January 11, 2013
Like father, like son. So went the story of one Las Vegas family. Here's Senator Richard Bryan.
In December, a Las Vegas legend turned ninety. J. Kell Houssels, Junior, came to Las Vegas at age eight when his father bought into the Las Vegas Club. Kell, Senior, went on to co-own and operate the El Cortez, Showboat and Tropicana. He invested in other businesses, and worked behind the scenes in politics and philanthropy. His son followed in his footsteps and has left big footprints of his own.
Kell, Junior, was born in Denver, then lived in Pismo Beach, where his father was in gambling. His mother Alice had been a teacher and prized education. Young Kell went to the Fifth Street School and prep schools elsewhere, then West Point and Stanford Law. In 1948, he became an assistant district attorney, then went into practice in 1950 with his then-wife, Jeanne. He also served a term in the assembly. But just as his father went from being a mining engineer to a casino owner, he was interested in the business. Maybe his nickname had something to do with it: a prep school friend, noticing his visible reactions to poker hands, called him Poker Face Ike. Ike stuck and, as Houssels says, I like Ike! But like his father, he found it more profitable to run the casino than gamble in it. He did legal work for his father, then took on more duties as Kell, Senior, invested in additional properties and then began having some health issues. And Kell Junior invested in other businesses and became active in horse racing, owning and betting on some major winners... most of the time.
The Showboat opened in 1954 and catered to locals. Kell Junior was a big supporter of innovations the Showboat became famous for. The most important was adding bowling lanes, and bringing in a national tournament that got the Showboat on national television for decades. Houssels also oversaw decades of expansion.
When the Tropicana opened in 1957, Kell Senior was to run it but mobsters pushed him aside. When their management failed and the elder Houssels took over, his son joined him. He was especially interested in entertainment and proposed a new show. He then negotiated the arrival of the Folies Bergere. It ran at the Tropicana for nearly fifty years-the longest-running production show in Las Vegas history.
After the Houssels and their partners sold the Tropicana, Kell Junior partnered with Sam Boyd, Jackie Gaughan, and Frank Scott on a new project: the Union Plaza, opened in 1971 at Number One Main Street, the site of the old Union Pacific depot. But Houssels ended up concentrating more on the Showboat and its expansion throughout the world... to Atlantic City, Sydney Australia, and a Mississippi riverboat. Under his leadership, the Showboat became one of the first Nevada gaming companies to go corporate. The company proved successful enough that in 1998, Houssels sold it to Harrah's for more than a billion dollars.
That didn't end Houssels' activities. At his hotels, he always was interested in entertainment. At the Folies Bergere, he brought in a pair of adagio dancers, Szony and Claire. Then as he put it, he broke up the act... Claire became Nancy Claire Houssels, and they have been longtime supporters and financial angels for the Nevada Ballet Theater and Smith Center, among others. More than eighty years after arriving in Las Vegas, J. Kell Houssels, Jr., and his family are still building the community and still leaving big footprints.
More on News 88.9 KNPR
1/23/04: KNPR's State of Nevada: Longtime Las Vegans Including Kell Houssels
1/12/05: KNPR's State of Nevada: Nancy Houssels
3/16/05: KNPR's State of Nevada: Kell Houssels
6/16/09: KNPR's State of Nevada: Showgirl Memories
3/04/09: KNPR's State of Nevada: Folies Bergere Closing
4/12/07: Nevada Yesterdays: Tropicana Turns 50
4/17/07: Nevada Yesterdays: Tropicana Turns 50 part 2
5/1/07: Nevada Yesterdays: Tropicana Turns 50 part 3
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