Saturday, February 4, 2017

Searchlight, Nevada and "The King of Casinos"

1950's at the El Rey in Searchlight, Nevada
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 accidently 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





Sunday, January 1, 2017

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 1920’s, 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 in 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.

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

Monday, December 5, 2016

El Rancho - First on the Las Vegas Strip in 1941

The El Rancho in Las Vegas was built by Thomas Hull as an addition to his chain of “El Rancho” hotels in Gallup, New Mexico, and Fresno and Sacramento, California. The 63-cabin resort was designed as a way-station, a break for families to enjoy on their trip through Nevada, not as a casino property.

Still, it opened on April 3, 1941, with a small casino. The property was inviting, with a white, split-rail fence surrounding the frontage of the 57-acre property and a large sign spanning the driveway entrance. Included at the El Rancho were a large pool, a neon-lit windmill atop the main entrance, and horseback riding stables. Each cabin had a personal parking area, a porch, and a patch of green lawn, carefully maintained by gardeners.  Many cabins had kitchens so that guests could cook meals, or they could eat in the Chuck Wagon buffet in the center of the property.

The casino was smaller than those in the downtown casino area but included blackjack, roulette, and craps, plus seventy slot machines. Guests were encouraged to visit the Opera House, where comedians like Joe E. Brown and Milton Berle performed. Crowds were small but enthusiastic.

Hollywood Legends in Las Vegas

Clark Gable was regularly seen at the 91 Club up the street while establishing Nevada residency and awaiting his divorce in 1939. He then stayed at the El Rancho, reluctantly, in 1942 after his new wife, Hollywood star Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash shortly after takeoff from the Las Vegas Airport.

Although the property was successful, Hull sold his percentage (points) in the hotel in 1943, and two new owners were listed on the Clark County gaming license, Hilton-Brown.  Then, in 1944, Wilbur Clark arrived from his training in Reno.

Fronting for the Mob, Clark changed the property’s name to the El Rancho Vegas.  By that time, the Hotel Last Frontier had joined the El Rancho along the highway to Los Angeles on October 12th, 1942.  It kept the name until it changed to the New Frontier in 1955.

The casino did very well and Clark’s partners in Cleveland (Moe Dalitz and company) that they would help bankroll a new club for him.  That move, the building of the Desert Inn, allowed Sanford Adler to move up to the “owner’s position” at the El Rancho Vegas before his ill-fated year at the Flamingo, and his banishment from Las Vegas.

Next, Jake Katleman purchased controlling interest in the property (and leased out the casino operations to some folks from Back East). When Jake passed away in 1947, Beldon Katleman took over at the young age of 31. He obtained loans, bought out the other family interests, and refurbished the resort at the cost of nearly a million dollars. At the time, the expansion made the casino the largest in Las Vegas.

During the 1950’s, entertainers did big shows at the El Rancho, but the competition from new properties like the Sahara, Sands, Dunes, and Desert Inn took away a chunk of the weekend business. Katleman kept interest going in the property by switching to more provocative acts, like strippers Candy Barr and Lili St. Cyr. However, as the resort prospered, his casino malfunctioned under Mob control, and Chicago Outfit henchman Marshall Caifano.

In early June of 1960, Katleman had Caifano removed from the property after a heated argument about the benefits Caifano wanted, which included free lodging and the constant company of new showgirls. On June 17, Caifano was surreptitiously allowed to enter the backstage area of the showroom. Once there, he started a fire that spread to the kitchen. Soon the entire property was a blazing inferno with flames seen all the way to the downtown casinos. The property was destroyed and never rebuilt. It took a while, but Caifano was eventually the first person listed in Nevada’s Black book, barred permanently from ever entering a Nevada casino. He wasn’t happy.

Ten years later, Howard Hughes bought the property before slipping out of his Desert Inn penthouse early one morning and catching a jet to the Bahamas.  The property was still vacant years later when Bill Bennett of Circus Circus purchased it. In 1982, the once-Mob controlled Thunderbird hotel changed its name to the El Rancho Casino, after running as the Silverbird from 1977 to 1981. That El Rancho property closed in 1992.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Harold's Club - A Reno Classic

Early '50's Craps
Harold's Club in Reno was the Nation's best-known casinos in the 1940's and 1950's, 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, the life was hard.  Too hard, the son’s mother decided in 1918.  She 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 on 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 '50's 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 '50's 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 tinhorn 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 8x11 or Kindle, with more than 70 vintage photos!
Thanks for reading - Al W Moe

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Bill Harrah at Lake Tahoe

Harrah's Lake Tahoe - Opened in 1955

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 pari-mutual 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 1930's. 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 1960's, 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!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Reno in July - 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 Forth 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




Wednesday, June 17, 2015

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  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-mined 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 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 1930's, 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 setup 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 January 15, 1983 a free man.

Thanks for reading - Al W Moe