Reno’s Northern Club was one of the first casinos in the state licensed for gaming in 1931. Located on the ground floor along Center Street in Reno, the casino was run by Felix Turillas Sr. and John Etchebarren in the Commercial Hotel. Women were rare players in the 4,000 square-foot club when it opened with two craps games, Hazard, Faro, 21, and poker tables. The three slot machines were an afterthought, and rarely had more than a few coins run through them daily. Across the street, clubs like the Dog House (billed as “The Divorcee’s Haven) had stage shows that ran 24-hours a day featuring nearly-nude fan dancers and strippers.
Turillas was a colorful, cantankerous character who also ran the gaming at Lawton’s Springs where he was charged by pro-hi’s with violating the Volstead Act (Prohibition of alcohol sales) in the 1920s, but his buddy Bill Graham got the charges dropped. Turillas also owned the Northern Hotel and liked to deal poker, often with George Wingfield in the game.
The Northern Club added a Big-Six Wheel and Keno to its gambling mix and ran successfully until it was sold to Jack Fugit, who redecorated and reopening as the Barn. The small club struggled as the casinos fronting on South Virginia Street like Harrah’s, Harold’s and the Nevada Club began to take business from those on Commercial Row and Center Streets.
In 1944, a man with some off-shore gaming and bar experience in San Diego named Wilbur Clark purchased the Barn. Although he had only a few thousand dollars of his own money to invest, he was backed by partners from the mid-west as well as the east coast, variously reported as Moe Dalitz and Frank Costello. He spent their money freely. The most striking attribute of the Gay-Nineties motif club were the wall fixtures, eight-foot-tall nude ladies who appeared to be holding the ceiling in place.
Wilbur Clark Moves to Las Vegas
The following year Wilbur Clark moved to the El Rancho Casino, the first casino on the old highway to Los Angeles that became known as the Las Vegas Strip. He fronted the casino for Frank Costello, and “skim” went to Meyer Lansky. Thomas Hull, who owned the El Rancho, took a piece of the Bonanza Club in Reno.
His ownership there was very short-lived, and he sold his interest to Lou Wertheimer, who came to town from Detroit, where he ran casinos for the Detroit Partnership. Wertheimer sold his ownership at the Bonanza when the Mapes Casino was ready to be opened in 1947.
The Bonanza stayed in business under several partnerships, but the gaming on Center Street continued to play second fiddle to South Virginia Street and the only person interested in the building was Bill Harrah, who purchased it in 1952. He opened as Harrah’s Bingo in 1953. Today, part of Harrah’s Reno is located at the corner of Second and Center Streets.
Thanks for Reading – Al W Moe