Primadonna
241 North Virginia Street
1955 - 1978
Primadonna
Photo from the Mark Englebretson Collection




Don Boyer
Grade 2

Richard & Bev Siri
Grade 2

Richard & Bev Siri
Grade 2

Richard & Bev Siri
Grade 2

Mark Englebretson
Grade 2

Mark Englebretson
Grade 2

Mandi Birkinbine
Grade 2

Mark Englebretson
Grade 2

Mark Englebretson
Grade 1

Paul J. Gregory
Grade 3

Mark Englebretson
Grade 2

Richard & Bev Siri
Grade 2

Jim Rauzy
Grade 2

Richard & Bev Siri
Grade 2

To tell the story of the Primadonna, it is first necessary to recount the history of the Golden Gate Club. In the summer of 1951, Ernie Primm took a lease on the property located at 241 North Virginia Street. On September 30 he began evicting the tenants. The property had housed the Victory Coffee Shop earlier in the year, and at the time of the eviction, the Morgan Smith Jewelers and the Lincoln Apartments were located on the site. On October 9, 1951, Ernie Primm filed for gaming licenses for thirty slots, two roulette games, two craps games, and four 21 games. He filed his application under the name of the Golden Gate Club. Two weeks later, the City Council denied Primm's application, stating that it did not want gambling on the west side of Virginia Street.

On February 7, 1952, Ernie Primm was granted a restaurant license for the Café Primadonna but was again denied a gaming license. In June 1952 Primm filed a lawsuit against the city, but he lost his suit. Ever persistent, Primm again applied to the state for a gaming license and appealed the court's decision. The state deferred action on the application, and in January 1953 the Nevada Supreme Court ruled against Primm, stating the opinion that the City Council had the right to deny him a gaming license.

Primm never gave up his licensing attempts, and finally, on June 28, 1955, he was licensed for four 21 games and forty-nine slots. The casino was the first licensed on the west side of Virginia Street and was named the Primadonna Club. It opened on July 1, 1955.

The specifics of Primm's business deal were spelled out during his license hearing. Primm was to spend $30,000 to remodel the building, and he was required to put up $75,000 for a bankroll. His lease was for fifty years and called for $2,000 a month in 1955, $3,000 a month in 1956, and $3,500 a month for the next forty-seven years.

Ernie Primm opened his Primadonna Club at 6:00 P.M. on July 1, 1955. Ray Sawyer, "Nevada's most popular organist," furnished the music on opening night. Two weeks later, the Primadonna was approved for one craps game, one more 21 game, and twenty more slots.

After a "short summer," the Primadonna closed for remodeling on November 23. The slots, cocktail lounge, and bar remained open. Also closed during that period were the Golden Hotel and the Club Cal-Neva. On December 18, Primm closed the entire club for "alterations." These closings and partial closings forced the Gaming Control Board to take action. In 1956 the Board ruled that casinos that closed down in the winter months, putting hundreds of people out of work, and then opened again in the spring when business and weather got better, could not reopen without going through the entire licensing process. This ruling was an effective deterrent to casinos closing down during the slow winter months.

The only casino grandfathered, in that it was allowed to close in the winter and re-open without being relicensed, was Jim Kelly's Nugget on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. The Primadonna reopened on Friday, April 20, 1956. Shortly thereafter, it added twenty more slot machines.

The club continued to expand during the next few years. In January 1959 the Primadonna management announced that the top two floors of the building would be removed as part of a plan to house the casino, bar, restaurant, and slot-machine arcade in one open expanse. The club remained open and in full operation during the remodeling.

In June 1961 the Regional Planning Commission approved Ernie Primm for gambling on Sierra Street, an area hitherto closed to gaming operations. The issue had been debated for several weeks, and there was a two-hour discussion the night the vote was taken. The motion passed 8-2. However, the City Council still had to approve Primm's request, and on August 15 the Council voted 4-3 to deny him the privilege of opening gambling on Sierra Street. The next week Primm announced plans to build a large restaurant and coffee shop on Sierra Street.

The Primadonna opened a new showroom on the second floor of its new $2-million addition on June 14, 1963. The opening act was a lavish revue titled Paree, Ooo, La La! The adults-only revue offered three shows nightly-10:00 P.M., midnight, and 2:00 A.M.

In July 1964 the Primadonna placed five showgirl statues on its marquee. The average height of the showgirls was twenty feet, but the girl in the middle was thirty-five feet tall.

In November 1965 Primm made another major purchase when he bought the old Sears Roebuck Building at 215 South Sierra Street. The transaction gave Primm control, through title or lease, to property a block and a half in width. His North Virginia Street property (the Primadonna Club) extended southward from Douglas Alley and continued westward, the width of the club, to Sierra Street. Now, with his latest purchase, Primm's property crossed Sierra Street to the west side and included an L-shaped parcel of land nearly two city lots in size. A lot and a half fronted Sierra Street, and at the rear, along the north-south alley, the property extended from West Douglas Alley to West Second Street.

In November 1965 Allen Roberts Sr. gave his son, Allen Roberts Jr., 1.9 percent of the Primadonna. That left Roberts Sr., who was general manager of the Primadonna, with 2.86 percent of the club and Ernie Primm owning the remaining 95.2 percent.

In June 1968 Ernie Primm purchased the Pickett Hotel, formerly the William Tell House, at 245 North Sierra Street. Primm, who paid $400,000 for the property, said he was buying it as a future investment and that he was betting on the future of Reno. He continued his buying binge in November 1968 when he purchased the northwest corner of Sierra and Second Streets for $600,000. This purchase made Primm the largest single owner of contiguous property in downtown Reno. He did not reveal his plans for the property, but he did not rule out the possibility of building a hotel.

In June 1969 Ernie Primm began demolition on his proposed hotel site between Second Street and Douglas Alley on Sierra Street. He announced that "plans are under way for an 800 room hotel which should be ready in two years." He also said that he planned to rebuild the Primadonna, and that "we're going to put a new sign out by the Sierra Street entrance, similar to the one on Virginia Street." True to his word, Primm added a little Virginia Street glamour to his Sierra Street entrance when, in January 1970, he added new signs and five towering showgirl statues to his Sierra Street marquee.

Some well-known gaming personalities who worked at the Primadonna were Allen Roberts Sr., George Piazza, Bill Troye, Hardy Brafford, and Herb Grellman. In the last few years of Ernie Primm's Primadonna, Primm's son, Gary, was vice-president of the operation.

On January 28, 1974, Ernie Primm sold all of his properties to the Del Webb Corporation. On March 1 the Del Webb Corporation applied to the Gaming Control Board for permission to consummate the purchase of the Primadonna-then licensed with thirty table games and eight hundred slot machines-for $5.5 million. Ernie Primm was listed as sole owner, and the $5.5 million selling price included all of Primm's prime downtown property as well as the casino. The sale and transaction were approved on March 21, 1974, and on April 1, 1974, the club was opened as Del Webb's Primadonna.

Phil Arce was named the first president and general manager of Del Webb's Primadonna. One year later, Al Gomes was named general manager, and two years later the position was taken over by Leo Lewis on an interim basis. He was replaced by Tom Aro.

On July 1, 1978, the Del Webb Sahara Reno opened on Sierra Street. By May 1979 the giant hotel-casino was "quietly swallowing up" its sister property, Del Webb's Primadonna. The first signs of the impending transformation came when the famous statues of the chorus girls were taken down from their North Virginia Street perch and replaced by a "Del Webb's Sahara Reno" sign. The two casinos, already linked by a walkway across Sierra Street, were put under the same management and operated as a single property.

The property remained under the management of the Sahara Reno until December 31, 1981, when the Sahara Reno sold all its Reno property to the Hilton Hotel Corporation. The former original Primadonna location became known as the Virginia Street Casino and later as Paco's. Both clubs were managed by the Hilton Corporation. The property is still operating under the direction of the Hilton Corporation and is part of the Flamingo Hilton.

According to Dwayne Kling