50 years for Harrah's Tahoe: Stage manager looks back

Provided to the Tahoe Daily Tribune. Bill Harrah, center, poses with Frank Sinatra, left, and John Denver in this undated photo.

Provided to the Tahoe Daily Tribune. Bill Harrah, center, poses with Frank Sinatra, left, and John Denver in this undated photo.

Not everyone can admit to having Sammy Davis Jr. over for a barbecue. But that's been the life of Harrah's Lake Tahoe Stage Manager Gary Zaskoda over the last 38 years.

As the Stateline casino - part of the world's largest gambling company now with the Las Vegas firm's recent acquisition of Caesars Entertainment - celebrates its first 50 years, Zaskoda has taken the time to reflect on his experience involving some of the biggest names in show business.

Entertainment has been a big part of its success.

Zaskoda, 60, said Thursday he enjoyed Davis the most because of his talent as a cabaret entertainer and his down-to-earth nature, playing cards with the stage hands behind the scenes.

"He'd walk out there, and if the crowd was down, he'd work that much harder," Zaskoda said, leaning back in a chair in his nondescript office. Outside the door, postcards of the acts Harrah's has hosted have been posted on boards. They include Tennessee Ernie Ford, Bobbie Gentry, Frank Sinatra, Bill Cosby, Tony Bennett, Lawrence Welk and Petula Clark.

"Sammy," as he refers to him, pulled up to Zaskoda's house for a party in a limousine, prompting questions from neighbors.

"I took the chance and asked him. But Tahoe's a lot different than most places because we get this kind of entertainment and see these people," he said.

He said Jim Nabors was hurt when he wasn't invited to Zaskoda's wedding almost 40 years ago. The sheepish Zaskoda married Yvonne, a former Harrah's chorus dancer he had fixed his binoculars on in 1968.

Zaskoda started out as a stage hand, leaving in a Chevelle filled with belongings from Texas where he grew up with a degree in theater design and experience from the Houston Music Theater.

When asked to come to work here, he admitted to not knowing where Lake Tahoe is. His first shows included Debbie Reynolds.

He's certainly come to know his way around the place in the last three-plus decades.

He recalled the evolving world of the gaming and entertainment industry. For example, Sonny and Cher played the Sahara - now the Horizon - to only 18 people. After a few months into the couple's renowned television show, a performance at Harrah's sold out.

Zaskoda chuckled when he noted how Bill Harrah, who started the company, was unimpressed by Barbra Streisand. Then, there's the time the Dixie Chicks' manager practically begged to get stage time at Harrah's.

Live entertainment has taken its turns over the years. For one, Zaskoda has witnessed how the birth of the big arenas has ushered in a wave of technology affecting the shows - from the lighting to the stage design. It's also brought in a higher level of security.

Of course, it's been an unwritten rule for those working the shows that they don't get pesky with the stars.

"We're privy to a lot of stuff that's personal information," he said.

Bob Dylan took him by surprise, approaching Zaskoda to compliment his postings of the entertainers who have played there. This is despite having heard the singer-songwriter make it clear he's off limits.

Many entertainers have expressed their wishes to Zaskoda and company.

Some have requested things as detailed as six 1-liter bottles of non-carbonated water at room temperature, a tray of mixed vegetables with avocado and hummus, a full-length mirror and red M&M candies. A sign of the times, the most requested item is high-speed Internet.

Aside from the demands, Zaskoda wouldn't have his working life any other way.

"I say: 'When it stops being fun, I'm out of here,'" he said.


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