El Portal Project Shows Fresh Signs of Life on Fremont

El Portal is a revered landmark on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas, and as with all revered landmarks, this one looks like absolute crap.

Seriously, El Portal has been more neglected than a guy with a 300 FICO score in a strip club. Wearing Crocs.

But, wait, there’s hope! Not for Crocs guy, he’s screwed, but for El Portal. Things are happening. We’ve got a look inside inside this place you’ve probably never heard of, but just give us a minute.

El Portal’s architecture drew inspiration from the Neo-Fugly style so popular in the late 1920s.

So, who or what is El Portal, you ask in that impatient voice your significant other always complains about?

El Portal opened in 1928 as a theater. Until recently, 1928 didn’t seem all that long ago. Now, however, that’s just five years away from a century. Mind blown.

Aside from being old, El Portal is known for being the first building in Las Vegas to have air conditioning.

Here’s that look inside we promised. You are so impatient. You probably missed our El Portal air conditioning fun fact. Go back and read it. We’ll wait.

You aren’t very good at following instructions, at all. Do you get that feedback on performance evaluations a lot? There’s a really good chance you aren’t even reading this sentence. Go ahead, just look at the photos if that’s the kind of person you’ve decided to be.

“The empty vessel makes the loudest sound,” said someone famous who we didn’t have time to Google.

We’re pretty sure those ceiling beams are original equipment.

As if that weren’t impressive enough, El Portal was also one of the first buildings in Las Vegas to speak Spanish. In English, the Spanish word “portal” translates as “portal.” Things were much simpler in 1928.

Outside El Portal, there’s a plaque that has additional information so we don’t have to type it.

Another fun fact! Casino gift shops don’t sell gum. There’s a reason.

Some random guy on a random Web site shared something interesting we’ve never heard before: “The El Portal Theater was named after a race horse that Mr. Ernie Cragin owned. Ernie Cragin was mayor of Las Vegas for most of the 1940s.”

Sure enough, Ernie Cragin was the mayor of Las Vegas from 1943 to 1951.

Ernie Cragin was an interesting dude. If you’re not all that into reading (ahem), here are the three items that jumped out at us from a story about him: 1) “On Cragin’s watch, Las Vegas went Jim Crow.” 2) “In 1928, he and [his business partner William] Pike would open El Portal, which would become Las Vegas’ most important movie theater and at times its only one.” 3) “Cragin worked every day in the insurance office in the El Portal building. In 1959, he dropped dead at his desk of a heart attack. He was 64.”

While we enjoy learning Las Vegas history, a good deal of it is awkward, let’s just move on.

Most recently, El Portal was a gift shop, and not in a good way. It was called Indian Arts & Crafts, which is so awkward now, we had to hire a team of lawyers just to post those words on the Internet.

The store closed some time ago, and El Portal was boarded up and has since taken a lot abuse, including being subjected to tagging and graffiti.

If you don’t have money to open an arcade on Fremont Street, get a kiosk. Some make $50,000 a month. We are not making this up.

Recently, however, we got word of work going on inside El Portal, so we had to poke our head in.

Work is, in fact, happening, to the shock of everyone involved. There have been a number of plans for El Portal, but it sounds like this one may actually stick.

We’ve heard a whopping $3 million investment is being made into overhauling El Portal to make it an arcade with food and drink, along the lines of the Dave & Buster’s chain.

We would make fun of the lack of originality, but honestly, anything is better than a boarded up building covered with graffiti on the world’s most glorious street. Fremont Street. Please keep up.

Planning documents say the venue will be named Fremont Street Arcade, but those were filed a year ago, so we trust that could change, as plans have changed so often for this spot.

At one point, it was announced El Portal would be a tavern and food court type deal, Fremont Food Emporium. There was supposed to be a slushy drink place, Evening Call, and rumors the venue might even get an outpost of Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, one of our favorite chicken finger places in Las Vegas.

Apparently, that plan was scrapped for the arcade, a tried-and-true revenue generator. In fact, the typical arcade game can generate as much revenue as a typical casino slot machine, we’re told.

Restaurants offering food for those with the drunchies tend to fare well on Fremont Street.

No timeline for the project has been announced, but progress so far could be described as “NDOT slow.”

We trust neighbors are relieved the Fremont Street Arcade won’t be slushy drink-focused (as casinos along Fremont with outdoor bars print money selling these), and everyone benefits when improvements are made along Fremont Street.

For example, Vegas Vic was recently repaired and it makes a big difference in the charm of the street. And not just because we were the one publicly nagging the City of Las Vegas to badger the building owners into fixing Vic, probably.

Vegas Vic even winks again! Winking wasn’t as creepy back in his day.

Our fingers and other digits are crossed the overhaul of El Portal proceeds without delays, and we also hope the businesspersons involved will include a nod to the building’s history in the new venue.

El Portal is a symbol of when Las Vegas went from rootin’-tootin’ and sweaty to cultured and cool, a pivotal moment that should never be forgotten.

Update (10/26/23): As underwhelming as promised, but it’s better than nothing. Probably. Here’s the In the Game Web site.

Thanks to Chris H. for the pic.