the Las Vegas Sun in 2000 that he insisted his boys start at the bottom.
“I never pushed my sons into the business. I’ve always put in 12-hour days, seven days a week because I just love being around this business. They did it on their own, and they also worked hard,” he said.
Jackie Jr. became an executive at the El Cortez. Michael made himself a household name in the state, and he is now the owner of the South Point Casino.
Gaughan championed downtown even when the glitzier Strip 10 minutes to the south began to steal its thunder. He advised other casino owners about slot machines and is credited with helping to bring boxing to Sin City. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said in a statement Wednesday that few people had influenced Las Vegas like Gaughan.
Gaughan sold most of his properties in 2004, but he continued to stroll around the area near what is now the walking mall called the Fremont Experience like the mayor of downtown.
Gaughan eventually transferred ownership of the historic casino, but he lived in a penthouse apartment there into his 90s and was known to play poker in there almost every day. He didn’t officially retire until 2008.
Jeffrey Compton of CDC Gaming Reports, who has worked with El Cortez for years as a consultant, recalled that Gaughan had a desk in the company offices, and regularly went out to dinner on the property with the new executives.
“They treated him like a treasured member of the family,” Compton said. “They had a couple of employees where a part of their major job was to take care of Jackie. They made sure he got up in the morning, they got him dressed. If you ever want to see a great example of how you treat an elderly person that you love and respect, this is how it was done.”