Reno’s Town House Casino

Reno became the Divorce Capital of the World in the 1930s. Open-gaming was legalized in 1931 and the state lowered residency requirements to six-weeks for divorces. So, people arrived in droves, ready to “take the cure” as they called it, and hotels were available for those on the rich side. Those with more adventurous souls or more modest pocketbooks stayed at one the many dude ranches found in the countryside all over Washoe Valley.

Pictures from the ’20s and ’30s depict Reno visitors in cowboy garb, even if they just took the train in from New York City and had never been on a horse in their life. To fit the crowd and the countryside, Reno saloons and casinos sported a country theme well into the ’60s.

One of the most popular saloons to open in downtown Reno was the Town House, first known as the Dude Ranch Town House. The property was built and operated by Charles Rennie. The bar didn’t have to be as big as the coming Las Vegas casinos like the El Rancho to be successful, and the saloon sported just a long bar, restaurant, and six slot machines. After opening, the club had three games, a 21 table, craps, and roulette.

Although drinking was still illegal due to Prohibition, the Town House offered liquor, as most Reno establishments did. As chronicled in “Mob City: Reno Connection,” Bill Graham and George Wingfield had the fix-in for any club that was sharing a piece of their action, and the Feds never busted the Town House.

Rennie tried to expand his gaming empire to Plumas Avenue, several miles from the downtown corridor in 1936. The move didn’t sit well with the men in charge of Reno, and within a year Charles Rennie owned neither the Country Club nor the Town House.

After a public auction in 1937, the Town House was purchased and reopened in December by Fay Baker and Tom Brown. Postcards and even gaming chips from the era depict the Town House logo: A tall, bow-legged cowboy bellied up to the bar with well-shaped women on either side of him. The logo’s caption was “The riding lesson.”

The Town House struggled to stay in business with different owners for nearly 20 years. In 1955 it was destroyed by a suspicious fire.

J.C. Penney built a new store in its place on First Street that survived until 1990. Reno may no longer be a cowboy town, but it’s still more country than city.

Reno’s Northern Club

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

Harold’s Club – A Reno Classic

Harold’s Club in Reno was the Nation’s best-known casino in the 1940s and 1950s, but how did that happen? Well, the story is told in much greater detail in Nevada’s Golden Age of Gambling, but here’s the start!

Raymond “Pappy” Smith

Raymond I. Smith spent thirty years of his life running carnival games from a baseball throw to a hoop game, to a wheel of fortune, and his own fortunes rose and fell with each season.  Summer was always strong, but fall stood more for a change in cash flow than the leaves that left their home in the trees.  Winter was always cold, and there was no fun in Southern California or Florida, yet.  There was just travel, boredom, and the hope for an early spring.

His sons came along almost unnoticed.  Raymond, his first son, was born in 1907, and Harold came into this harsh world three years later.  Traveling from town to town, and carnival to fair, life was hard.  Too hard, the son’s mother decided in 1918 and ran away with her lover to Ohio.

You can run, but you can’t hide, even in Cleveland.  And soon, “Pappy” arrived at the home of his soon to be ex-wife, dropped off the boys and continued with his life.

His lifestyle was not conducive to rearing children, but he still provided support to the boys.  When they came of age, he was willing to send for them so they could work with him for the summer.



Early 50s Blackjack

Settling in one place, Pappy took on several booths at Chutes-at-the-Beach in San Francisco.  Son Raymond was not happy with the beach and boardwalk.  The passing crowds were not fun or exciting, they were cattle.  He soon got a job at a local bank, with civilized people.  Harold saw them differently.  He was driven by a great need to please Pappy.

Every task was taken up with vim and vigor.  Each movement, no matter how simple, would be done to perfection. He was happy to work at the beach year-round.  1928 was a boom year for Pappy, and he looked forward to an even better 1929.  Since Harold had shown such a flair for the “family” business, he decided to send his son to Riverview Park, in Chicago.  Arriving in the spring of 1929, Harold set about getting some new carnival games going.

It was early on that Harold Smith was to learn what he conceded to be the underlying reason for his success in the casino business.  He began giving away better and better prizes to his customers.  He learned that you should get something for something.  After the stock market crash and a failing national economy, that belief was even more important.


Early 50s Roulette

Back in San Francisco, Pappy sent Harold to Rio Nido, a nice country setting along the Russian River that provided a pleasant summer vacation spot for many families in Northern California.  Harold went to work as a Bingo operator in the summer of 1931.  His first prizes were “Beacon” blankets.  They were both popular, and expensive.  The players were many during that first summer.

Over the next four years, Pappy set up Fascination games in Florida, Whist in San Francisco, and roulette in Modesto.  Changing political tides made his games legal one-day, and illegal the next.  Finally, with the arrest of both “Pappy” and his son in Modesto, CA for gambling violations including the running of an illegal roulette game, he told his son it was time to try a place where gambling was legal every day of the year.  That place was Reno, Nevada.

Off To Reno

Harold was interested until they arrived.  No bright lights, and no big bettors, he considered it a tin-horn town.  Harold studied the market and found a small Bingo parlor on South Virginia Street.  He brought Pappy around and showed him the place.  It wasn’t much, but Pappy decided to trust Harold’s hunch.  They paid $500 to take over the lease and pay off the current owner’s debts.  Then they closed up shop and began cleaning up their new store.

In a long, thin room (25 by 125 feet), Pappy and his son got the ball rolling, literally, at 7:00 p.m., February 23, 1936.  No fanfare went into the first night; they just opened the front door.  With just the penny roulette game, Pappy and son waited for their first customers.  It was not the traditional roulette wheel we know today.  Harold’s Club opened with a “flasher” wheel, and it was the first in Nevada.  Hung from the ceiling, the eight-foot wheel spun before a large mirror, which gave each of the possible 43 players a chance to see the outcome.  One game, no waiting, and the whole family got in on the act with everybody working.  Soon Harold’s brother Raymond joined them, along with (believe it or not) their mother, and her new husband.  By the year’s end, the books showed almost a break-even business.  Profits would come slowly. The family never used an apostrophe after the “d” in Harold’s Club.

There’s much more in the book Nevada’s Golden Age of Gambling, softbound 8×11 or Kindle, with more than 70 vintage photos!

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe


Reno in July – No Crowd – So Sad

Well, this is just a little scary for Reno – on July 7th at 1 pm. If you don’t know the scene, this is Virginia Street with the Eldorado on the right (Circus Circus behind and Silver Legacy forward). Many moons ago I spent my first night in Reno at the Thunderbird Motel, and I was happy to get a room.

Why was I happy? Because the town was full of gamblers. No, it wasn’t Hot August Nights, or a Bowling tournament week, or any other event – it was just a weekend in Reno during the summer, long before California and dozens of other states offered casinos and poker games. Things have changed.

I will admit that there were some rainstorms around the Fourth of July this year and that may have had an impact, but the empty street is so sad to me. I learned to play Texas Hold’em in Reno, starting at Mr. C’s casino attached to the Sands on a 25-cent to $1 table. At the time there were lots of places to play and more than 100 tables in town. Today, just a few clubs still have live poker.

Your best bets are the games at Grand Sierra (formerly the MGM/Bally’s/Hilton), the Peppermill and the Atlantis away from downtown. Right downtown there are games at the Club Cal-Neva and the Eldorado. This particular day the games at the Eldorado included what they said was the last 7-card stud game in town and a couple Hold’em games. They were $3-6 limit and $1-2 blind no-limit and that was that.

On the other hand, there are still plenty of good blackjack games in town, whether you want to play $3 or $100 a hand (many clubs still hold the upper limit at $500, but several offer $5 to $1,000 games). And, for those of you who want a game to yourself, there were plenty of empty tables all across the downtown corridor.

As for myself, the best games I saw were at Circus Circus, mostly because I won, and because my girls were having a great time upstairs in the Big Top Arcade. Eventually, they had a plastic bag filled with stuffed animals and candy, and the gaming paid more than the arcade games cost. Yup, you can still make money in Reno!

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe



Reno’s Club Harlem

Club Harlem was one of the first integrated casinos in Nevada. Located at 221 East Douglas Alley, the bar first opened in 1946 under the watchful eye of its owner, William Bailey. Although cited for illegal gaming, the small property was later licensed in 1948 for slots and 21.

Bailey moved to Reno in 1934 from South Dakota (born 1903) and found numerous places to work before joining the army in 1940. When he returned to Reno in 1944 he invested in the Peavine Club at 219 Peavine Street, along with several other small bars.

The Peavine was originally opened by Harry Wright and offered drinks, slots, craps, 21, and a rough crowd. The games may or may not have been on-the-square, and in December of 1944, craps dealer Walter Ector shot Joe Jones when he was accused of using loaded dice. The following year, Wright himself was shot by John Berton during a brawl. The 67-year old owner decided to sell his share of the club to Bailey, who ran the property for two more years before the building was condemned.

After opening the Club Harlem, Bailey was also shot while dealing dice. For a while, the casino was placed off-limits to Reno Air Base personnel and the 21 games had to be dealt from a wooden shoe due to questions about cheating. When that wasn’t enough, a pit boss from the club was arrested at the  New China Club next door – for cheating. My oh my.

In the meantime, Bailey worked continuously as a civil rights advocate and president of the Reno-Sparks NAACP. Long before the better-known Moulin Rouge opened in 1950’s Las Vegas, Club Harlem was a leader in Nevada casino integration. When local entertainers finished their gigs at other casinos they weren’t welcome to enjoy the casinos themselves. Instead, they often walked down the street to Club Harlem.

When Sammy Davis, Jr. was working with the Will Maston Trio at the Mapes, he could be found afterward at the Club Harlem. B.B. King performed regularly at the Club Harlem, as did other entertainers like Louis Armstrong. Another favorite at the club was Pearl Bailey, a cousin of the owner!

Bailey sold his interest in the club to Norval Embry, who ran the club from 1958 until 1968 when it became the Soul Club. It operated as a bar and lounge for another ten years before being torn down to make way for Harrah’s parking garage on Center Street in 1977.

For you chip collectors, one of the $5 chips shown above sat in a tiny alcove by the Virginia Street entrance of the Senator Hotel for a dozen years before a thief reached over a small glass partition and brought it to a Reno coin shop, hoping to get $5 for it. By that time it was selling in the $150 range and the seller did get more than they were expecting.

Many more stories about Reno, Las Vegas, and Lake Tahoe are found in Nevada’s Golden Age of Gambling!

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe


Mob City – Reno Connection

When Lucky Luciano organized the first Commission of the American Mafia, the cities with representation were all large, heavily invested in the riches from Prohibition, and had a ready delivery system for the booze that came in, usually along waterways and docks controlled by gangs.

Detroit, Buffalo, and Cleveland (although each currently seeing a decline in jobs and population) were heavily populated and had numbers rackets, union infiltration, loan sharking operations, and cargo hijacking on the docks that provided additional income to the families. Smaller cities were less profitable to manage, although not necessarily any less tough or less corrupt.

The Reno connection was more important for individual gang members in the 1920’s and 1930’s and it wasn’t until later that the Chicago Outfit, the Detroit Partnership, and the New York Mob enjoyed a piece of the gambling in Reno. In the 1920s, Reno had its own Mob, a handful of men who controlled the gaming, speakeasies, prostitution (which was legal), loan sharking, and may have had a hand in opium and heroin distribution.

George Wingfield was the original architect of Reno’s banking services and owned a piece of a dozen casinos in town, even before Nevada legalized open-gaming. And it was George and Bill Graham who made sure the gaming bill passed in 1931 by showering their legislators with campaign contributions. The new book, Mob City: Reno Connection reveals the power the small town Mob had over Reno and how the city grew into the “Biggest Little City in the World.”

Mob City is a rewritten and updated version of The Roots of Reno, but includes a shorter verse on Goldfield and Tonopah before taking the reader to Reno in the ’20s, filled with road gangs like Alvin Karpis, Ma Barker and her Boys, and “Baby Face” Nelson, and continues on to the fall of the Wingfield banks, the control of early casinos, and  the eventual fall to Chicago, Detroit and New York.

If you enjoyed Vegas and the Mob, this new book will fill you in on what was happening before Vegas was the Gaming Capital of the World.

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe


Charlie Mapes

Sometimes Charlie Mapes doesn’t get the respect he deserved for his work in the Reno gaming community. I mean really, here he is getting punched-out by boxing champion Jack Sharkey! The event was the 85th Birthday party of Ancil Hoffman, who was well-known in Reno as the manager of Heavyweight Champ Max Baer.

The Boxing Champion’s party was the brainchild of Bill Pettite, a boxing fan and nephew of Nick Abelman, one of Northern Nevada’s gaming pioneers featured in the book, Mob City: Reno. Mapes decided to hold the event and foot the bill for 350 guests at his casino in 1970.

It turned out to be one of the largest gatherings of boxing legends ever, and included James J. Braddock, Jersey Joe Walcott, Willie Pastorano, Jackie Fields, Fred Apostoli, Jimmy McLarnin, and “Two Ton” Tony Galento, and of course Jack Sharkey! Even Governor Paul Laxalt showed up.

Gaming pioneers were there too, including Warren Nelson (Club Cal-Neva), Norman Blitz (Tahoe Cal Neva, Bank Club, Holiday Casino), Wally Mason (Horseshoe Club), and Harvey Gross (Harvey’s Casino). To be fair, Charlie Mapes needs to be considered a gaming pioneer too.

When the Mapes hotel-casino was finished in 1947, the 12-story tower was the tallest building in the entire state. The opening brought new attention to Reno and a who slew of new players, many with plenty of money, from places like Detroit, Kansas City, and the east coast. The hotel had fancy dining, a nice showroom, and a casino on the top floor that included blackjack, craps, and roulette with fancy die-cut, metal-inlay chips..

Although the casino was often leased out to other operators, Charlie Mapes owned buildings in downtown Reno, ran the concessions at the airport, and opened Mapes Money Tree casino on the corner of Virginia and 2nd Streets in 1969. It closed ten years later. The Mapes hotel-casino was closed in December 1982.

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe


100-Pound Mountian Lion leaves Harrah’s Reno

Nevada Department of Wildlife spokesman Chris Healy.

Actually, the lion had trouble negotiating the revolving door at Harrah’s casino on Virginia Street plaza and wandered over to an outdoor stage where it crawled underneath for safety. Police and emergency workers cordoned off the area and waited for officers from the Department of Wildlife to arrive. When they did, the animal was tranquilized before being taken away to be checked for injuries. Afterward, the animal was fitted with a GPS necklace.

Early Saturday morning the young lion was driven to Spooner Summit at Lake Tahoe and released a few miles from Highway 50 where it will have plenty of wild game to chase and more water available.

If I’m not mistaken, this is the first lion in a Reno casino since the MGM had their signature lion downstairs available for photo shoots.

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe


Harrah’s Bingo Club 1960s

Bill Harrah first came to Reno in the 1936 and his businesses hopped around the block of Center Street several times after opening his first club in 1937. The first spot was at a bar previously called the Owl. After more successful ventures on Commercial Row and Virginia Street, Harrah’s casino straddled both sides of what became Lincoln Alley (remember that Fitzgerald guy?) so there were entrances on both main streets.

However, this little Bingo and Keno parlor shown above was located on the other side of Center Street, with the Club Cal-Neva directly across from it. Now, the location is the Cal-Neva’s parking garage. Kind of funny, since it’s nearly right where the Owl was 25-years earlier. Harrah’s became the largest owner of casinos in Nevada and later the world.

In other Reno news, Hot August Nights are in full swing, the hotels are full, the casinos are hopping, and old cruisers are be-bopping to 50’s music all over town. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but late at night while most of the revelers should be in bed, the poker games are cookin’. That’s always a good thing.

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe


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