Stunning images of fast-living ‘Casino King’ Willie Martello’s El Rey Club heyday

Was Nevada casino entrepreneur Willie Martello “nothing more than a pimp in a white suit”, or should he have been a household name, as recognisable as Steve Wynn is in Las Vegas?

A new book on the man has aimed to get to the truth of the matter, while telling the remarkable story of how an unremarkable man in an unremarkable Nevada town set about creating one of the most remarkable casino businesses in US history.

Willie Martello, the much misunderstood driving force behind the El Rey Club, who had more fun than most people would have in ten lifetimes. Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas, J Florian Mitchell Collection.
Willie Martello, the much misunderstood driving force behind the El Rey Club, who reputedly had more fun than most people would have in ten lifetimes. Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas, J Florian Mitchell Collection.

In a whirlwind few decades of gambling, sex, money, women, outlandish projects, and eye-opening stories, the El Rey Club ended in a similarly dramatic way, burning down in 1962. Martello himself died six years later in 1968.

Martello, it is said, had more fun that most people would have in ten lifetimes. That is the story Andrew Martello – no relation – is telling in The King of Casinos. The Las Vegas entertainer admits to becoming enthralled and engrossed in the life of the fast-living businessman.

Among Martello's innovations was an attempt to get a runway built in Searchlight, the small Nevada town in which the El Rey Club was based. He wanted to make it easier for high rollers to visit. Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas, J Florian Mitchell
Among Martello’s innovations was the building of his own runway in Searchlight, the small Nevada town in which the El Rey Club was based. He wanted to make it easier for high rollers to visit. Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas, J Florian Mitchell

Telling the tale of a remarkable man

In the period 1946-1962, Willie Martello was the heartbeat and driving force of a casino and one-time brothel that brought huge energy and life to the otherwise stagnant town of Searchlight, which had declined following the Gold Rush days.

There was suggestion that the only pure thing about Martello was his gleaming white suit – that he was just a mobbed-up gangster, and nothing more. Andrew Martello argues this is not the truth, and though he may have had contact with mob characters – it had to be remembered that this was a time when gangsters were as ubiquitous in the community as the mailman.

He was ‘no saint’, but Andrew states that Martello could also be a man of great generosity, who faced many battles to make the casino a success.

Vegas hotel-owner Doc Bailey, left, entertainer Liberace, centre, and Willie Martello, right.
Vegas hotel owner Doc Bailey, left, entertainer Liberace, centre, and Willie Martello, right. Picture: Bob Martello.

Willie Martello had his own mythology created though his outrageous antics and attention-grabbing activities that might be termed now as publicity stunts.

A seemingly despondent Sharon Blasiola (Richardson) sitting at an El Rey blackjack table, circa late 1950s/early 1960s. Photo courtesy Sharon Richardson.
A seemingly despondent Sharon Blasiola (Richardson) sitting at an El Rey blackjack table, circa late 1950s/early 1960s. Photo courtesy Sharon Richardson.

As Andrew suggests, these were not entirely of his own mind, but he cleverly copied many of the ideas of other venues and brought them to the dusty town. His continuous planning, strategizing and ideas were known as ‘Willie’s Wheels’, in reference to the thoughts going round his head all the time. Like many entrepreneurs, he was a man of seemingly boundless energy.

Willie Martello always had some promotion or innovation up his sleeve. Picture: Suzan Ridell
Willie Martello always had some promotion or innovation up his sleeve. Picture: Suzan Ridell

He said in the book: “I eventually realized that Willie Martello SHOULD have been a household name, at least as famous as Steve Wynn is in Las Vegas today. Instead, what little was out there publicly was not all that flattering. If I believed the few written reports about the man and his club, I’d know he was something of an outlandish man who ran a casino as a front for his prostitution empire.”

“Thankfully, I found out there was more to the story and felt compelled to get those details out into the open.”

Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas. J Florian Mitchell Collection.
Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas. J Florian Mitchell Collection.

At the beginning of a movie legend’s career

The casino also provided part of the backdrop for the directorial debut of one Francis Ford Coppola – the legendary name behind the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now, among other films. Although Coppola never set foot in Searchlight, the town was taken over for the filming of naughty cowboy film Tonight For Sure, in 1962. The film features Martello in full cowboy regalia, but only limited exposure of the El Rey Club itself.

The El Rey Club featured in a film reputedly directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Picture: Andrew Martello.
The El Rey Club featured in a film reputedly directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Picture: Andrew Martello.

There is debate however, on just how much involvement Coppola had with the film, even though he is listed on the credits as the film’s director/producer.

Martello’s women

Willie Martello has been portrayed as something of a womanizer. The book outlines that he was married at least three times and maintained relationships with several other women in the meantime.

Exotic dancing was among the attractions Willie Martello introduced to the El Rey Club.
Exotic dancing was among the attractions Willie Martello introduced to the El Rey Club. Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas J. Florian Mitchell Collection

That does not tell the whole story however. Martello was often the subject of unsolicited attention. He was handsome, splashy, well groomed and charming – having a natural magnetism.

Martello’s appetites for the opposite sex were, at times, notorious. With the many women working at the club, or visiting as guests, he certainly had rich pickings. One story claims he even courted the wife of a notorious gangster.

The women pictured on the Nevada Sheriff's car are from back left to right Virginia Gordon, Sandi Silver. From the front, left to right are Marli Renfro, Linda 'Ginger' Gibson and Pat 'Patti' Brooks. Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas J. Florian Mitchell Collection
The women pictured on the Nevada Sheriff’s car are from back left to right Virginia Gordon, Sandi Silver. From the front, left to right are Marli Renfro, Linda ‘Ginger’ Gibson and Pat ‘Patti’ Brooks.
Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas J. Florian Mitchell Collection

The wild burros

A wild jackass walks into the El Ray Club…

No, this is not the start of a joke, or a reference to their obnoxious patrons, but should be taken as the literal meaning of the word.

For the El Rey had a wild burro, a small donkey, as a customer, and it became something of a trademark for the casino. It used to come in at 11am everyday for a drink and a feed – all on the tab of Mr Martello himself.

The wild burros were a trademark of the El Rey Club. Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas. J Florian Collection.
The wild burros were a trademark of the El Ray Club. Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas. J Florian Collection.

The animals that roamed the desert became associated with the casino, and captured the imaginations of the locals, especially children, who even used to ride the tamer creatures.

A couple of burros who lingered on the road outside the El Rey became a useful tool for Willie. Cars approaching would screech to a halt and pull right on in to the casino’s parking lot. Willie would come out, get talking with them about the burros, and before they knew it they were ordering food and playing a few hands of blackjack.

The first days

The El Rey Club first offered casino gaming on March 9, 1946 – listed as blackjack, craps and poker. Willie’s brothers Albert and Buddy had actually started the business, and Willie in those days was just learning the ropes.

A youngster poses with an El Rey Club-branded vehicle. Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas. J Florian Mitchell Collection.
A youngster poses with an El Rey Club-branded vehicle. Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas. J Florian Mitchell Collection.

Despite his reputation, Martello was known to run a very clean, above-board club, and there is some suggestion that less-than-honorable dealers even stole from him.

He took on ideas that now are synonymous with modern casinos – top quality cuisine, entertainment and hospitality, to get the patrons in. There were performances from top musicians, stopping off at the El Rey on tours, as well as other entertainers like the well known vaudevillian Paul ‘Mousie’ Garner.

Classic slots action at the El Rey Club. Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas. J Florian Mitchell Collection.
Classic slots action at the El Rey Club. Picture: Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas. J Florian Mitchell Collection.

Exotic dancers also featured, including ‘Her Sexellency, Sally Rand’ putting on performances throughout the weekend.

The ‘real’ story and the problem with truth

Ethel Martello, one of the last of the original Martello gang to run the casino, outlined the problem for Andrew in trying to write the book. For even she, at the heart of the business, could not be fully sure what was going on.

Ethel and Buddy Martello, the brother of Willie Martello. Photo: Sharon Richardson
Ethel and Buddy Martello, the brother of Willie Martello. Photo: Sharon Richardson

As she said in an interview:

The problem is, whatever you write isn’t going to BE the truth because nobody really knows what went on there. Anybody who did know is probably dead and anybody alive who tells you they knew what went on there is full of it. Nobody knows what went on there because they weren’t there. They don’t know nuthin’! Those who say they were there, weren’t there, you know what I mean? I WAS there! And I don’t know nuthin’.”

The book The King of Casinos: Willie Martello and The El Rey Club, is available on Amazon.

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