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

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: