Searchlight, Nevada and "The King of Casinos"

Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Searchlight, Nevada. It’s the proverbial black spot on a map. It’s an unincorporated town 13 miles square somehow holding 500 hearty souls. To be fair, ah, well, it’s a dot, that’s all.

Really, if you are accidentally in Needles or Blyth, California, you might drift off towards US 95, but more likely, you already found Laughlin and did some gambling. That’s cool, but if Las Vegas calls, you need to backtrack to US 95 and take a 100-mile trip where you’ll pass nothing but sand and sage and other cars. This is unless you miss the stoplight in Searchlight. Bummer.

And, as you roll through town you’ll see that the Searchlight Nugget just closed after 40 years. Double bummer! Of course, there used to be an even more famous place – Willie Martello’s El Rey Club and Bordello, which had opened in 1946,  but a fire ended that fun run in 1962.

Along the way, Willie tried his best to grow the club and make a dream in the desert come true, no matter the cost or the consequences. By that, I mean sure, there were prostitutes, and yes, he did get his gambling license revoked, but that happens to all small club owners, right? Maybe not.

At any rate, while Willie wasn’t the man who actually started the club, he was the man who made it as the King of Casinos in the tiny town (unincorporated, yes) of Searchlight. To learn more about Willie, you need to read Andy Martello’s book, The King of Casinos, which is available in paperback from Amazon and other places.

Believe me, this is a great read. Don’t believe me? The book has 64 reviews at Amazon and 95% of them are 5-star. That’s amazing. So’s the story Andy tells.

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

 

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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

 

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