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HAROLDS CLUB: A FAMILY AFFAIR

Guy W. Farmer

In the early days of Nevada’s legal gambling industry, there were two kinds of casinos: “carpet joints” and “sawdust joints.” When I first arrived here in 1962, Harrah’s was the leading carpet joint and Harolds Club was the very definition of a sawdust joint, even though it no longer had sawdust on the floors. What a contrast!

Four years ago, the University of Nevada’s Oral History Program, under the able direction of Prof. Tom King, published “Every Light Was On,” a remarkable history of Bill Harrah and his highly successful casinos at Reno and Lake Tahoe. And now, the OHP has done it again with “A Family Affair,” which is the fascinating story of the eccentric Smith family and their colorful downtown Reno casino, Harolds Club. It’s “must” reading for anyone who is interested in Northern Nevada history.

Harolds was everything that Harrah’s wasn’t. For starters, Harrah’s has an apostrophe and Harolds doesn’t, but don’t ask me why. Perhaps it’s just that “Pappy” Smith, the Harolds Club patriarch, always did things his own way. As the OHP put it in a press release announcing publication of the new book, “A semi-itinerant family of carnival game concessionaires … founded Harolds Club in Reno in 1935 (four years after casino gambling was legalized), starting in a rented ‘hole-in-the-wall’ storefront two doors from the First National Bank. No casino owners were ever more idiosyncratic in their approach to the business than the Smiths.” And that’s an understatement.

The key players in this dysfunctional family enterprise were Raymond I. “Pappy” Smith and his sons, Harold and Raymond A. Again, quoting the OHP, “(They) were capable of audacious strokes of genius in advancing the fortunes of their club, but they also broke every accepted rule of business and management, doing many things that should have led to the ruin of their enterprise, but somehow did not. They quickly became the most successful operators in Nevada.”

Forty years ago, Harrah’s and Harolds were engaged in a spirited competition to become the No. 1 casino operation in Northern Nevada. Bill Harrah, a reclusive control freak, adopted a hands-off management style while striving for perfection in every detail of his operations. As a longtime Harrah’s executive observed, “People used to make fun of the fact that he (Harrah) wanted all the lights to be on, but it was just another part of the whole picture. If one light is out, there’s something wrong — it isn’t perfect.”

And then there was Harolds. Dwayne Kling, a veteran casino employee who worked for both Harolds and Harrah’s, interviewed many former employees of both clubs for the oral history books. Kling remembers that the hands-on Smith family was very visible in the club.

“They would come up and talk to customers, and you would hear the customers talking to their friends later, saying, ‘That’s Pappy Smith, he owns this place.’ ‘That’s Harold Smith, he runs this place.’ It made customers feel important that one of the owners was talking to them.”

Pappy, the former “carney,” was an inveterate promoter. Reno artist Roy Powers, who headed up the club’s advertising and publicity department for many years, credits Pappy with the “Harolds Club Or Bust” campaign, which placed some 3,000 roadside signs throughout the country in the 1950s. Pappy and Powers were also heavily involved in turning the old U.S. Highway 40 into an all-weather highway, I-80, and for promoting Reno as “The Biggest Little City in the World” with a new Reno Arch in 1963.

But if Pappy was the promoter, his son Harold was the gambling “expert,” and they were frequently at odds. “(They) fought all the time,” Powers remembers. “It was embarrassing, the way they would fight amongst themselves.” One of Pappy’s favorite pastimes was to walk through the casino doubling customers’ bets, which exasperated Harold.

As casino executive Dan Orlich describes it to Kling, “(Pappy) would spend a full day up in the office, and then he would come in during every shift to double the bets … (And) sometimes the Big Six wheel would land right smack on the peg, with a win on one side and a loss on the other. Pappy would say, ‘Move it to where they win.'” And he started a “once only” book, giving losers enough money to get home.

Harold, a compulsive gambler and womanizer, also had a booze problem. Although his autobiography is titled “I Want to Quit Winners,” he didn’t! He ran up huge gambling debts at other clubs and that’s a main reason why Harolds went downhill so quickly after Pappy died in 1967.

The club was sold to Howard Hughes’ Summa Corp. for $11 million in 1970. As the OHP observes, “The new bosses quickly set about changing the culture of the operation to bring it line with their corporate values. Employees found the changes so disturbing that in less than a year, most had fled to other casinos.” And that’s what Howard Hughes did for Reno.

Later, Harrah’s bought the property, tore down Harolds and replaced it with an entertainment plaza. Today, all that remains is a memory of a unique “sawdust joint” and the eccentric family that did so much to make Reno a major tourist destination for more than 30 years. I miss the Smith family in this era of corporate gaming. How about you?

YOUNG CHILDREN (under 12) from Empire and Gerlach are eligible for free admission to Burning Man, the annual drug festival that’s taking place this weekend on BLM public lands northeast of Gerlach. There, the kids can watch stoned adults cavorting naked on the desert playa. Nice!

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.