El Rey Resort
Dedicated: June 2, 2012
Searchlight in 1946 was a very small, somewhat forgotten community lying along the road from Boulder City south to the California. Though it had boomed in the early part of the century, production from its mines had begun to slide, and the small community began to slowly dry up. The railroad was closed in 1924. By 1927, the highway was completed and bypassed the town slightly. The population plummeted to about 50.
The town did not die though. It built out toward the highway, and served the few local mines that were running, as well as ranches in the area. The huge Rock Springs Land and Cattle Company went bankrupt in 1929, but it was slit up and the northern portion was sold to a Hollywood couple, cowboy actor Rex Bell and Clara Bow, better known as the "It Girl.".
With the coming of the Second World War, George S. Patton, Jr., had located the vast Desert Training Center south of the community. Between it and the glamour of having Hollywood friends of Rex Bell and Clara Bow on the Walking Box Ranch west of town, there was some growth during the war years, but it was short-lived. By 1946, the community had less than two hundred residents, and seemed to be on it's way to again being little more than a gas and food stop for the few travelers who found themselves going through.
However, one man saw potential in the small town. This was Willie Martello, one of seven brothers who grew up in California. His brother, Tony, had created a nightclub in Southgate which he named for a favorite brand of beer, the El Rey Club. When two other brothers relocated to the Searchlight area to raise cattle, Willie saw an opening.
Willie had been running casinos in the North Las Vegas area. When he came to Searchlight directly after World War II, he purchased a hotel, the Wheatly House, from its owner Mr. Ward, and began remodeling it.
The Wheatly had been opened by Light Wheatly and his wife Bridey Wheatly, hence its name. Bridey ran the hotel for much of the time, as Light was a member of the first, and apparently last, Searchlight City Council, and later as Deputy Sheriff in Searchlight. (Searchlight incorporated about 1907, but dis-incorporated a few years later.) Bridey later sold out her interest, but the hotel/rooming house continued to function, even during the lean years of the later 1920s and 1930s. Depending on the reminiscence one reads, it was either one of the better rooming houses in the community, or a second rate one. Either way, it boasted eight rooms. In its heyday it had a lobby with a piano and, perhaps more importantly, a piano player, and was remembered by an early resident as being "the gathering place for society." It had a large dining room which served three meals a day. As the cooks were women, it was quite popular.
Whether any of this was why Willie chose this particular property to purchase is unknown, though he did want to have a dining area in his new club. The remodeled building was opened in 1946, renamed the El Rey Club (he apparently had the same taste in beer as his brother), and began to offer meals, drinks and entertainment to travelers to the small town.
His new club was not the only one in town, but it soon became well known. He offered some table games, slot machines, and evening entertainment. There were girls available for those visitors with other forms of relaxation in mind, who were run by a woman named Daisy Mae. The cribs were in back, near enough for a short stroll.
The El Rey became known for its food and entertainment. Martello was constantly trying to expand and upgrade his club, renaming it the El Rey Club and Resort in the 1950s. He built an in-ground pool, which was well known since it was the first ever built in Searchlight. Children in town, who before had to either swim in the M and M Mine water tanks, or walk all the way to the Walking Box Ranch on the Nipton Road and sneak in to go swimming, now had one day a week that they could go swimming in town.
To build up patronage, Martello decided that he needed an airfield. He paid a county worker who had access to a bulldozer to build a strip just south of town. The airfield became part of Clark County's Department of Aviation by the early 1960s, and was regularly used by junket flights bringing customers from California to Searchlight for a weekend.
One time, an unfortunate misunderstanding on the part of a mother led to a rather humorous incident. The single mother's daughter was graduating from High School, so the mother decided to take her on the free flight to the El Rey Resort in Searchlight, even though she did not know anything about it. The young high school graduate was the subject of some scrutiny on the flight, and was viewed with great interest upon landing, until the mother explained that she was not a new girl for hire. Martello heard about her arrival, and explained that the visit had been, perhaps, not well conceived, and put the young woman up at the motel until the next flight back to southern California. While waiting, Martello even paid for the young lady and her mother to be driven into Las Vegas for a show.
While Martello never had any aircraft of his own, he did hire charters for his junkets. John Cook, who would later be the co-pilot on the successful 1958-59 World Endurance Flight, setting a record of 64 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes and 5 seconds with Bob Timm, owned a DeHaviland Dove, which carried eleven passengers, often landed at the airfield carrying charter flights for Martello.
Unfortunately for Martello, in 1965 the Director of Aviation, Earl Taylor, was informed that Constellations were being flown into the airstrip. He immediately sent airport staff down to Searchlight to core the runway and check as to what it could hold. After the tests were done, it was found the asphalt could safely hold up to 10,000 pounds. Because Constellations weighed approximately 100,000 pounds unloaded, Taylor immediately closed the airstrip. Martello complained to the Clark County Commissioners, but with the vision of the liability issues associated with an 84-passenger Constellation crashing on the runway, as presented by Taylor, the Commissioners upheld the closing.
Early on in the history of the El Rey, Martello had to be creative in order to get supplies when he needed them. Since none of the roads to Searchlight were paved, it was a long drive to go to Las Vegas to get needed supplies, especially if they weren't ready when his staff got there. With no telephone service until the later 1950s, Martello had to come up with an alternative means of communication.
His answer to the problem was to use carrier pigeons, which he did for a few years. They were apparently successful, and the small club/resort became known for its dining offerings. His chef, Luigi Scirocco, remembers well the offerings he prepared at the resort.
The business grew, with the addition of air-conditioned rooms for overnight visitors.
Fire was always a problem in Searchlight, as in many small desert communities. In 1957, the rival Searchlight Casino burned down. This must have seemed like a harbinger of the future to Martello when, on January 21, 1962, a fire started in the kitchen of the resort. There was a number of guests listening to the band playing in the main ballroom. A second band, scheduled to go on after the one playing became aware of the fire, and told the band members on stage, after they had gotten their equipment and costumes out a side window. Everyone was eventually evacuated without incident, but the building was a total loss. Searchlight had lost its major employer.
Martello had not been alone in his ownership of the club however. He had a first and second deed of trust, which was paid off by the insurance settlement, but a third deed of trust was held by Marshall Sawyer, who foreclosed on the property. Doc Bailey, who owned the Hacienda Hotel and Casino in the Vegas valley across from McCarran Airport lent Martello the money to rebuild, and Martello bought the Crystal Club and remodeled it into the new El Rey Club and Resort.
With the road from Nipton finally being paved in 1964, Martello probably saw great success in the future. The new club opened about 1965, but was undercapitalized and soon Martello was out of business. The club continued for some years, but Searchlight's long-time promoter left the area, dying in Las Vegas in 1968. The building he had remodeled finally closed, but still stands today as the Searchlight Senior Citizens Center.
Willie Martello left behind a legacy of promotion for his adopted community. Though Searchlight in the mid 1960s was still a community of about 200 residents, it had not died. New entrepreneurs, like Warren and Verlie Doing, came to town and built anew. Their Searchlight Nugget, operated by Verlie since Warren's passing in 1984, is a major part of the Searchlight community. The members of the Queho Posse want to note with thanks her willingness to allow us to plaque the historic site of the first El Rey Club.
Bibliography (for those brave souls who want yet more)
Anonymous, Nevada, A Guide to the Silver State, 1940, American Guide Series, Binfords and Mort
Haenszel, Arda M., Searchlight Remembered, 1988, Tales of the Mojave Road
Hall-Patton, Mark P., George Frederick Colton and the Duplex Mine, 2005, Obfuscationist Press
Hopkins, A. D., and Evans, K. J., The First 100; Portraits of the men and Women Who Shaped Las Vegas, 1999, Huntington Press
Kirwin, Bob, Reminiscences of Searchlight, in Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, Spring 1976, Vol. XIX #1
Lynch, John S., Kennedy, John W., and Wooley, Robert L., Patton's Desert Training Center, 1982, Council on America's Military Past
Martello, Andy, Tales from Andy Land website
Myers, Carl, Oral History, courtesy Searchlight History Museum
Myrick, David M., Railroads of Nevada and Eastern California, Vol. II, the Southern Roads, 1991, University of Nevada Press
Reid, Harry, Searchlight, The Camp that Didn't Fail, 1998, Univ. of Nevada Press
Rollins, Royce, The Light is Green in Searchlight in Desert Magazine, June 1965
Sandquist, Sandy, Oral History, courtesy Searchlight History Museum
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