89°F
weather icon Clear

Photo leads man on quest

As an entertainer from Chicago who made his way to Las Vegas after he lost his home in a wind storm in 2007, Andy Martello never imagined he’d write a book about a gambling pioneer in Southern Nevada.

Even more surprising was the inspiration he found from that gambling pioneer who shared his last name, and who saved the town of Searchlight from extinction.

“I was meant to write this story,” Martello said. “I lucked into the greatest story never told.”

It all started when Martello came across an old photo of Willie Martello’s El Rey Club and Brothel in a gift shop on Fremont Street. All he could do was stare at the picture.

“At this point the only two words I could see are the words ‘Martello’ and ‘brothel,’” he joked. “I just promised myself that when I got home I would make an effort to see if the place was still open, see if the guy was still alive and maybe collect a poker chip. It was just supposed to be a hobby.”

But after eight years of extensive research that included talking to Willie’s family members, colleagues and scouring the local archives for information about El Rey Club, Martello knew that he had too much information to just throw away.

His book, “The King of Casinos: Willie Martello and the El Rey Club,” which he self-published in January, digs deep into the little-known casino mogul Willie Martello and the effect he and his club had on Southern Nevada from 1947 to 1962.

Martello made it his mission to restore Willie Martello’s reputation in his book, a man who he bears no relation to, but admires all the same.

“When he showed up in the ’40s after his time in World War II, there were only 50 people in Searchlight,” he said. “There was really no reason for anything to happen there. He and his brothers set up shop and opened up this club, and he just had it in his mind that he could make something big and beautiful here.”

During his 20-plus year tenure in Searchlight, Willie Martello brought the secluded town an airport, its first pool for guests, messenger pigeons and, at one point, $5 million a year.

“Before he came to Searchlight, it was a place where people really only stopped for gas,” Martello said.

The El Rey Club inevitably helped launched the career of Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola, who directed “The Godfather” trilogy. Coppola shot scenes for his 1962 movie “Tonight for Sure” at the El Rey Club.

Digging into the lost El Rey Club’s history helped Martello shed light on just how big a player Willie Martello was during the heyday of gambling and entertainment in Southern Nevada.

In the book, Martello describes an experience where Willie Martello drove to Las Vegas to pay off some mob associates who tried to thwart his El Rey Club because it was hurting their businesses.

“He paid them off, and then slept with one of their wives,” he laughed. “But that was just Willie.”

Willie Martello also was in business with Warren “Doc” Bayley, the original owner of the Hacienda. The two had plans to turn Searchlight into a Western-themed resort town with golf courses and large hotels, but it never happened. Willie Martello also tried to build a casino near the Railroad Pass in Boulder City, but that too fell through.

Even when the El Rey Club was at its peak, Searchlight didn’t have more than a couple hundred people living there. But with nearly every business in town to his name, Willie Martello made sure Searchlight stayed afloat during a time when most people were just passing through.

“It showed what one man can do in what was a very rural location,” Clark County Museum Administrator Mark Hall-Patton said. “Searchlight was a small community that was basically hanging on to a history of mining, and it wasn’t doing well. There were other small casinos, but none that were as ambitious as his.”

Throughout the years, Willie Martello has been a forgotten figure in Southern Nevada history. His life, as well as the club he ran where U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid learned to swim, have always played second fiddle to the glamorous casinos and personalities of 1940s Las Vegas.

Andy Martello wanted to change that.

“He really is a Paul Bunyan-like tall-tale character,” he said. “He was short in stature and big in personality. He lived by his own rules.”

After El Rey Club burned down in 1962, Willie tried desperately to start his business again in Searchlight, but a string of events kept him from doing so. Bayley, his business partner and close friend, died in 1965; his airport was shut down by the Clark County Commission because the runway wasn’t thick enough to bring in the type of aircraft he wanted; and the talk of a branch off Route 66 that was supposed to run directly through Searchlight inevitably fell through.

“He could’ve ended up being Howard Hughes or Steve Wynn,” Martello said.

Martello is hopeful that today’s casino magnates look at Willie Martello, who suffered a fatal heart attack in 1968, as an influence for the success they’ve had in the gaming industry.

“There’s nothing in Searchlight and there’s no reason to think you could make something in Searchlight,” Martello said. “Every dollar he made, if he didn’t gamble it or spend it on women, went back into the town because he wanted to make this dream happen.” Martello will sign copies of his book at Lost Vegas Antiques, 625 Las Vegas Blvd. South, in downtown Las Vegas from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
THE LATEST
Best Bets, Sept. 29-Oct. 5

1 GOT ART?: The city’s four downtown parks will be filled with booths featuring fine arts and crafts when Art in the Park returns. The two-day event, to be held Saturday and Sunday, raises funds for Boulder City Hospital. More than 100,000 people are expected to attend the free event. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Best Bets, Sept. 22-28

1 WÜRST OF TIMES: Boulder City Sunrise Rotary presents the all-day festival from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday in Bicentennial Park, 999 Colorado St. Highlights include silent and live auctions, entertainment, the Würst Dam Car Show (in Wilbur Square Park, 1100 Colorado St.) and, of course, bratwurst. New this year is an antique marketplace. Proceeds benefit the club’s all-night graduation party for Boulder City High School seniors.

Best Bets, Sept. 15-21

1 SOAR TO NEW HEIGHTS: Learn about the exploits of record-breaking aviators, both in the air and on the ground, when Boulder City Chautauqua presents “Pushing the Envelope” on Friday and Saturday in the pavilion at Boulder Creek Golf Club, 1501 Veterans Memorial Drive. Amelia Earhart, Jackie Cochran and Chuck Yeager will be portrayed by the actor-scholars. Performances are scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday and 1 and 6 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $15 per show. Visit www.bcchautauqua.org or call 760-877-0425 or 702-294-4365 for more information or tickets.

Best Bets, Sept. 8-14

1 SUPER EVENT: The Best Dam Wine Walks return Saturday to downtown Boulder City. Those attending are invited to dress as their favorite super hero. Scheduled from 4-8 p.m., check-in is at My 4 Sons Comic Cards & Games, 1308 Wyoming St., from 4-6:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 plus fees in advance through Eventbrite or $30 at the door. To purchase tickets, or for more information, visit https://bit.ly/3TF0gEz.

Best Bets, Sept. 1-7

1 3D CREATIONS: Art pieces created by Sue Burger, a member of the Boulder City Art Guild, will be showcased throughout September in the gallery inside the Boulder Dam Hotel, 1305 Arizona St. A self-taught artist, Burger said much of her work is inspired by the culture and history of Native Americans. The gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; admission is free. Visit www.bouldercityartguild.com for more information.

Best Bets, Aug. 25-31

1 SMOOTH SOUNDS: The duo Lounge Orfanz will perform at Jack’s Place on Saturday night. They will be offering their interpretations of favorite classic and modern tunes dating from the 1960s through today from 6-10 p.m. at the bar and grill, 544 Nevada Way. Visit www.jacksplacebc.com or call 702-293-2200 for more information.

Best Bets, Aug. 18-24

1 TELL ME A STORY: Children of all ages are invited to join the fun when Southern Nevada Railway presents its monthly storytime train ride Saturday at the Nevada State Railroad Museum, 601 Yucca St. In addition to the ride and story, there will be a craft. Departures are scheduled for 10 a.m. and noon. Fares are $10 for adults and $5 for children. Visit www.nevadasouthern.com for more information.

Best Bets, Aug. 11-17

1 ANNIVERSARY PARTY: Family fun blends with a history lesson Saturday when St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church celebrates its 90th anniversary. There will be games, music, prizes and food during the celebration, scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Additionally, visitors will be invited to tour the church and learn its history. The celebration continues at 10 a.m. Sunday with a special service conducted by Bishop Elizabeth Gardner. The church is at 812 Arizona St.

Best Bets, Aug. 4-10

1 HAVE SOME YUM: Head over to the Boulder Dam Credit Union, 530 Avenue B, on Friday for its annual employee bake sale and back to school bash. The bake sale, scheduled to begin at 9 a.m., will benefit the Children’s Miracle Network. The back to school bash is scheduled from 2-4 p.m.