Reno ~ The Biggest Little City in the World
By Dwayne Kling
Did you know that in the early days of Nevada gambling, casinos were forbidden, by federal law, to advertise anything associated with gambling? You could say you were the friendliest club, or that you had the best prime rib in town, but you could NOT talk about your liberal slot machines, or any of your table games or keno.
This caused early day operators to think of other ways of keeping their name in front of the public. Many of those gimmicks were very successful.
Harolds Club’s billboard campaign was without a doubt the most successful casino advertising campaign ever developed, as at one time there were over twenty-three hundred “Harolds Club or Bust” billboards in forty-six different states. It was said that a motorist was never more than an eight hour drive away from a Harolds Club sign.
Harolds Club also sponsored amateur athletic teams, as did many other casinos, notably Harrah’s Club. By sponsoring a team you were assured of having your name in the sports section of the newspaper and the name of the club was always emblazoned on the teams uniforms and/or jackets.
Incidentally, my first exposure to Reno was when I was seventeen and was invited to come to Reno to play semi-pro baseball for a Harrah’s Club sponsored baseball team. Bill Harrah always wanted the best of everything and baseball teams were no exception. Our Harrah’s team won the Nevada state championship in 1947 and 1948 and when we played the Harolds Club baseball team in 1948, Bill Harrah bet Harold Smith Sr. ten thousand dollars on the outcome of the game. Three days after we won the game, Bill Harrah “bought out” the Sky Room at the top of the Mapes and treated all the team members and their families to a memorable evening of dining, dancing and drinking.
Two other widely used methods of getting a casino’s name in the paper was to advertise entertainment and/or “great food at great prices.” Also, many clubs (notably the Bank Club and the Palace Club) would take out full page ads wishing their customers “A Merry Christmas” or “A Happy New Year”.
As the years went by, naturally the methods of advertising changed, however, two of the most common ways of advertising, in just about any casino, are the club’s matches and the club’s ashtrays. In the late thirties, many clubs began using ashtrays with their name and logo on them and over the years I would venture to guess that hundreds of thousands of ashtrays have been given away or “stolen”. An ashtray is probably the only thing in a casino that an operator wanted their customers to steal. Ashtrays are something a customer could take home and display in their home. The trays can be sitting on a desk or a table and someone will say, “Gee, where did you get the ashtray?”. That of course, leads to a discussion of the club and how well they were treated or how much money they had won while in Reno. An amusing (to me) aside is that when you are working in a casino–as I did for over forty years–the customer is always complaining of the bad luck they are having and the money they are losing. But when you go to California to visit friends and relatives, everyone tells you how lucky they were when they were in Reno and how they won SO much money. Different stories for different locations.
All the ashtrays weren’t “stolen”. Thousands were given away to anyone who would ask for one, or even a dozen. Ashtrays were usually left scattered around the clubs and made readily available. As if that wasn’t enough, the larger casinos, especially Harolds Club, had employees whose sole job was to travel along the major highways and furnish ashtrays as well as matches and cocktail napkins to motels and restaurants along the way.
Ashtrays and matches were a major expense item for motels and restaurants so they were happy to get the free casino ashtrays. Then, when those ashtrays were stolen from the motels, they were soon replaced by the casinos.
I remember at Harolds Club when a supervisor would go on a vacation, he was expected to go by the advertising department to pick up ashtrays, cards and matches to pass out wherever he stopped. A tremendous goodwill gesture, as well as a highly successful advertising ploy.
Ashtrays can also tell the history of a casino. For example, if you trace the history of the Silver Spur through the many different ashtrays from that Virginia Street casino, you will see the changes as the years go by. The first ashtrays have only the words “Silver Spur”. Then you will find an ashtray advertising the “The Virginia City Parlor”, which was opened two years after the original casino was opened. Then follow the “Spur” ashtray to it’s joining with the Horseshoe Club in 1981 and the eventual demise of the name Silver Spur altogether as the Horseshoe Club took over the casino.
Look at the Riverside ashtrays and follow the various owners through time: Mert Wertheimer, Jessie Beck, Pick Hobson. How about Harolds Club and it’s many different types of ashtrays? Follow Harrah’s when it went from Harrah’s Club to just plain Harrah’s. See the original motto, “Your Reno Host”, then note the ashtrays with “Reno and Lake Tahoe”, and on and on. Do you know that when Harrah’s Club first opened, Bill Harrah wanted it called Harrah’s Club because it sounded like Harolds Club? He thought that maybe, just by chance, that someone might wander into Harrah’s instead of Harolds. When Harrah’s became famous on it’s own, Mr. Harrah demanded that his club be called only Harrah’s, without the word “Club”.
The Owl Club, which was located at 142 East Commercial Row in Reno, was the first location in Nevada to be granted a gaming license when gambling was once again legalized in 1931. What wouldn’t one give for a souvenir ashtray from the Owl Club!! We do have pictures of the Owl Club, but to my knowledge, no ashtrays exist.
Today, collector ashtrays are like the tombstones in a graveyard. In a collection you will see the names of the many casinos that are no longer with us–thing of the Waldorf, Silver Spur, the Palace, the Mapes, Money Tree, the Ponderosa, and on and on. To an old timer, like myself, these ashtrays bring back dozens of memories of when Reno was truly “The Biggest Little City in the World”, known as the entertainment capitol of the world, visited by the rich and the famous, publicized by national columnists, and featured in movies. Currently, the descriptions above are all claimed by the glamorous city of Las Vegas, and rightfully so. However, what Reno still does have in it’s casinos, are the most friendly, helpful, and courteous employees in the gaming industry.
So, if you are fortunate enough to have some ashtrays from the days of Harold Smith, “Pappy” Smith, Bill Harrah, Bill Graham, James McKay, Charles Mapes, Jessie Beck, Pick Hobson and others — treasure them! They were there when Reno was in it’s greatest glory, and as the old saying goes, “If only they could talk, what stories they could tell”.
By Al W. Moe
The city of Sparks has had a long, tough battle getting recognition. With “big brother” Reno right next door, Sparks fought hard to develop a personality of its own.
In the early 1930’s, Reno became a household word. It stood for gambling, drinking and more. Sparks was just a close neighbor, and the word was, “Reno is so close to hell, that you can see Sparks”. With clubs of its own, 1931 Sparks offered gambling at the Nevada Club, the Tavern, and the Owl. Places like Lovejoy & Bennetti and Firths Pool Hall offered a few other games of chance.
As a railroad town, the gambling and bars remained close to the work, all along “B” Street. Business never “boomed”, but it was steady. The Nevada Club was around for six years, and the Crystal Bar held steady from 1935 till 1946. However, the town finally got a forward thinking owner when Dick Graves came along.
Graves was a slot route owner from Coeur d’Alene, and had a partnership in the Shore Lodge in Idaho. He had a fine business going, but gambling was outlawed in 1953. Graves came to Reno and purchased a partnership in “The Nugget” on S. Virginia Street. He also found a cafe on Main Street in Yerington. His slot machines would fill up the two restaurants. The license at the Reno club would end up in the hands of Jim Kelley in 1954 as Graves added a coffee shop in Carson City. John Ascuaga had done an impressive job for Graves in Idaho, and he was brought along to run the shop in Carson City. The following year, Graves found a small building at 12th and “B” Streets in Sparks. John Ascuaga was to leave the Carson Nugget for the new Sparks Nugget. He was made manager, and took over the remodeling. In March, the new cafe opened with 60 stools around the counters, and 50 slot machines. Business was good, the slots rang out and the favorite order was the “Awful-Awful” burger. (awful big and awful good, it is still a terrific meal at Jim Kelley’s Nugget in Reno!)
1958 was a big year for John Ascuaga. He married Rose Ardans, a nurse of Basque heritage like himself, and the Nugget moved across the road to 1140 “B” Street. Later in the year, Graves opened “Trader Dick’s” next door. The restaurant had gambling, and a favorite customer, La Vere Redfield. Special chips were ordered from Richard Taylor down at T-K Specialty Company. They were the standard mould chip of T-K Specialty with the horseshoes around the rim. The face of the chip showed a replica of Dick Graves fifteen pound solid gold rooster. On the other side, the chips were imprinted with “Trader Dick’s” and a large L.R.. Any customer that wants to play everyday in the $10,000 range deserves their own chip was Graves’ feeling.
Next door at “The Nugget” was a full casino and two restaurants. Graves enjoyed several solid promotions such as “Double Jackpot Time” when each jackpot was paid double. Business continued to be strong, but Graves had always been a “slot-man”. He purchased the local Bally’s slot distributorship and began tinkering with some slot designs of his own. The “Big-Bertha” machines were his idea. They soon found their way to clubs all over the state. Most were placed on a profit sharing basis. John Ascuaga had taken on more and more responsibility over the five years the club ran in Sparks. As general manager, he was flabbergasted when in 1960, Graves offered to sell him the Nugget.
Sure, Ascuaga was interested, but it’s a little tough to come up with $4 million dollars. Graves had total faith in John, and made him a very generous offer. $3,775,000 total payoff price to be paid over twelve years. All this with nothing down. John took over the Nugget, and Graves continued his slot business. Planning to work till the age of sixty, Graves was able to knock off early. Ascuaga did so well with the Nugget, he had his debt paid off in seven years. Si Redd then bought Graves’ Big-Bertha’s and his Bally distributorship after Warren Nelson and the Cal-Neva Club passed on the deal.
How Ascuaga was able to pay-off his debt so quickly was a matter of hard work, the refusal to sit still, and buses, buses, buses.
In 1962, the Circus Room opened with “The International Follies”. It featured “vaudeville” style entertainment. John decided he wanted more, and soon the room was filled with patrons waiting impatiently for the likes of Liberace, Andy Williams, and later, Rowan & Martin, and Nancy Sinatra. Now competing on even footing with Reno, Ascuaga dropped the “East-Reno” listing for the Nugget. Sparks was now it’s own town.
Just after the Circus Room began record sales, a small club opened across the street. The Silver Club at 1040 “B” Street was never a threat, but it too managed to grow over the years. About the time Ascuaga was making his last payment to Graves, Ernie Noble was begging for partners to go in with him on the Silver Club. After three years, the group was broke, busted, and disgusted. Of the three partners, only one had the desire to stay in business. His name was Karl Berge. After spending ten years at the Country Club at Lake Tahoe, Karl left for Los Angeles. Finally persuaded to buy-into the Silver Club, it became his outright in 1969.
The club changed very little for the next seven years. Just a small joint with a snackbar like so many others in small towns. Business supported Karl and his wife Nancy, but it was not until 1976 that things started hopping. Karl decided to trade a couple of the Big Bertha quarter machines for some new Bally dollar slots. He asked that the payout be set at 90 percent instead of the usual 60 percent.
According to Karl, they thought he was crazy, but the machines got immediate play. He went back to Bally’s soon thereafter with the intention of buying another four machines to be set at 95% payout. However, something new caught his eye. It was a nineteen machine carousel of nickel slots they were working on.
Karl asked if he could have a similar carrousel built for the Silver Club, but with $1 machines, all set at about 95%. Although the sales manager may have thought Karl was a bit crazy, he wasn’t going to tell him no. So, by the following weekend, the Silver Club had the new machines installed. It’s simple math that helps explain the new slot machines’ popularity. Taking just 5% return on a ten-cent slot would lead to bankruptcy, but taking a 5% cut of machines that accept from $1 to $3 per pull, works out to some serious money.
The customer also gets a chance to win a much larger amount. His simple idea became big business. Karl’s Silver Club really began to prosper thereafter, and casino owners all over Nevada took note. Soon, $1 slot carrousels were a mainstay of most large clubs across the state.
John Ascuaga too was expanding. Changing from their original Mills High-Top machines, new Bally slots were soon all over the club. He continued to purchase land around the club, including two motels just down the street. Parking has always been available for customers, and plenty of buses have made the trip to Sparks from points all over Northern California.
Eventually, there was just too much business to keep John from building his own hotel. In 1984 (the first of several coming expansions) a 610-room hotel tower opened. It helped Sparks again compete with big-brother Reno for both gambling and convention business.
Karl’s Silver Club expanded to its current size of three stories, and added a 200 room hotel along its back entrance on “C” Street. Other clubs along “B” Street have come and gone. The Plantation opened in September of 1967. Located several blocks down the street, it has nonetheless carved out its own group of regular customers.
Also in 1967, a small club opened in the shadow of John Ascuaga. Called the Gold Club, it plied the trade of John’s “extra” patrons. In 1974, Pick Hobson took over and ran the casino as the “Overland Gold Club”, until he found himself in need of some extra cash, and extra time-to run the Riverside.
Across the street were several small clubs. Most notable was the old Sparks Theater. It was remodeled by Ron Palmer, and included an enormous “kings crown” on the roof. It was called the King of Clubs, and ran from May 1, 1975 till July 17, 1981. In the wee hours of the morning, thousands of tokens were taken from the closed building in 1985. Some 54,000 tokens were removed, but the burglars were teenagers. They were unable to dispose of them at local casinos due to their age, and were apprehended in a video arcade trying to exchange some of the tokens for quarters.
Also across from the Nugget was the Claim Stake Casino. It was opened on July 2, 1979. Its mascot, a hard-rock miner, was built in 1977 at a cost of $17,500. The 18-foot tall prospector surveyed passersby for years, even after the club closed just four months after opening. Due to pressure from the Sparks’ City Council to remove what they considered a “sign”, the miner lumbered down the road to Washoe Valley. He now oversees Dan Salzwimmer’s “Chocolate Nugget” candy factory.
What began as a small truck stop in east Sparks has grown to become a very profitable “Peppermill” property. Sid Doan opened “Sierra Sid’s” in 1978. The club had gambling and a restaurant, but needed a hotel. Partners were brought in to help run an expanded operation. They included Warren Nelson and his son Greg, and Si Redd. The partnership did not work out, and the club became the “Peppermill’s Western Village”.
Nelson would continue building on at the Cal-Neva Club in Reno, and Si Redd was too busy with his own company, “Sircoma, Inc.”. Redd continued to help popularize the Big Bertha slot machines as head of Bally Distributing in Reno from 1967 until 1978. But new machines were constantly on his mind.
A craps machine featuring a 30 to 1 payoff was popular for several years. The machine was available in regular size, and also as a Big Bertha size model. It was the popularity of draw poker machines that made Redd a millionaire however. From the turn of the century, draw poker machines have had a loyal following. Found in cigar shops all over the country almost 100 years ago, the new age of “Video Poker” was to make the greatest impact on coin-operated machines since Charles Fey and the “Liberty Bell”.
In 1899, Fey finished working on his Liberty Bell. The machine was the first to use “reels”, and it included five distinct payoffs. Each was produced by the alignment of symbols on the spinning reels. Fey used bells, (which produced the highest payoff of twenty trade checks) hearts, diamonds, spades, stars and horseshoes. It was the invention of this machine that set off a manufacturing and “imitating” frenzy that had never been seen before. That is, until “video poker”. There is nothing 1 can add about slot machines that is not found with-in the 200-plus, color pages of “Slot Machines” by Marshall Fey. Marshall is Charles Fey’s grandson and resides in Reno. You should be able to find this book at a local bookstore. If you can’t, I suggest the following: Fly to Reno, go to the Liberty Bell Restaurant for a wonderful prime-rib dinner, spend your time drooling over the slots on display, and pick up a copy of the book.
Now, back to Si Redd, who had taken note of Dale Electronics’ success with their Poker-Matic slots. Built in 1970 in Las Vegas, the machines were quite popular. As Redd contemplated selling his Nevada Distributing Company to Bally Manufacturing, he came up with a plan. From the selling price, he talked Bally’s into keeping $1.5 million for allowing him to keep several slot lines that Bally was not that interested in. These included video slots.
To this base of machines Redd added Fortune Coin. Fortune slots were the first to use a television screen. Built in 1975 by Walt Fraley, the machines functioned flawlessly due to their simple design. Redd then purchased the slot route of Pennington and Bennett (Circus-Circus owners). This made him Nevada’s largest slot route operator, and prompted a new company name, Sircoma. He asked several notable gamblers to be on his board of directors, including his friend Warren Nelson. After knowing Si for about fifteen years, Warren was willing to buy some shares in his friends’ new venture. He took twenty thousand at $5 each, and bought another hundred thousand shares when the company went public. The new name was IGT, which stood for International Game Technology, currently the largest slot manufacturer in the entire gaming industry.
First Published in Al W. Moe’s “Nevada’s Golden Age of Gambling” and used with special permission of the author. Copyright and all other rights are reserved by Al W. Moe.