Guy W. Farmer: A Nevada Day tribute to state gaming pioneer
If it was up to me, I’d appoint Northern Nevada gaming pioneer John Ascuaga as grand marshal of Saturday’s Nevada Day Parade. Who better?
Ascuaga and his lovely wife, Rose, put Sparks on the map after they purchased the Sparks Nugget from Idaho gambler Dick Graves almost 60 years ago. Before that, Sparks was usually known as “East Reno.” Today, you know you’re not in Reno anymore as you approach the Nugget’s twin towers. Moreover, the Ascuagas have strong Carson City connections. They live on their idyllic Jacks Valley ranch and come to Carson to shop and to attend church at St. Theresa’s.
I’m proud to count Ascuaga among my loyal readers. He calls me from time to time to discuss gambling-control issues, and although our conversations are private, I can assure you that he follows these vital issues very closely at 88.
Ascuaga is among the last of the proudly independent Nevada casino owners, and I’m sorry to see him sell the Nugget to obscure Las Vegas-based corporations Global Gaming & Hospitality and Husky Finance, which will invest more than $50 million in renovations. I suppose the infusion of working capital is a good thing, but I’m going miss the Ascuagas’ personal touch and their community pride, even though they — John, Rose, son Stephen and daughter Michonne — will remain in “advisory” roles. If you’re looking for Basque-American role models and success stories, look no further than the Ascuagas and Carson City’s admirable Laxalt family.
So I’d love to see John and Rose Ascuaga up there on the parade marshal’s float Saturday morning. It would be an appropriate recognition of a family that has contributed so much to Northern Nevada, and John’s smiling face is a portrait of what it means to be a true blue Nevadan. No one knew who he was when he came to Sparks in 1954 with his friend and mentor, Dick Graves, to work as Graves’ restaurant manager. The 30-year-old Ascuaga was named general manager of the Nugget in 1955, and he purchased the casino/restaurant from Graves five years later. The rest is history.
In the 1960s my late wife, Consuelo, and I drove to Sparks once in a while to see a show and to eat at one of Ascuaga’s fine restaurants, including Trader Dick’s and his outstanding Oyster Bar. I also remember 1960s Nevada Day parades featuring high-kicking Sade Grant and Ascuaga’s performing elephants, Bertha and Tina, who were cheered by kids of all ages as they strolled down the parade route depositing large, steaming souvenirs along the way.
I also recall the entertaining 1962 Golden Rooster Trial, which I covered for The Associated Press. The feds charged Ascuaga with hoarding gold, but his attorney, Paul Laxalt, claimed the rooster was an “art object.” Of course a Nevada jury agreed with Ascuaga and Laxalt and the rooster returned home to the Nugget, where it remains. Only in Nevada.
The Ascuagas support a wide variety of worthy causes, such as Reno’s Veterans Guest House, the Sierra Arts Foundation and several scholarship programs, and the Nugget sponsors the popular Best in the West Rib Cook-off and contributes to Hot August Nights and the Reno Air Races. We can only hope the new owners of the Sparks Nugget will continue to support community charities and events.
I’m delighted that I could write a Nevada Day tribute to John Ascuaga and his family. I hope they’re with us for many years to come. Happy Nevada Day.
Guy W. Farmer is a 51-year resident of Northern Nevada.