Showboat facade and swimming pool, seen in 1961
The Showboat was built by William J. Moore of the Last Frontier and J. Kell Houssels of the Las Vegas Club for $2 million. The first resort within Las Vegas city limits, it had 100 rooms on two floors. While Moore and Houssels ran the hotel, the casino was leased by a group of managers from the Desert Inn, including Moe Dalitz. The Showboat opened on September 3, 1954. After several unsuccessful years, Joe Kelley took over management, and began successfully targeting local customers with forty-nine cent breakfast specials and other promotions.
Kelley added a bowling alley in 1959, which soon became the Showboat's signature attraction, hosting nationally televised PBA tournaments. Showboat bowling leagues were organized in Los Angeles and Phoenix, offering winners free trips to Las Vegas for championship events. By 1979, the bowling alley grew to 106 lanes, making it the nation's third largest.
The property's parent company, Showboat, Inc., made its initial public offering in 1969. Later that year, Ramada Inns agreed to buy the company for $15 million in stock, but negotiations failed because of conditions set by Houssels, who wanted cash for his 24 percent stake.
A 19-story hotel tower was built in two phases, with the first nine floors opening by 1973, and the remainder in 1976, bringing the property to a total of 500 rooms.
In the early 1980s, a large unused space on the second floor was converted into the Showboat Sports Pavilion, which hosted American Wrestling Association events and Los Angeles Thunderbirds roller derby matches, and competed with Caesars Palace to book high-profile boxing matches. The Pavilion was later converted into a bingo hall.
Showboat, Inc. expanded over time, opening Showboat Atlantic City in 1987, Sydney Harbor Casino in 1995, and Showboat Mardi Gras in East Chicago in 1997.
The hotel was successful until the 1990s when it suffered the same fate as the downtown casinos, which were losing business to the new megaresorts on the Las Vegas Strip. Many visitors also believed that this casino was located on the Strip since the exterior of Harrah's Las Vegas resembled a showboat.
In 1998, Harrah's Entertainment bought Showboat, Inc. for $1.15 billion. Harrah's interests were primarily in the Atlantic City and Chicago markets, however; the Las Vegas property did not fit with the company's strategy. They sold the Showboat in 2000 for $23.5 million to VSS Enterprises, a group owned by Dan Shaw, Mike Villamor, and Greg Schatzman.