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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.

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Film fest accepting submissions for 2021 event

The Dam Short Film Festival, which will return for its 17th year in February, is now accepting submissions for the 2021 event.

Weekend’s Best Bets, March 19

1 BLOOMIN’ FUN: After winter rains, the desert surrounding Boulder City and throughout Lake Mead National Recreation Area is in bloom. The southern end of the park has seen the most wildflowers. As temperatures warm, the flowers will begin to bloom in the northern parts.

Weekend’s Best Bets, March 12

1 PATRIOTIC PANCAKES: Help raise funds for the local American Legion, Post 31, and veterans by joining members for breakfast Saturday. Scheduled from 7-10:30 a.m. at the post, 508 California Ave., the menu includes pancakes, sausage, orange juice and coffee. Cost is $6 for adults and $4 for children.

Weekend’s Best Bets, March 5

1 ‘MALEFICENT’ MOVIE: Boulder City Library will show “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” at 6 p.m. Friday. The film tells the story of Maleficent, who travels to an old castle for the wedding of Aurora to Prince Phillip. While there she learns of a plot by Aurora’s future mother-in-law to destroy the land’s fairies and she joins a group of outcasts to stop her. Those attending are welcome to bring snacks, comfortable chairs and blankets. The Friends of the Library will have snacks and books available for a donation. The library is at 701 Adams Blvd.

Weekend’s Best Bets, Feb. 27

1 HISTORIC TALE: “Harriet,” the story of Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery in 1849 and then helped hundreds of others through the Underground Railroad, will be shown at 5:30 p.m. Friday in the community room of the Boulder City Library, 701 Adams Blvd. Snacks and drinks, along with comfortable chairs and blankets can be brought to the screening.

Weekend’s Best Bets, Feb. 20

1 RIVER HISTORY: Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum’s Third Thursday educational lecture series resumes tonight with a presentation about the Colorado River by local resident George Rhee. A native of Geneva, Rhee has taught at UNLV in the physics and astronomy department since 1993 and also works on climate, water and energy research. The museum is inside the Boulder Dam Hotel, 1305 Arizona St. Call 702-294-1988 for more information.

Weekend’s Best Bets, Feb. 13

1 MOVIE TIME: The Dam Short Film Festival returns for its 16th incarnation today, Feb. 13, and continues through Sunday, Feb. 16, at the historic Boulder Theatre, 1225 Arizona St. More than 145 films in a variety of genres will be shown. The festival also includes a meet and greet event, a mixer and an awards party. Special screenings of the award-winning films are scheduled for Monday, Feb. 17. Visit https://damshortfilm.org/ for a full schedule and more information.

Weekend’s Best Bets, Feb. 6

1 STORY ON THE GO: Learn what happens “If You Give a Moose a Muffin” as you stroll through the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum as part of Storywalk, a joint project with Boulder City Library. There is no cost to participate and all children who complete an activity sheet and turn it in at the library, 701 Adams Blvd., will get a prize. The museum is inside the Boulder Dam Hotel, 1305 Arizona St., and is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free.

Weekend’s Best Bets, Jan. 30

1 HEAVENLY GAZING: Rangers from Lake Mead National Recreation Area are joining with members of the Las Vegas Astronomical Society for a star party Saturday at the amphitheater at Boulder Beach. A program to learn about the night sky, as well as how to protect and view it, at 5:30 p.m. will begin the event. A telescope will be available from 6-8 p.m. to view constellations and planets. Those attending should bring water and a flashlight, preferably with a red filter. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling 702-293-8990.

Weekend’s Best Bets, Jan. 23

1 FULL STEAM AHEAD: Immerse yourself in a large-scale, outdoor model railroad that you can ride on. The trains, powered by live steam engines or diesel-electric locomotive replicas, run along a 7.5-inch gauge line near the depot at the Nevada State Railroad Museum, 601 Yucca St. The steamers run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the second and fourth Saturday of each month. Rides are free and no tickets are required. The trains are owned and operated by volunteer members of the Friends of the Nevada Southern Railway. For more information, visit http://bit.ly/2R01Vq9.