Harold’s Club was a major casino in Reno, Nevada from the 1930’s through the 1990’s. The club has been gone for many years now, but in its heyday, the casino easily outpaced every other casino in Nevada, as chronicled in The Roots of Reno There isn’t much left to commemorate it in Reno, but there are still plenty of players around that made Harold’s Club a regular stop when they came to Reno.
Since its beginning on a cold winter evening in 1935, the casino grew every year in size and/or revenue for over 25-years. That alone sets it apart from most casinos in the world.
The doors to the small 25-foot wide gaming parlor opened at seven o’clock on February 23rd and Harold looked anxiously up and down Virginia Street, hoping to capture a few players for the new club. The casino didn’t have much to offer, just two slot machines, one nickel and one dime, and a large roulette wheel called a “flasher.”
The wheel was suspended from the ceiling with a huge mirror so players could see the action and make bets on their own layouts. With space for up to 43 players, the casino was ready for action – it just needed some players.
Eventually, a few gamblers dropped in out of the windy evening and started making penny bets. By 9:00 several dozen players who had given the new joint a toss, and while revenues were not great, they did exist.
According to the book Nevada’s Golden Age of Gambling, within a year, Harold S. Smith, Sr. and his father, Raymond I. “Pappy” Smith were in the black, and had added a 21 table and a crap game. Increasing revenues allowed the club to do a little advertising and they began distributing free promotional ashtrays and matches to diners and gas stations up and down the coast of Oregon and California.
After five years of operation in Reno, the casino expanded, and needed 140 employees to handle the 24-hour gaming action. Even Harold’s wife, Dorothy, and his mother, Dora Mae, came to work for him.
Dealing wasn’t the best job in the world, but the dealers at Harold’s Club typically earned $10-15 dollars a day. New employees for other jobs could expect an income of as little as $3 a day.
World War II had a dramatic impact on Harold’s Club and the other casinos in Reno. With local servicemen working at the nearby town of Stead and the San Francisco Bay Area flooded with even more servicemen, the town experience an influx of players and income it had never seen, and it was only to get better.
Harold’s Club began several advertising campaigns and the slogan “Harold’s Club or Bust” was a favorite slogan for billboards all over the world. Nevada’s Golden Age of Gambling states, “at one time there were over 2300 of these billboards to remind players that Harold’s was a fun and exciting place to go.”
Busted gamblers could also expect Harold’s Club to front them a few dollars or a bus ticket to get back home – something other clubs in town didn’t offer.
While Harold was out carousing in Las Vegas, “Pappy” hired a traveler who brought with him a special roulette game. The crazy game featured a large box with 50 numbered holes in it, and after the players had made their bets, a field mouse was released across the top of the box. Players waited anxiously for it to scoot down one of the holes. Usually, it disappeared into the box when a loud noise was made, and while the game only lasted a week, publicity lasted for years.
Pictures of the game in action made their way to newspapers all over the US. Even years later players would ask, “Where’s the mouse roulette you guys got?”
After a major expansion in 1947 that included the Covered Wagon Room, accessible by the first escalator in Nevada and it’s Silver Dollar Bar with 2141 silver dollars set into the bar itself, the casino went right on growing during the 1950’s.
Harold’s Club became the largest casino in the state and offered 48 table games from craps and roulette, to 21 and chuck-a-luck. There was also a thriving poker room, sports book, a keno game, and the casino housed over 600 Pace slot machines.
Unfortunately, the 1950’s also brought out the worst in Harold Smith, Sr. He enjoyed his club’s success and partied as hard as Bill Harrah during the 1940’s, but Harold’s drinking and gambling took on epic proportions in the 1950’s. His 50% share of the casino had been whittled down by a divorce and his depression grew to a point that even the games in Las Vegas held no interest.
He was so confused and depressed that he wound-up in the psychiatric ward at local Saint Mary’s Hospital. Negotiations to sell the club began, and the Morgan and Agostini Corporation of San Francisco prepared to take over but the deal was never consummated.
Needing cash to shed their debt from building the seven-story tower, the Smith’s sold the property and buildings for $16 million to the Webbel Corporation and leased back the casino.
The new corporation included just Raymond I. “Pappy” Smith, Harold A. Smith, and Harold S. Smith, Sr. And, flush with cash, they purchased the Colony Club next door. Remodeling of the small casino ran nearly $300,000.
At the age of 80, “Pappy” passed away on May 24, 1967. His impact on Harold’s Club and the city of Reno would continue to be felt for years, but the casino itself began to falter.
In 1970, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes purchased Harold’s Club. Jack Pieper was appointed manager and stayed in the role until J. C. Jordan, a former co-owner of the North Shore Club at Lake Tahoe, took over. The North Shore Club was then sold to George Raymond Smith, son of Raymond I. “Pappy” Smith. Harold Smith, Sr. retired from the gaming industry and enjoyed his free time by doing a little gambling.
Tables around the club were formally arranged into “pits” for the first time, and all dealer tips were “pooled” instead of being kept by the dealer that had actually earned them. Corporate American had come to Reno. J.C. Jordan appointed Phil Griffith the property controller in 1973, and when Jordan retired in early 1979, Griffith was named president. His appointment coincided with the opening of a $20-million expansion that moved Harold’s Club right up to Commercial Row along North Virginia Street.
The 1980’s As gaming revenues hit a plateau and the 1,500 slot machines stopped producing ever-increasing numbers, Harold’s Club tried makeovers for the club. Having already shed the down-home cowboy image, the casino embarked on a “Bourbon Street” in Reno plan. It didn’t help. Harold’s Club was taken over by the Lincoln Management Group in early June of 1988.
Lincoln Fitzgerald had owned the Nevada Club next door since the late 1940’s and built Fitzgerald’s Casino-Hotel across Virginia Street before his death in 1981. His widow, Meta, sold her holdings in 1985 to a group headed by Phil Griffith named the Lincoln Management Group.
The 1990’s Gaming revenues in Reno held steady in the early 1990’s, but smaller clubs like Harold’s were forced to operate with a smaller portion of the pie. Newer, exciting clubs like the Peppermill and the Clarion were eating into Harold’s Club’s share of the traditional gambling base, and while the club consolidated their gaming areas and reduced their staffing, profits could not be sustained.
In December of 1994, Phil Griffith, president and chief executive officer of Fitzgerald Gaming Corporation, announced the corporation had found a buyer. In March of 1995, Harold’s Club closed its door. A new buyer was never able to get the club open and both the tower and casino were eventually torn down. Harrah’s courtyard entrance now stands in its place.