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VIDEO VAULT: When El Portal was 'coolest' spot in Vegas

Reported by: Tom Hawley
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Updated: 3/19/2014 1:53 pm

LAS VEGAS (KSNV — Just about every large locals' casino in Southern Nevada has a cinema multiplex. For people growing up here from the 1930s through the 1980s, Las Vegas offered several stand-alone theaters. Before the 1930s, there was only one.

The El Portal Theater was built in the late 1920s by business partners Ernie Cragin and William Pike. Most people who recognize those names today might associate them with the Craigin & Pike Insurance Agency that they co-founded, but the two men had many other business interests, and Craigin went on to become mayor of Las Vegas. 

When the El Portal opened in 1928, it was not only the town's only movie theater, but soon became Las Vegas' first air-conditioned building. It filled ti capacity during summertime, and it was swank, with chandeliers and lofty beams. It featured an ornate stage with a Wurlitzer organ.

"None of them are as luxurious as [the El Portal] was," said former manager Lew Atkin, who spoke with News 3 in 1994. "We monitored the sound, which these people don't do now. We wouldn't allow crying babies in there. We kept it very quiet."

The theater had been closed for 16 years at the time of that interview, but the projection booth was still there along with some of its equipment; the building was being used as a gift shop. 

Today the former theater stands under the Fremont Street Experience canopy as the El Portal Indian Arts & Crafts store. A plaque on the side of the building speaks to its rich history as a social center.

Rex Bell Jr. observed in 1994, "If you walked out of the store and walked down Fremont street you pretty well ... if you did that every day of the week, would see everybody that  lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. Today you could do that, and you wouldn't recognize anybody."

The then-Clark County district attorney knew what he was talking about. His parents used to be on the marquee. He was the son of cowboy actor Rex Bell, and "It" girl Clara Bow.
Big names weren't just on the marquee. Sometimes they were in the audience, like the time mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel went out for an evening at the El Portal.

"I said, 'Bugsy your seats are ready,'" remembered Atkin. "He jumped up and grabbed my tie and said, 'My name is Mr. Siegel. You may call me Benjamin.' And then he just brushed my tie down like you'd see in the movies."

Rex Bell Jr. passed away three years ago; Atkin died in 2005. And by the late 1980s, there were no more stand-alone movie theaters in Las Vegas.

The interviews with Bell and Atkin used for this story were conducted by News 3 reporter Denise Rosch in 1994.


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