William Fisk Harrah arrived in Reno in 1937. At the time he was running a Circle Game at Venice Beach in California where the winds of political change made his game legal one day and illegal another. What he saw in Reno was an open atmosphere of gaming, prostitution, and cheap whiskey. The town was perfect!
After due consideration and a second trip to the town, Harrah invested in a small bar a block and a half from the Bank and Palace Clubs at 124 N. Center Street, opening his first Nevada business on October 29, 1937. The town was not perfect! Harrah’s Club Bingo closed its doors November 15th.
Harrah hadn’t counted on the winter snow. The bad weather cut his clientele down to virtually nothing, and he hadn’t stated with that many patrons to begin with. He needed some guidance and a location closer to the action.
Harrah enlisted Virgil Smith, the young owner of Colbrandt’s on Virginia Street, in his next venture a block north. The partners opened Harrah’s Plaza Tango to much better success and became constant drinking buddies after the night’s gaming died down. Smith was wise to the ways of Nevada, having grownup in the small town of Lovelock some 70 miles away.
Over the years they would run the gaming for a number of small clubs including the Cedar’s, Christmas Tree, Open Door, Sky Tavern and the Villa Sierra. Also over the years, Harrah generally forgot Smith, as detailed in Nevada’s Golden Age of Gambling.
In 1938 however, Smith was a valuable commodity, and together they opened the Plaza Tango at 14 E. Commercial Row. This was just a start-up club, and ran for two months of Bingo and slots. Harrah found a better location at 242 S. Virginia Street, squeezed in close to Harold’s Club and Ed Howe’s Tango Club, and then purchased Howe’s club.
Harrah moved into the new club in August and set his competition on its collective ear that winter. After replacing the bingo cards, stools and wall coverings, a new furnace was added in the basement. The cozy atmosphere during the winter set Harrah’s apart from the other clubs in town.
Harrah’s father, John, joined him in Reno to help with the operations and continued on as a manager and consultant for another twelve years. Their businesses continued to hop along the block with new clubs opening constantly, including a stop in the back of a clothing store at 230 and 1/2 S. Virginia that Bill called the “Black Out Bar.” The bar ran during the war years with licensing ended in 1945. It was just prior to this that Bill Harrah was to be married for the second time.
Drinking with Bob Ring and discussing the day’s business events in 1942, Bill happened to look in the direction of a new 21 dealer at Harold’s Club. What he saw took his breath away: A newly hired, blond beauty by the name of Scherry. After a week, he managed to screw up enough courage to ask her out.
Although there was not much talking at their first meeting, there was plenty of chemistry. Their courtship included several fights, lots of drinking, and Bill falling out of a moving automobile along Virginia Street. Eventually they were wed and Scherry played a major part in decorating the clubs and the hotels rooms when the club expanded.
Eventually Harrah was able to obtain over half of the total block surrounding his downtown Reno club, getting space from the old Bank Club, Palace Club, and Pick Hobson’s Frontier Club on Virginia Street in the 1950’s. The new expanded casino offered bingo, keno, 360 Pace slot machines and table games like Chuck-a-Luck, Faro, Blackjack and craps.
After the Golden Bank Club burned, Harrah’s and Harold’s Club were the largest casinos in Northern Nevada and offered more tables and slots than any casino in the state. The 600-room hotel was built in 1969 and the club expanded to the far side of Center Street in the late 1970’s after Harrah purchased Pick Hobson’s remaining downtown property, the Overland Casino.
Once the hotel was finished, Bill Harrah brought high quality entertainment to Reno with entertainers like Sammy Davis, Jr., Bill Cosby, Don Rickles, Roy Clark and many others. Harrah’s also owned the largest automobile collection (and museum in Sparks, Nevada) in the world with over 600 cars, many of which were completely reconditioned before being put on display.
Bill Harrah expanded to Lake Tahoe in the 1950’s and was the first gaming company in the United States to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Harrah, born September 2, 1911 passed away June 30, 1978. The company was later sold to Holiday Inn.
Holiday began auctioning off the vehicle collection, but after heated discussions with local officials in Reno and Sparks, eventually donated 175 vehicles to establish the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. Harrah’s Reno casino still spans two streets and the hotel has expanded to 928 rooms.