As Las Vegans eagerly purchase season tickets at the Smith Center, they are thrilled to have the unique opportunity to see Broadway plays and concerts just a stone’s throw from the casinos of Fremont Street. It might come as a surprise to learn that Downtown was actually home to live theater more than eight decades before the Smith Center opened its doors.
In May 1929, the El Patio Open Air Theatre opened at 1st and Carson, the brainchild of William Streett, a New York producer who intended it to be a venue for “high-class plays and vaudeville,” according to an article in the Las Vegas Age. A unique hybrid, it was to showcase plays both “dramatic and musical,” which would rotate with motion pictures, and live concerts. Surrounded by a beautiful canopy of cottonwood trees, and designed in the “old Spanish style,” the theater’s interior patio area and buildings were constructed by William E. Robertson, who had created the furnishings for Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
The opening night production at the El Patio on May 16 was Kempy, a popular three-act play of the 1920s that was performed by the Community Players, a local theater group that included Dr. William S. Park and his wife, along with other prominent Las Vegas residents. The following evening, the feature film Submarine was the first movie shown at the 600-seat outdoor theater. A week later the El Patio expanded its audience base even further by hosting a “World Championship” wrestling match between Leo Papionis and Ira Dern.
Newspaper ads in the Las Vegas Age indicate that plays and movies were shown (incredibly) throughout the summer of 1929. Although Streett had modeled his design after the open-air theaters of the Hawaiian Islands, it’s likely that many theatergoers may not have agreed with his opinion that the “climate here is especially suited to open-air presentations in the summertime.”
It’s unclear how long the El Patio was open, but a glance at a 1931 Las Vegas telephone directory shows no sign of this unique early theatrical venture.
Su Kim Chung has been immersed in the history of Las Vegas since she began work in the UNLV Libraries Special Collections Division in 1999. She is the author of multiple editions of the book Las Vegas Then and Now.