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

 

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Bill Harrah at Lake Tahoe

 

Harrah’s Tahoe – Opened in 1957

 Bill Harrah was already a successful casino operator in Reno when he expanded to Lake Tahoe. The expansion is a little confusing, because, over the years, the Harrah’s name graced both sides of Highway 50 at Stateline.

Hopping from spot to spot was a pattern Harrah had used in Reno, where he first set up shop at 124 N. Center Street, opening his first Nevada business on October 29, 1937, at the Owl Club. It wasn’t successful, but that didn’t stop him from opening another club the following summer. Over the next six years, Harrah had a half-dozen clubs, finally settling on Harrah’s Reno Club in 1945.

At Lake Tahoe, Harrah first purchased George Cannon’s Gateway Club, which was housed in an old Quonset Hut. It was located on the lakeside of the highway. It was upgraded to Harrah’s high standards and reopened for the 1955 summer crowd. The club included the original South Shore Room plus keno, roulette, craps and 21 and a parimutuel wheel (Big 8) and of course, plenty of slot machines.

Players had a choice of two bars, a snack bar, a 24-hour restaurant, and a premium booth, where slot players could redeem their premium points for gifts. Business was very good, and just two years later, Harrah purchased Sahati’s Stateline Country Club across the highway, on the mountain-side, which dated back to the 1930s. It opened as Harrah’s Tahoe in 1957.

A new and vastly expanded South Shore Room theatre-restaurant opened in late 1959. The new club had everything the club across the street had, plus a bingo room and a banquet hall called the Edgewood Room. An underground walkway was added in the 1960s, so players and employees could get across the highway without fighting the crowds of summer, or the snow and bitter cold of winter.

Harrah’s Club on the lake-side was eventually sold to Harvey Gross, builder of Harvey’s casino. Forty years later in a strange twist, Harrah’s purchased Harvey’s club and now the parent company owns both, once again.

A much more detailed history of Harrah’s clubs in Reno and Lake Tahoe is found in the book, Nevada’s Golden Age of Gambling. Just $3.99 for 180 pages of stories and photos from the good old days!

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

 

 

Meyer Lansky’s Mob Influence

Meyer Lansky was influential enough to draw hundreds of inquiries from law-enforcement agencies during his lifetime, from the FBI, CIA, Highway Patrol offices in dozen’s of states, local police, detective agencies, you name it, somebody wanted to know more about him. Strange, because as dirty and sticky as his hands were for the Mob, no charges seemed to stick to him.

Lansky was born Meier Suchowlanski July 4, 1902 (died Jan 15, 1983)  in Grodno, the Russian Empire. His father immigrated in 1909 to Manhattan and the family joined him two years later. By the time he was 13, Meyer was a tough-nosed hood who rolled drunks, manhandled local push-cart owners and hung with a group of like-minded young men who would eventually form a part of Lucky Luciano’s main strong-arm groups and bootlegging gangs.

Although gang members like Bugsy Siegel seemed to love fights (and Siegel took real pride in his murders), Lansky was more cautious. When Joe Masseria needed to be hit, Lansky handled the details, Siegel, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, and Joe Adonis handled the guns. Lucky Luciano held control of the New York Mob for more than two decades, and the men who handled his dirty work at the Villa Tammaro restaurant in Coney Island (on tax day, April 15, 1931) all had long careers in organized crime.

Siegel and Adonis were assassinated, Lansky and Adonis were deported to Italy. Lansky, always in the background when crimes were committed, lived a quiet life in Florida until he died on January 15, 1983. Although he handled hundreds of millions in illegal funds from Mob crimes, he wasn’t lavish in his lifestyle.

After the end of Prohibition in the early 1930s, Lansky setup gambling joints in Florida and Louisiana. He had at least a passing interest in Kentucky and Ohio clubs, but the New Orleans business was special to him, with slot machines sales and income topping the bill. After Lucky Luciano was deported in 1936, Lansky took advantage of the Swiss Banking Act of 1934 and set up a series of shell organizations to help launder both Mob money and his own.with a final holding spot of numbered Swiss bank accounts.

His legitimate business operations had a tendency to lose money, but his casinos were always profitable. As more pressure came from local police and sheriff associations, Lansky paid handsomely to keep his name clean and outside of legal hassles. And, Lansky approved of a move into Nevada casinos in both Reno and Las Vegas. Mob money went straight into clubs like the El Cortez and the Las Vegas Club, with Bugsy Siegel and Dave Berman putting up a chunk of cash.

When the building of Billy Wilkerson’s hotel on the Las Vegas Strip stalled, Lansky was instrumental in convincing his bosses that a more public organization and ownership of the soon to be Flamingo was a good idea. Unfortunately, Siegel was a better hitman than a businessman. The construction was a financial disaster, the casino opened and lost money, and only the death of Siegel would keep the Mob happy.

Lansky didn’t give the order for Siegel’s hit, but he had to give his OK. A meeting in Havana with Lansky, Luciano, and a dozen other family heads sealed Bugsy’s fate. He lasted until June 20, 1947. After that, the team of Gus Greenbaum and Dave Berman handled things at the Flamingo with Moe Sedway managing the casino. Lansky got his weekly cut of the skim via bag man (including Siegel’s ex-girlfriend, Virginia Hill) and funneled the cash through a complicated series of shady but legal enterprises to turn the untaxed cash into clean money. He sent his own share to Switzerland, again, sometimes with the help of Virginia Hill.

With the burgeoning success of Las Vegas, Lansky set his own brother up as a manager at the Thunderbird casino in town and later, when Cuba accepted Meyer as an adviser and then casino owner, he was a part of the Nacional Casino in Havana. Enormous profits were skimmed at the Thunderbird, and the Cuban casinos were a huge source of income.

Lansky and Cuba

It was Lansky who arranged a $250,000 bribe in 1952 for President Carlos Prio Socarras to allow Batista to return to power. Once the military coup of March 1952 took place, Batista allowed gambling to be a major part of the Havana experience. Over the next six years, Batista took a nightly share of the profits from all casinos slot machines, often ignoring the cut of the craps and blackjack tables. This allowed the Mob to help finance the building of several more casinos (although the Cuban government was footing a large share of the cost also).

While the Mob profited, the citizens of Havana as a whole didn’t see much of a change in their living standards. Wealthy tourists flew to the island, spent lavishly in the hotels and casinos, and money flew away to the states (and Switzerland). Casinos like the Capri, Commodoro, Deauvill, and Sevilla-Biltmore were split between several Mob families.

The Nacional, Montmartre Club, and the new Habana Riviera were very successful for Lansky and the New York group, with the Riviera making more than $3 million in its first year of operation. Unfortunately for the Mob, their greed (and Batista’s), were too much for Fidel Castro to stomach. The Cuban revolution of 1959 put an end to the gambling as rebels stormed the hotels, trashed the casinos, broke into the slot machines and even parking meters outside, and the tropical dream came to an end for Lansky. By that time, even his illegal clubs in Miami were under a cloud and soon to be closed.

Back to Vegas

Although the Mob’s losses in Cuba (and Lansky’s, estimated at nearly $10 million) were substantial, Las Vegas was still a great stream of skimmed cash. When the US Government indicted several casino executives of illegal cash transactions, Lansky was never touched, although he drained millions from clubs like the Thunderbird, Flamingo, Tropicana, Sands and even Caesars Palace.

He was indicted for income tax fraud and fled to Israel (if this sounds familiar, yes, the Hyman Roth character in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was patterned after Lansky) but returned to the US and stood trial in a botched case that he easily beat. He lived another ten years, lamenting his losses, dabbling in real estate, and at one point, transferring $15 million to his brother Jake’s bank account when he was having more trouble with the IRS – this according to his daughter Sandra.

How close was the Hyman Roth character to Meyer Lansky? Roth’s statement to Michael Corleone of “Michael, we’re bigger than US Steel,” was a direct quote from Lansky to his wife in their Miami home that was picked up on tape by the FBI. Lansky passed away on January 15, 1983, a free man.

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

 

Totally Nevada Since the 1970s

I’ve been Totally Nevada since I was a kid in the 1970s. there were so many things to do (skiing, horseback riding, swimming at Lake Mead and Lake Tahoe, sneaking into the Sahara pool on the Strip, and wandering the casinos looking for loose quarters in the coin trays of slot machines, to name a few) I was always busy.

I played Keno with my dad overlooking downtown Reno from the Horseshoe restaurant, did the same from the coffee shop at Barney’s at Lake Tahoe, and waited until he had put a few nickles in the slot machines at the Commercial hotel-casino in Elko before wandering out of that coffee shop to pull the handles when I was just 10 or 11 years old.

I don’t blame my dad for getting me started with gambling, I thank him. And after all, I was obviously getting fed, just like the slots were. And, he did teach me to play poker, but it was my Grandma Marge who taught me blackjack. Her dad was a riverboat gambler who failed to return to the family farm from a trip to New Orleans when she was my age.

On the other side of the family, my great-great-uncle managed to lose the family’s fortune in Monte Carlo, causing the Baron and his daughters to move to the US. That’s pedigree, not despair. Live and learn.

When I’m not writing about Nevada and casinos, I’m in the casino, and the only thing I see wrong with that is the smoke! Got a question? I’m smarter than I look.

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

 

Vegas Used to Be Fancy?

Wow, people used to actually get dressed up to visit the casinos in Las Vegas! This scene from the mid-’50’s may have been staged, but there were a lot more people going to a nice dinner and show back then.

Of course, the dinner show to see Rose Marie, or Jimmy Durante, or Joe Brown, was an under-$10 affair. If you slipped the maître d‘ a couple bucks you got a nice seat. $5 put you up front where the singer or comic might just talk directly to you!

When the Rat Pack was making headlines in the 50’s and early 60’s, you could count on seeing Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin for a reasonable price, and they often hung around with other stars after the show to have a cigarette and a couple shots. Of course, that’s when it was Vegas and the Mob!

When the Moulin Rouge casino opened in 1955 with stars like Count Basie, Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte and Louis Armstrong performing, their small showroom filled-up for the end of the second show with other stars like Marlene Dietrick, George Burns, Judy Garland, and Jack Benny, who were playing at other clubs in town. Nobody wanted to miss out on the Class A entertainment and the casino management went so far as to add a third show at 2:30 am, because as Chickie Berman used to say, “Nobody important gets up before noon anyway.”

Life Magazine put the new club on its cover and touted the Moulin Rouge as the first racially integrated casino in Las Vegas, but the casino’s success was also its undoing. Profits were being siphoned from the count room, bills went unpaid, and casinos on the Strip like the Sands pushed their weekly entertainment budget to astronomical levels, paying some stars more than $100,000 a week.

The Sands also slowly began allowing African American entertainers to enter using the front door of the property, and to even stay in some of the hotel bungalows. The change was quick and dramatic, and the Moulin Rouge closed just five months after it opened, but its impact was significant and within a few years all of the casinos in Las Vegas were fully integrated.

Today, you don’t have to put on a coat and tie to enjoy the top stars playing at the Mirage, MGM, or the Luxor, but you can expect to pay $100 to see a big-name on the stage. That price doesn’t get you dinner anymore, but there are a lot more choices in town than there were 50 years ago. Enjoy!

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

 

 

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