Casino workers share life inside Nevada’s glitter | NevadaAppeal.com

Casino workers share life inside Nevada’s glitter

Kit Miller

Though I grew up in Nevada, I never quite connected with the casinos. But five years ago I embarked on a documentary photo project. I wanted to find out who works in the casinos and what they had to say about their histories and work lives, their interests and dreams.

Many Nevadans have worked in casinos at one time or another. People have been waitresses, maids, dealers, either for a stint between other jobs, while going to school, or as a career. But like me, many other Nevadans – and most tourists – have no idea what goes on inside the glitter of the casino world.

When I started this project I discovered that not much had been written about casino workers. And when I began photographing and interviewing people they almost always said, “Gee, nobody ever asked me about my job before.” They were eager to talk.

While spending time with 40 people working in 22 casinos across Nevada, I heard some pretty interesting, fresh ideas of life and work in the Silver State’s main industry.

“When people hear you’re a dancer your IQ drops to about 60 in their minds,” said Karen Burns, a former showgirl, now a show producer. “They’re surprised to hear I’m a local person, I’ve been married 20 years, I have a daughter, I taught high school, I run my own business.”

“Casinos are constructed around addictions. They’re a magnet for people who are in crisis or running away from something. You’ll either find a new path or you’ll have a breakdown,” said blackjack dealer JoAnne Goena.

“You have to have a life away from the casino,” said bellman Jerry Tiehm, who is a botanist in his off-time and has discovered 18 plants new to science. “Otherwise, it’s going to get to you. Booze, clothes and casinos, to me it’s just a waste of time. Most days I’m out the door at three in the afternoon, and I’m busy till ten-thirty at night. It’s not a life to me. It’s a job.”

“It’s my job to sell them something they weren’t even thinking about, they don’t really want and that doesn’t even exist,” said camera girl Stephanie Miller, of her work photographing showroom patrons.

“One reason I like working here is cause I see my hometown, you know. The majority of the cleaning department, everybody is Filipinos. Old people, old Filipinos, is so nice,” floorsweeper Art Gonzales told me.

“If you watch the dealers long enough on these games, you could cut off their heads and know who you were looking at by the way they flick the cards,” said security supervisor Fran Jordan.

“We are the only union hotel in town now,” explained Shirley Robinson, a maid at Circus Circus in Reno. “When the whole town is union it’s going to make it better for all of us.”

“The Avi Casino has over 300 tribal members working. More of our children are in day care now because their parents are working. Now that we live back on the reservation my kids have a chance to learn the Mojave language from the elders,” Teresa “Hipa” Bryan told me at the Fort Mojave Reservation.

“I feel that God meets people everywhere, and I see a lot of Christianity here, both in our customers and in our people,” said Catholic layworker and pitboss Ellie Hays, who takes her vacations to Latin America where she “walks with the poor.”

“The interesting thing about this job is when you knock on the door you never know whether the person on the other side has got a gun, it’s a naked woman or both,” said Mark Zartarian, a Las Vegas room service worker.

Kit Miller is a local photographer whose new book, “Inside the Glitter: Lives of Casino Workers” is now on sale at local bookstores. Photographs and stories from the book are on exhibit at the Nevada State Library and Archives. There will be a reception and book signing at the State Library on March 10, 5-7 pm.