|239 North Center Street|
|1926 to 1952|
Photo from the Mark Englebretson Collection
Photo from the Mark Englebretson Collection
Photo from the Allen Myers Collection
|The Bank Club (originally licensed as The Bank Palace Club) was the second Casino in Nevada to be licensed when gaming became legal in 1931. The Owl Club at 143 East Commercial Row was the first. The original licensees at the Bank Club were Bill Graham, Jim McKay, and Ray Kindle.|
The Bank Club had been operating illegally in a basement clubroom for several years, so shortly after the bill legalizing gambling was passed, the Bank Club was ready for action.Twenty seven days after his workmen commenced enlarging and renovating the Bank Club, Frank Retmeir, the building contractor announced that the Bank Club would be opening for business in it's new ground floor quarters on April 25, 1931.
The casino had floor space of nearly 500 square feet, making it by far the largest gaming resort in the state. One of the outstanding features of the newly renovated club was it's electric keno(bingo) board. Controlled by 500 switches and one thousand light bulbs, its installation cost thousands of dollars.
A new facade had been added to the building. The downstairs club room had been abandoned, and the new ground floor housed 2 roulette tables, 2 crap games, 2 21 tables, three faro games, one hazard game, one keno(bingo) game, two pan games, one stud poker game, and one slot machine. The Bank Club was the state's leading producer of tax revenue under the new gaming law. It's tax bill for one quarter for the gaming devices listed above was $1,875.00.
Within the next month, the Bank Club added a baseball book, a horse-race book, another craps game and another roulette game.
On April 25, 1931, a full page ad appeared in the local newspaper with the following message: "Grand Opening today of the Bank Club, 239 North Center Street. The club has been greatly enlarged, however, management remains the same. They have an enviable reputation of 'square dealing.' This policy will be rigidly maintained."
The Bank Club was owned by Bill Graham, James McKay, and Ray Kindle. Kindle was an investor only and Graham and McKay were the operators. Graham and McKay had met in Tonopah in the early teens and came to Reno in the early 20's. Graham and McKay were partners in several businesses, among them, The Willows, The Rex Club, The Cal-Neva Lodge at Lake Tahoe, the Miner's Club, and others including the Bank Club, which they had opened illegally in the 20's. Kindle became associated with the Bank Club in 1929, two years prior to the legalization of gaming.
Jack Sullivan, a longtime associate of Graham and McKay, came to Reno in the 20's, with Tex Hall from Ely. Shortly after their arrival they went to work for Graham and McKay in various locations around town. Eventually, Sullivan became manager of the Bank Club, and in 1939 he became a part owner of the Bank Club and was a "watchdog" for Graham and McKay while they were serving time in prison from 1939-1945. (Graham and McKay were convicted of embezzelment and mail fraud in 1938 and were sent to Leavenworth Prison in 1939.) Also, while they were in prison , Broderick "Rod" Perkins, the Bank Club's comptroller, was listed as a licensee.
Tex Hall worked at the Bank Club until 1935, when he was found guilty of conspiracy to harbor George "Baby Face" Nelson, one of America's most wanted criminals. Hall served 6 months in jail and shortly after being released he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty eight.
Three other long time employees of the Bank Club were Harry Bond, Walter Parman, and Elmer "Baldy" West. All of them were in charge of gaming at one time or another.
During the 1936 Presidential Election the Bank Club accepted bets on the outcome of the election, and a total of $75,000.00 was posted on the betting board. President Roosevelt was a three-to-one favorite over Republican Alf Landon.
On December 25, 1936, a large ad appeared in the local paper sending season's greetings "from the largest casino in the United States, the business that has Nevada's second largest payroll, the business that pays the most taxes in the state, the business that serves the finest liquors and the establishment that never closes."
In January 1937 the Bank Club installed a new bar said to be the "classiest bar this side of the Waldorf-Astoria. It cost an estimated $22,000 to $35,000 to install.
During the late 1930's and 1940's the Bank Club was a popular late night gathering spot where other club owners, casino bosses, and dealers met to discuss the evening's events and perhaps have a drink or two. One other reason that the Bank Club was so popular in the late evening was that the club's owners, also owned The Stockade, Reno's red light district. Covering nearly a full city block, the Stockade was surrounded by a high board fence with a wide open gate. After entering vistors came into a large oblong space, faced on three sides by a large three sided brick building divided into narrow rooms exactly like cells in a prison. Each cell had a door and a window that were open all the time. There were one hundred cells and each cell was occupied by a prostitute plying her trade. Each woman worked an eight hour shift, so there were three hundred women working during a 24 hour day.
The Stockade was owned by Acme Realty Company, whose majority stockholders were Bill Graham and Jim McKay. Every night between midnight and 2 AM, the girls getting off work would come to the Bank Club, where they always attracted attention.
On the morning of October 31, 1944, there was a shooting in the Bank Club that was a commentary on what things could be like in Reno during the early years of gaming. The incident which ocurred in front of dozens of witnesses, involved Jack "Jelly" Blackman and James Lanigan. Blackman, thirty two, one of the owners of the Town House, shot James Lanigan, a local hustler. Blackman said that Lanigan was trying to "shake him down." Blackman shot Lanigan only after Lanigan taunted him and then struck him in the face, knocking him down and breaking his nose. When Blackman fell to the floor he pulled out a gun and shot six times. Three of the bullets hit Lanigan, who staggered out the door and died on the street. Lanigan was in the company of local gambler Swede Oleson and George Hilliard, former owner of the Coral Isle Club. A trial was held, and on April 17, 1945, after six days of testimony, the jury found Blackman not guilty by reason of self-defense in the death of James Lanigan.
Bill Harrah was a regular visitor at the Bank Club during the wee small hours of the morning, until one day an off-duty bartender from the Bank Club stole one of Harrah's dollar slot machines out of his Blackout Bar. Bill Harrah reported the incident to police, and that didn't sit well with Jack Sullivan, manager of the Bank Club. Sullivan told Harrah, "We don't need the police to settle things like this, you and I can work it out." Bill Harrah didn't agree and testified against Sullivan's bartender, and the thief was sent to jail. Harrah was never again welcome in the Bank Club.
Many clubs made money during World War II and expanded their gaming licenses. The Bank Club was no exception. In January 1945, when the licenses were renewed, taxes were paid on twenty table games and ninety-one slot machines. (Note the ratio of table games to slot machines. Currently for every twenty table games licensed by a casino, there might be as many as four hundred slot machines licensed.)
In June 1946 the Golden Hotel-the building where the Bank Club was located-was sold by George Wingfield for $1.5 million to a group consisting of John Mueller, Henry Bennett, Norman Blitz, and James Lloyd. The twenty year lease to the the Bank Club was not affected by the sale.
In June 1950 Jack Sullivan attempted to sell his one-third interest in the Bank Club to Joseph "Doc" Stacher, once a member of the Meyer Lansky-Bugsy Siegel gang who had been involved in bootlegging and illegal gambling with the notorious gambler Longy Zwillman. (Stacher was eventually deported to Israel in 1960.) The Gaming Commission was not receptive to the sale and Sullivan sold his percentage back to Graham and McKay, who once again became sole licensees of the Bank Club.
Their partnership was dissolved in May 1952, and Bill Graham became the sole lessee of the Bank Club when he negotiated a twenty year lease with the then owner of the Golden Hotel, Frank Hofues. The Casino area became known as the Golden Bank Casino.
In March 1954 John Drew was licensed as a 25 percent owner of the Golden Bank Casino. In February 1954, Hofues had sold the Golden Hotel to James and William Tomerlin. However Bill Graham's lease was not affected until November 1955. At that time, the Tomerlin Brothers, along with 25 limited partners, bought the remaining seventeen years on the gaming lease from Graham and Drew for $425,000 and were licensed by the state, effective December 1, 1955, for 289 slots, two craps games, six 21 games, one roulette game, one poker game, and two pan games.
That licensing ended Bill Graham's career in Reno gaming. However, he remained in town and was frequently seen at boxing matches and sporting events. He died at his home on California Avenue on November 5, 1965. Jim McKay passed away on June 19, 1962.
The Bank Club was destroyed by fire that consumed the Golden Hotel on April 3, 1962. The hotel was later partially rebuilt by the Tomerlin Brothers and sold to Harrah's in 1966. The former site of the Bank Club is located in the northernmost portion of Harrah's Hotel- Casino, fronting on Douglas Alley and Center Street.
According to Dwayne Kling
James "Cinch" McKay|
Jim McKay was born in Virginia City, Nevada, on September 14, 1888. He became acquainted with Bill Graham in Tonopah during the early days of the mining boom there, and they developed a lifelong partnership. In fact, the names Graham and McKay became almost synonymous for the rest of their lives.
In the 1920s McKay came to Reno and became involved in a number of illegal businesses involving nightclubs and gambling. Included among these properties were the Willows, the Cal-Neva at Lake Tahoe, the Bank Club, the Miner's Club, and the "Stockade," an area of prostitution located just a few blocks from downtown. In 1931, when gaming became legal, McKay and Graham simply opened their businesses to the public. They had already been in operation illegally for years, so it was easy for them to "get into action."
McKay was especially interested in sports and horse racing, and he was active in promoting professional boxing matches in Reno. He was also involved with Graham and Jack Dempsey, former heavyweight boxing champion, in promoting horse races at the old Reno Race Track-now the Washoe County Fairgrounds-on North Wells Avenue.
McKay and Graham's Bank Club on Center Street was the premier gambling casino in the early 1930s and was considered the largest casino in the world for many years.
In 1934 McKay and Graham were arrested for mail fraud. The subsequent disappearance of a key witness for the prosecution, Roy Frisch, and the three-week trial generated nationwide headlines. The trial resulted in a hung jury. Another trial, held in 1935, also resulted in a hung jury. It wasn't until a third trial held in January and February 1938, that McKay and Graham were convicted and sentenced to nine years in a federal prison and fined $11,000. After numerous delays and appeals, Graham and McKay entered Leavenworth Prison in November 1939. They remained there until their release in October 1945. They had served just under six years. In 1950 Nevada senator Pat McCarran interceded with President Harry Truman, and Graham and McKay were both given full pardons.
Shortly after their return to Reno, they were once again active in the Bank Club. In 1950 they bought back from Jack Sullivan the one-third percentage of the Bank Club that they had sold him before they went to prison.
In 1952 James McKay and Bill Graham's partnership in the Bank Club and the Golden Hotel was dissolved.
On June 19, 1962, James McKay died in a Reno hospital after a long illness.
According to Dwayne Kling
Bill Graham was born in San Francisco in 1891. He came to Tonopah in the early days of the mining boom and became involved in gambling clubs and in mining. He worked in Tonopah's famous Big Casino, where he met Nick Abelman, the future operator of the Riverside Hotel, as well as his own long time partner, James McKay. Graham and McKay came to Reno in the early 1920s and were major figures in the days of Prohibition, liberal divorce laws, prostitution, and gambling in and around Reno.
They operated the Willows, the Rex Club, and the Bank Club long before gaming was legalized in 1931. When gaming became legal, they were fully prepared and ready for action. Some have said that Graham and McKay were the invisible driving force behind the legalization of gambling, because it was easier for operators like them to have their business legalized than to continue making payoffs to remain open when gambling was illegal.
Graham was an avid sportsman and boxing fan. In 1931 he and McKay entered a partnership with Jack Dempsey to promote boxing matches, and they also built a large outdoor arena at the Reno Race Track-now the Washoe County Fairgrounds-on North Wells Avenue. It was there that the Max Baer-Paulino Uzcuduno fight was held in 1931 and where the Max Baer-Kingfish Levinsky fight was held in 1932.
On June 4, 1931, Bill Graham shot and killed Blackie McCracken in the Haymarket Club, a bootlegging establishment in Douglas Alley. Graham and McCracken had engaged in a fistfight before the shooting, and McCracken's face was badly battered. He left the club, went to his room at the Pickett Hotel, and returned with a .45-caliber automatic pistol. As he entered the second barred door of the club, he fired a shot at Graham but missed. His second shot creased Graham's arm, then the pistol jammed when the empty cartridge was not ejected and McCracken was unable to fire again. Graham fired three shots, the third striking McCracken in the heart and killing him instantly. A coroner's jury, convened the same day, returned a verdict that Graham had fired in self-defense. He was exonerated of all blame.
In February 1934 Graham and McKay were arraigned on charges of using the mail to defraud. On March 23, Roy Frisch, a key witness for the prosecution, disappeared. In one of Reno's most famous unsolved mysteries, neither Frisch nor his body was ever found. Many stories circulated about what had happened to Frisch, one of them that gangster Baby Face Nelson had kidnaped and killed Frisch and later buried him in the Nevada desert.
Graham and McKay's first trial started on July 5, 1934, and resulted in a hung jury. Over the next few years, two more trials were held, during the course of which it was established that Graham and McKay were the major owners of the Stockade, the main area of prostitution in Reno, and that they had interests in several clubs in and around Reno. Their third trial ended on February 12, 1938, when they were found guilty of operating a swindling ring and of mail fraud and were sentenced to nine years in a federal prison and fined $11,000. After two appeals and many delays, they reported to prison officials on August 4, 1939. On November 11 they entered Leavenworth Penitentiary.
While Graham and McKay were in prison, Jack Sullivan, a one-third owner of the Bank Club, protected their interests.
Graham and McKay returned to Reno on October 30, 1945. They had served six years of their nine-year sentence. In 1950 Senator Pat McCarran interceded with President Truman, and both men were given full pardons.
In 1950 they purchased Jack Sullivan's interest in the Bank Club and continued to operate the business as partners until 1952. Bill Graham became the sole lessee in May 1952 when he negotiated a twenty-year lease with Frank Hofues. Graham took in John Drew as a 25-percent partner in 1954.
Also in 1954 Hofues sold the Golden Hotel to William and James Tomerlin; however, Graham's lease was not affected until November 1955. At that time, the Tomerlins paid Graham and Drew $425,000 for the seventeen years remaining on their lease.
That was the end of Bill Graham's career in Reno gaming, but he remained in town and was frequently seen at boxing matches and other sporting events. He died at his home on California Avenue on November 5, 1965. He was seventy-four years old.
According to Dwayne Kling
Born Jack Scarlett in Canada in 1879, Sullivan came to Tonopah in 1906. There he took up professional boxing and used the name Sullivan. He came to Reno from Ely in the 1920s with Tex Hall. Shortly after coming to Reno, Sullivan went to work for Bill Graham and James McKay in various locations around Reno, including the Willows, the Bank Club, and the Rex Club.
Graham and McKay sold Sullivan one-third of the Bank Club in 1939 when they were sentenced to prison for mail fraud. Sullivan and Harry Bond were supposed to watch over Graham and McKay's interests in the Bank Club while they were in prison.
In 1950 Sullivan attempted to sell his one-third interest in the Bank Club to Joseph Stacher. However, the state refused to license Stacher, so Sullivan's percentage was purchased by Graham and McKay.
Sullivan was a large man with a brusque manner and an intimidating personality. He usually had a cigar in his mouth. When he was in the Bank Club, he seldom missed anything that was happening. He discovered that if he sat on a tall stool between the faro tables he could see every game in the house by utilizing mirrors placed strategically around the casino.
Jack Sullivan died on April 24, 1951.
According to Dwayne Kling