The Castaways Casino was open from 1963 to 1987. Here’s my recollection of that forgotten slice of the Las Vegas Strip before it was demolished to make way for The Mirage, which stands in its place today.
It was cramped. It was smokey. It was hot. It was dusty. It was ugly. It was a hellhole. And, it stank.
But none of that mattered at age 21. None of those things were important when visiting Las Vegas legally as an adult for the first time every bit as capable of debauchery and degeneracy and depravity as the rest of America’s mad herd of merry gamblers.
I can’t identify what exactly it was that made the Castaways so damned appealing, so fun, so interesting, so compelling, and — now 36 years later — so memorable. The Castaways wasn’t luxurious like its Haute neighbor Caesars Palace, next door. It wasn’t famous like the Flamingo, down the block. It wasn’t known for world-class entertainment like the Sands, across the street. It wasn’t Ballys. It wasn’t the Aladdin. It wasn’t even in the class of run-down mobbed-up Dunes, soon slated for demolition.
The Castaways was a cramped square-shaped casino that resembled the inside of a bus station. And it was loud. Outside, the parking lot was too dark. Inside, the casino was way too bright. There was a small hotel, with 100 rooms, the quality about equal to a Motel 6 about five years too late for renovation. There was a restaurant on the premises rumored to be pretty reliable, serving a truck-stop like menu 24/7 with prices starting at 99 cents for a full continental breakfast, including a tiny glass of artificially-flavored orange juice.
I made at least four trips to the Castaways between the ages 21 and 25, sometimes with $300 in my pocket and once with about $7,500 — my fate the same on each and every trip. My final visit was in 1987, only a month before it closed down and was bulldozed to the ground to pave way for Las Vegas’ first giant mega-resort called the Mirage, which opened two years later in 1989. The Mirage is a gorgeous hotel to look at and it ushered in what’s known as the modern era of Las Vegas with 4,000-room resorts being commonplace, famous TV chefs, circus acts, and showrooms of shopping and more shopping.
But I do miss the old Castaways. Yes, I do. Yeah, it was a dump. But it was the dump where I liked to hang out. Like an old pair of shoes or the girl you first fell in love with or a cheap can of beer, it all just seemed so real, so authentic.
The Castaways never established its own niche until perhaps it was too late and the times had changed. Maybe that’s why some of us connected with it so easily. As a casino, it was the orphan. A stepchild. More of a black sheep. It was the ugly offspring that struggled and always had to borrow money from rich parents and brothers and sisters. It was an oddball and an outcast. And it eventually ended up as rubble, the spot where it once stood obliterated to the dustbin of history by a fake volcano.
Nothing seemed to go easily for the Castaways from the day it first opened. In 1963, the casino was themed as a Polynesian Resort, with Tiki torches and palm trees surrounding the exterior. The hit television show Gilligan’s Island with its own set of castaways couldn’t even save the casino, which struggled financially. Things were so bad, the casino had to close its doors by the final day of 1964. Unconnected to organized crime that was so pervasive throughout Las Vegas at the time, skimming apparently played no role whatsoever in the casino’s floundering finances. Fact was, the Castaways was just a very poorly run casino positioned at a horrible spot on The Strip. It sat next to a Mobile gas station. Who would want to gamble at the little place with palm trees across the street when the Flamingo and Sands were packed with pretty people and the greatest live entertainment of the 60s?
The original owner was an oilman and he realized seven wasted figures deep that there was more money buried under the ground than above it. So, the Castaways was sold in 1965. The new owners invested $300,000 and redesigned the outer structure, installing a colorful motif in front which was far more alluring than the simpler facade with thatched roofs made of faux-straw. They also put in eight fresh gaming tables, plus 70 state-of-the-art slot machines. For the next two years, the casino didn’t make much money. But it didn’t lose money, either.
Howard Hughes changed the Las Vegas casino landscape forever when he went on a wild spending spree during 1968, taking full control over at least five major properties. Included in this grand acquisition towards so-called corporate legitimacy was the Castaways. The selling price was reported at $3 million — a tidy sum which included the land, a huge parking lot, the casino, a hotel, a restaurant, and the gaming license. Hughes might as well have stolen the property given what was later to come.
Hughes didn’t survive much longer, but The Castaways did.
It outlived Hughes by more than a decade before a new suitor came along. His name was Steve Wynn. He had a grand idea to tear down the Castaways and build a new casino resort, the likes of which Las Vegas had never seen before.
The Castaways was a pioneer in at least one aspect, and that was sports gambling, and this was all due to the wit and wisdom of the late Sonny Reizner.
For someone widely considered so old school, Reizner was in many ways actually a modern maverick. He one of the most important transitional figures in the history of legalized sports betting. Around 1976, Reizner opened up one of the city’s first sportsbooks located inside a casino, which was housed at the Castaways. Up until then, horse racing and sports betting were thought of as far too labor-intensive and not profitable enough to dedicate proper casino floor space. Hence, racebooks and sportsbooks in Las Vegas were tucked inside smaller OTB-style storefronts that looked like strip malls.
Reizner saw the future and in some ways even manufactured it. He knew that a well-managed outlet for sports gambling could attract new customers. So, he manned a small sportsbook called “the Hole in the Wall.” It took bets on sporting events only. No horse racing.
By 1978, Reizner recognized he could create and then corner a new market when he launched the first-ever NFL handicapping contest. It cost $1,000 to enter. The winner was declared the handicapping “world champion.”
In 1980, Riezner was posting odds on things like “Who Shot J.R.?” from a popular television show. His novel idea of a publicity stunt even created controversy as he issued tickets on the outcome, but the gaming commission stepped in and ruled wagering wouldn’t be permitted on entertainment-related events. He put up numbers (later, for amusement only) on where the Skylab Space Station would crash when it fell back to earth. Indeed, Reizner was a master of generating free publicity, and his home base of operations was the Castaways. The Las Vegas Hilton, the Stardust, and the Union Plaza also caught on to this market and helped foster it, but the Castaways was the kickoff, the tip off, and the ground central, all encased in a cubbyhole containing two betting windows, a few telephones, and a large whiteboard with the latest odds scribbled in colored magic markers.
Long after Reizner passed away (in 2002), and the Castaways was but a memory, the football handicapping contest, and parlay cards, and other fun promotions created by the sports gambling maverick have become staples inside every major casino sportsbook. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Sonny Reizner.
And now, the final chapter, and my own story and recollections.
I don’t have any big scores or life-changing moments from the Castaways. What I remember was a horribly run-down and painfully uncomfortable casino which was the greatest place in the world to hang out.
There were some blackjack tables, a craps table, and slot machines surrounding the parameter walls. Two poker tables flanked the casino floor, separated by rails crammed with barstools. Every seat seemed to be filled each time I went inside and it didn’t matter if it was 4 pm or 4 am.
The Castaways was super player-friendly. Free drinks, never a hassle. Helpful sports betting clerks. But the dealers and pit bosses were what I remember most fondly. They welcomed card counters. They encouraged new players and even helped them place bets. I even saw dealers and supervisors openly tutoring players on “21” basic strategy. You’d never see that anywhere else.
Oh, everyone seemed to be talking and the noise was unbearable. Back then, all the machines used coin in, which meant dirty buckets were pawed by eager gamblers, dropping silver dollars, quarters, dimes, nickles, metal slugs, and even pennies — one at a time, making the cling-clang down the shoot — and then to really get the full effect, multiply the echo of coins by 50 or 60 or 70, and add some bells, and the occasional scream from a lucky winner or furious addicted loser — and the place sounded like a cross between a tin can recycling plant and a hospital emergency room.
Then, there was the smoke. The smoke inside was so thick it was blue. Like a lava lamp hanging permanently in the air, gyrating until it melded with billions of other particle-toxins until it became one giant fucking ashtray the size of a casino. The smoke was so thick it was nauseating. Like burn your nostrils and water the eyes — thick. But no one complained or even cared because no one thought about smoking and non-smoking and second-hand smoke back in 1987. It’s just the way it was. Hell, back then you could smoke on airplanes.
And I remember the poker, played by scary-looking people. Old ladies. Cowboys. People who looked like they were part of the Mafia. They all looked like professionals. Cigs dangling in their mouths while they played, and while they talked even, the ash burning down and getting longer until there was actually a faint glimmer of suspense at wondering just how long that crooked ash from a burning Pall Mall could hang off and extend the butt, before crashing onto either the distorted green table felt or the shirt bib of the smoking poker player who was utterly oblivious to the ash and toxicity of what amounted to working inside a Kentucky coal mine, let alone concerned about the strategic position of the closest ashtray stamped in the Castaways logo.
I can’t forget the beer at the Castaways, either. I’ve tasted lots of cold beer in my life, but the beer at the Castaways might have been the coldest. It was always brought by a smiling waitress in those really thick red glass bottles, where the weight of the container was much heavier than the actual contents. Longnecks. Budweiser longnecks. Ice cold Budweiser longnecks. Goddamn, that beer was cold and it was good.
It was at least 105 degrees in Las Vegas on my final visit. Or, it could have been 110. The black tar burned your feet through the soles. When you pushed that swinging glass door that never seemed to close because people were going in and out all the time, it just went back and forth on its hinges, faintly cutting the hot air outside from the blue nicotine of air inside, as an outdated AC system basically said “fuck it,” that was, if it could talk.
Funny thing was, the Castaways made lots of money during its last few years. Every spot around it was much bigger and fancier, but lots of people must have also loved slumming around in the cheap place where no one ever paid for a drink, where the beer was cold, and cigs weren’t necessary if you smoked. All you had to do was step inside, and inhale.
I lost my last $5 chip at a blackjack table, the last shred of anything of value on my person, but I still ordered another cold beer and took it out the door at an ungodly early morning hour I don’t know since there were no clocks on the walls and time didn’t matter anyway, and I headed back to my freezing hotel room at the Flamingo Hilton, which had luxury rooms shoehorned on the backside on the other side of the pool. When I left that summer night in June 1987, I didn’t realize that was the last time I’d see my old friend. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.
The Castaways shuttered its doors just a month later, and by fall, the parking lot was no longer burning hot but the asphalt was buried in busted concrete and broken glass, surrendered to greater powers and in the shadows of steel girders rising in the near distance.
Note: There were two casinos named the Castaways. This location is not to be confused with the casino that opened later on Boulder Highway and torn down in 2003. Despite the same name, there is no relation.
Further Reading: For more information on the Castaways, I highly recommend visiting “The Perlowski Files.”
Special thanks to David K. Li at NBC News in New York for prompting me to write this story.