Last month the Las Vegas Planning Commission approved an application to turn the former El Portal Theatre at 310 Fremont St. into a food court and tavern. It was distressing news to historic preservationists and residents who have appreciated its distinctive neon sign and facade as one of the first movie theaters built in Las Vegas. Despite the fact that it had long since ceased to show movies, the El Portal has remained a visual reminder of the days when Fremont Street was more of a thoroughfare for Vegas residents than a tourist destination.
The El Portal opened on June 21, 1928, and as these photos show it had quite a luxurious interior for the time, with decorated ceiling beams, painted columns and chandeliers. With seating for 713 patrons, it was also a forerunner of today’s luxury theaters, as 84 of the seats were cushioned, high-back loge (or box) seats. Like many theater venues built during the silent-film era, it featured an organ loft and orchestra pit and could also serve as a venue for plays, recitals and vaudeville-style entertainment. By the early 1930s, the El Portal became one of the first buildings in Las Vegas to install air conditioning or, as advertised in the photo, “manufactured weather.”
One of the most notable moments in the El Portal’s history was when it saw the premiere of the 1956 film Meet Me in Las Vegas starring Dan Dailey and Cyd Charisse. Like many small theaters, however, the El Portal could not compete with the larger multiplex theaters that sprung up in the 1950s. When it closed in the 1970s, the building was reborn as El Portal Gifts and was later home to the Indian Arts and Crafts store for many years. Although it will no longer feature the distinctive facade and sign in its newest incarnation, we hope the historical photos will keep its glory days alive in our memories.
Photos courtesy of UNLV Libraries Special Collections and Archives
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.