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A HISTORY OF "RANCHARRAH" -- page three

            "I very soon learned," Warren told the Reno Evening Gazette after Biltz's death, "that Norm had a sixth sense or an extra dimension in being able to detect in advance the success or the failure of a project or a plan or a development or a campaign or an individual... There haven't been too many successful ventures in Northern Nevada in the last 30 years in which Norm didn't play a role. That would include community projects, developments, campaigns and legislation.

 

            "He was a person who those who grew into the community soon learned to lean on. Norm seldom if ever leaned in the same way on other people. He was a great man."

 

            After Norman Biltz' death, Biltz' step-son, John Nash, told a reporter the story of a time when an acquaintance of Norman's showed up from Idaho at Biltz' Reno office one day, asking what Nash considered an amazing question. The man asked Biltz: "Norm, what is the secret of success? I'd like to use the same formula in Idaho."

 

            "Norm," Nash said, "looked at him, more amused than annoyed, and answered, 'Be right 51 percent of the time.'"

 

            Another successful Reno businessman who had the good fortune to be right, or, as he expressed it "lucky" better than 50 percent of the time, was William F. Harrah, founder of Harrah's Club and Rancharrah.

 

III. WILLIAM FISK HARRAH

 

 

 

            In much the same way that Norman Biltz and his network of friends and partners shaped Northern Nevada, Bill Harrah and his casinos shaped the gaming industry world-wide. Biltz founded his empire on service to his wealthy clients; so it was for Bill Harrah, for whom service to his mostly far-from-wealthy clients was the bed-rock and corner stone. From an a interview granted to the Nevada State Journal in 1975, Bill Harrah was quoted as saying, "...to be successful, you do things the best way, and the best way, in my opinion, is the nice way... and when you please the customer, you're making him happy, you're making yourself happy, you're making business good, plus you're a jump ahead of your competitors." His style of exacting attention to detail and putting the customer's pleasure first revolutionized gambling, and that revolution in gaming changed America.

 

            W. R. Eadington, an economics professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and an acknowledged authority on gambling, wrote that William F. Harrah had a "greater impact upon the development of the casino gaming industry in Northern Nevada and, indeed, in Nevada than any other individual." If that was an over-statement, it was only slightly so. Certainly, the contributions to the industry made by Raymond I. "Pappy" Smith and his son, Harold, should not be forgotten. It was the Smith family's world-wide advertising of their casino, Harold's Club, in the 1930s and '40s that not only was instrumental in changing the image of Reno from a divorce mill to a tourist destination, but helped to legitimize gambling --or "gaming" as Nevadan's prefer to call it.

 

            Prior to the advent of Bill Harrah and the Smiths, gambling, at least in the public mind, was a creature of back rooms and shady characters. Smith was one of the first to advertise, bringing gambling out of the closet; and Harrah was one of the first to ensure the client's comfort, altering forever the look and feel of a casino. More than that, these two men were among the first of the "green felt establishment" to see their businesses as legitimate members of the business community and to act accordingly.

 

            It wasn't just the general public that held a dim view of gamblers. Writer Ambrose Bierce once observed that "the gambling known as business looks with austere disfavor upon the business known as gambling."

 

            After Bill Harrah's death long-time Reno TV news personality Ed Pearce, said:

 

"...While there has remained a dingy cloud of doubt in the minds of many of those outside our state about the men who control the gaming industry, Harrah has been a visible affirmation that gambling was a business. Perhaps different from any other business but a business just the same.

 

 

 

"While big time gambling in Las Vegas had to admit its tainted ancestry, Northern Nevada could point to men like Harrah.

 

 

 

"It is worth noting that for many years gambling, though a very profitable business, was the pariah of the business world. More than anyone, it was Harrah and his organization that caused a change in that attitude.

 

 

 

"In 1971 Harrah's became a public corporation. In 1972 it was accepted for listing on the American Stock Exchange. In 1973 it was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. It remains the only purely casino-based stock to be so listed.

 

 

 

"That more than anything, may be the best tribute to the businessman Bill Harrah.

 

 

 

"Other men with more flamboyant and less commendable backgrounds have all too often been the most public representatives of this state and its major industry. That Bill Harrah was thought of in much different terms by the skeptical judges of Wall Street is no small accomplishment.

 

 

 

"He was a positive force, a giant, an individual figure in an industry that now seems more and more given to the anonymous, grey-suited corporate personality.

 

 

 

"We won't see his kind again.

 

 

 

"And that, more than anything, is this community's, this state's loss."

 

 

 

            Tad Dunbar, another long-time Reno TV personality, summed up the relationship between Reno and Harrah thusly:

 

"...There is a sense in which Bill Harrah rolled out the dice for all of us years ago when he opened that first Commercial Row bingo game in 1937 and again and again over the next 40 years, when he put his money and his heart into Reno, and later into Lake Tahoe.

 

 

 

"He kept rolling winners, and his wealth increased accordingly. And all of us, in a sense, have been riding on the "come line" with Harrah's dice rolls, and sharing in his success as the area grew up.

 

 

 

"But Harrah wasn't winning all those years on gambler's luck. He was wining because he had an unwaivering commitment to hard work, and taste, and honesty, and style, and class and to the proposition that, if you give people quality in everything you do, they will know the difference, and they will come back for more."

 

 

 

            In the late 1920s when Bill Harrah began his career in the gaming industry, gambling was illegal virtually everywhere in America. The church denounced gambling as a sin and operators of games of chance were routinely arrested, their operations smashed by axe wielding minions of the law, or ladies of the Temperance League. Today gaming has achieved unprecedented respectability, with some form of legalized gambling in all but a dozen states. Norman Biltz, the Smiths and William F. Harrah deserve a lion's share of the credit --or blame --for this transformation. In Nevada, the Biltz machine made it legal, the Smiths made it respectable, and Harrah made it fun. In the two decades since Bill Harrah's death other gaming operators in the U.S. and around the world have proven the truth of the old saying "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" by erecting gaming establishments in the mold of Harrah's Club.

 

            Leon Mandel, in his book William Fisk Harrah: The Life and Times of a Gambling Magnate, wrote: "In many ways the signs that say 'Harrah's' outside hotels and casinos in Atlantic City, Reno, and Tahoe have the same implications as the signs that said "Ford" over Henry, Sr.'s early plants.

 

            "As Henry Ford, Sr., changed the way America spends its leisure time --not by inventing the automobile but by industrializing its production --Bill Harrah's legacy is a change of the same kind, perhaps even of the same magnitude."

 

            In changing the way casinos are run, Harrah changed the casino industry, and in doing so, through the spread of legalized gambling as a result, changed the world. It is altogether fitting that the home of Norman H. Biltz should have been occupied by a man whose life had no less impact on society than that of its builder. As Leon Mandel put it, "Bill Harrah... changed our lives. Like it or not, his influence will touch the social, economic and leisure lives of our children and our grandchildren."

 

            

 

            William Fisk Harrah was born on September 2, 1911, in South Pasadena, California. A year later his family moved to Venice, California where his father, John Garrett Harrah, a lawyer, would later serve as mayor. Born to an educated middle-class family at the end of the Victorian era, Bill Harrah developed qualities of character that in later years would give biographers sleepless nights --not that that would stop them, arm-chair psychoanalysts filled many inches of magazine and newspaper columns examining the quirks of his character over the later decades of his life. He was the kind of man whose personality was hard to sum up, a man who presented different faces to different people at different times, making a composite view of the many "Bill Harrah's" difficult to capture. Perhaps it was this very elusiveness in defining him that led so many to try.

 

            His biographer, Leon Mandel, spent an entire book trying to unveil Bill Harrah. He said: "William Fisk Harrah was a man of great contradiction: simple pleasures, complex tastes; backwater diction, Aristotelian thought processes; a horse trader/bargainer who didn't give a damn for Return on Investment if it constrained the quality of service; a bigot who broke Nevada's color barrier; an arch conservative who was his industry's and his state's pathfinder."

 

            One of the greatest contrasts in Bill Harrah's personality was his public and private natures. To the public, and particularly photographers, he seemed shy and uncomfortable, like he hated being in the public eye; yet he was constantly seeking publicity and exposure for his businesses, particularly through showing off what became the world's finest car collection. Although he was quiet, some would even say aloof and unapproachable in public, he was quite the opposite with friends and family.

 

            The private Bill Harrah was a warm, caring man who delighted in companionship and hospitality. His neighbor, Carole Stevens, remembered him as "charming and chatty." She recalled how, "when Bill and Verna had a quite evening in mind they would come over to my house. I have a collection of films... Bill liked to come over to my home because he was comfortable here and he liked my lasagna and movies, plus he didn't have to bring his bodyguards with him. He didn't have to leave the compound which was heavily secured around the perimeter and within so he could relax and enjoy himself." She loved how he told "wonderful stories about his life and his past. I was very upset and grieved when he passed away."

 

            Sheila Caudle, who wrote several pieces on Bill Harrah for Nevada publications, described him in these words:

 

"It is significant he lists a study of the life of genius artist Michelangelo as the best book he's ever read.

 

 

 

"William Harrah lets his artistic works speak for themselves --his version of the Sistine Chapel, his auto collection; his version of The David, his Reno hotel; his version of The Pieta, his Tahoe hotel.

 

 

 

"The artistry of Harrah is woven into the fabric of his Northern Nevada gaming-hotel-entertainment empire, its detailed tapestry one of taste, perfection and money.

 

 

 

"But the man responsible prefers to paint himself less completely.

 

 

 

"The canvas that portrays Harrah carries the brush strokes of a drive to perfection, an insistence on authenticity, a hate of time wasted, a love of family, an intense guard of privacy, a way of plain, honest, candid speaking, and a constant move to money to further the achievement of the corporation bearing his name.

 

 

 

"By design, the man himself is almost colorless, low voice controlled and toneless, his six-foot-three frame gauntly carrying 170 pounds in a shuffling way, although his expensive shoe soles never scrape the floor.

 

 

 

"He describes his business as a businessman --dryly, never flamboyantly, rarely with emotion. The words are measured, a slow chuckled 'wooow' marking the usual limits of the Harrah enthusiasm.

 

 

 

"The Harrah picture carries also tones of unheralded kindness, frank acknowledgement of early drinking problems, fear of meeting new people, concern for the safety of his family and the job security of Harrah's 6,500 employees, and dreams yet of other Harrah-inspired projects."

 

 

 

            One of Harrah's all-consuming passions was the auto. He saw himself as a "car guy" and largely preferred the company of other car guys. It was in his childhood, when this century was barely into its teens, that he fell in love with cars. Nearly as soon as he learned to read, he read about cars --indeed, even before he could read he would sit and stare at the pictures of cars in Popular Mechanics. Throughout his childhood he drew cars, talked about cars, worked on cars, probably even dreamed about cars. At the tender age of eight he learned how to drive one.

 

            In 1927, at the same time that a twenty-five year old Norman Biltz was commuting to Lake Tahoe in his Rolls, John G. Harrah bought his sixteen year old son a Chevrolet Roadster --it was Bill's first true love. When it was stolen and stripped Bill was crushed, yet, as strange turns of fate lead in unexpected directions, that theft lead to the creation of the Harrah Automobile Collection. Bill told his sister Margaret he would one day own a duplicate of every car the family had ever owned. Before he died the Automobile Collection had reached to nearly 1,500 cars and he had long since accomplished that goal. Not stopping there, he had set his sights higher, on owning at least one example of every type of car ever made --and had died with less than 60 left to go.

 

            After graduating from Hollywood High School, Bill Harrah attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), studying mechanical engineering. His sister Margaret told Leon Mandel: "I think he could have designed the best car America has ever seen." Perhaps he was considering becoming an automotive design engineer, or maybe he just wanted to know what made things tick; all he was ever quoted as having said, was that he had an interest in owning an automobile dealership when he got out of school. That was a goal he did eventually achieve --and did so in true Harrah style, owning not one but four dealerships: Ferrari, Rolls Royce, Datsun and Jeep!

 

            He was forced out of college when the Great Depression nearly wiped his father out. John Harrah had heavily speculated in real estate, and was as unlucky in that endeavor as Norman Biltz, in a few years, would prove lucky. Bill left college and went to work in the only business that the family had succeeded in keeping. They had managed to hold onto a lease on a large building on the Venice pier, one which housed a pool hall, a shooting gallery, a milk bottle game, and an Orange Julius stand. That structure also held one other business, the one that sealed Bill Harrah's fate --a bingo-style operation called, appropriately enough, the "Reno Game."

 

            In California pure games of chance (such as bingo) were illegal. However, games of skill, of which many were based on bingo, were legal and, thanks to the Depression born need for entertainment and easy money, had become very popular. The Reno or Circle Game (as it was later called) was a type of game called a "roll down game" because it involved rolling a ball down a board to win a prize. Such games are still popular and can be found in carnival midways across the country.

 

            The Reno Game was bingo with a twist. Thirty-three players were seated in a circle around the roll down board, which dropped their balls into a hopper connected to a flashboard. Each ball falling into the hopper would register on the flashboard a card suit and number. Players bought four cards from the "dealer" and then tried to roll their balls into the hopper in such a way that the flashboard would register a match to the four-card sequence they had bought --if it matched, they won.

 

            John Harrah, Bill Harrah's lawyer father, ignored the fact the actions of the ball upon hitting the hopper were apparently random, and believed that since the players chose their own cards from the dealer, and rolled their balls themselves, the game should be considered a game of skill, not chance. Unfortunately, the district attorney, who posessed the power to shut the game down at will, did not always agree. Needless to say, Bill Harrah found the on-again, off-again nature of this business more than a little annoying and ultimately led to his moving to Reno.

 

            That was hardly young Bill's only complaint with his father's operation, however. An important bone of contention between the two Harrah's was John's insistence on using "shills" (employees pretending to be players). When shills won the game legitimate players were shut out of the winning pot. John Harrah told his son, "You get rid of the shills, you're gonna lose your shirt!" Bill disagreed. Not only did the blatant dishonesty rankle, but he saw that players caught on to the scam and, tiring of playing against the house, left. He became convinced that the loss of revenue from disgruntled players leaving the game exceeded what they "saved" by using shills. Indeed it cost so much to employ the shills that the game made barely a $100 a week profit. As Bill later expressed it: "Shills who play ruin the game ... people see [them] wining. You can fool the public for about two days, then they don't play with you anymore."

 

            Another sticking point between them was one more reason Bill saw for loosing customers --the stools the players had to sit on were cheep and uncomfortable. Bill was sure that if the seats were improved players would stay at the game longer, and, presumably, loose more. There was more to it than just the bottom line, though. Bill's life-long obsession for perfection was beginning to surface. It just wasn't the right way of doing business.

 

            Harrah often explained away his passion for detail as the result of his being a Virgo: "Virgos are like that," he told one reporter. "We're very picky-picky, real sticklers for detail." Whatever the cause, by age twenty Bill Harrah had come to have a passion for, as Leon Mandel expressed it, "the Right Way of Doing Things." Mark Curtis, director of advertising and press relations at Harrah's for many years summed it up like this: "The centralmost theme that permeates this place is [Bill Harrah's] feeling that he wants to treat everybody as he would like to be treated.

 

            "And he wants to be treated extremely well."

 

            Shortly after Bill dropped out of UCLA and went to work at his father's Circle Game the elder Harrah lucked into a partnership in a movie theater. A group of investors had hired him to do the legal work on their agreement and were so impressed with his skill as a lawyer that they invited him in as a partner. The Harrah family was delighted with the proposition --free movie passes! All, except young Bill, that is. A couple of things about the theater business bothered Bill: the movies were seldom shown on time, and indeed, the seats were hardly ever even in place by the time the films were scheduled to start. Harrah, who in later life would give biographers and subordinates the creeps with his maintaining a perfection of punctuality that was almost supernatural, was appalled with such cavalier disregard for scheduling. It just wasn't right, and would have nothing to do with it.

 

            While working at his father's joint Bill developed another of this "trade marks," the habit of keeping pad and pencil in hand and of making copious notes. He examined his and his competitors operations and made voluminous notes on both --a character trait he would carry with him to the grave. Less than a year before his death one magazine writer opened an article on Harrah with these words: "He strides through the casino, a tall, pale-faced man in his sixties, jotting notes on a pad..." Virtually from the first day he walked into the Reno Game he studied, observed, considered and noted.

 

            Apparently he brought his observations of what should be improved to his father's attention. Repeatedly. Annoyingly. For his father eventually couldn't take any more of it and sold the Circle Game to Bill for $500. Bill's first act as the new owner was to immediately fire the shills. Later, Bill told Leon Mandel: "I remember that first day was kind of scary. Then it started to go and it started makin' money.

 

            "And then I improved it. About the first thing I did, I bought some good stools. I put in drapes."

 

            Over the next few years he proved the "Harrah touch." By 1934, at age twenty-three, he had transformed the $100 a-week-in-profits Circle Game into something that was making him between $25,000 and $50,000 a year as its sole proprietor --which, he told Mandel, was "an awful lot of money." Harrah never stopped improving his clubs, his dedication to getting it right eventually leading to his being one of the great innovators in his industry. Indeed, the list of "firsts" for Harrah's is quite incredible...

 

            The innovations required to make his Tahoe operation a success, for example, are little short of staggering. He pioneered the now wide-spread use of busses to bring his clients to him --eventually owning one of the largest fleets of busses in the world. He set up Traveler's Aid-like kiosks in bus stations throughout California, and staffed them with attractive, fresh-looking college kids to sell tickets on his busses to his properties. He was the first casino operator to use the "free gift" incentive still in use today: at one point Harrah's gave every bus passenger a free diner and a split of champagne, later they received cash and coupons good for free drinks, discounts on meal and souvenir purchases, and the like.

 

            Long before his big jump to Tahoe, it was the innovative Bill Harrah who first got the idea of putting the now ubiquitous "bells and whistles" on slot machines. Then it was he who softened their raucous clamor under a velvet curtain of piped-in music. It was he who decided that it would be friendlier if dealers, and eventually all casino employees, wore name tags. It was Harrah who began the practice of hiring clean cut college kids as dealers, replacing the traditional lizard-faced men in green eyeshades with something a lot friendlier and less "gambling-like." Harrah and his hired social scientists did all they could to change gambling to gaming, from "sin" to "leisure activity."

 

            It was Harrah's that invented the "air curtain," the wall of air instead of front doors that brought the sounds of excitement out onto the sidewalk, removing any barrier to the potential customer's impulse to walk in and join the fun. It was Harrah who introduced the use of the $1 slot token as a replacement for the increasingly scarce silver dollar; which today is as indispensable to the gaming industry as carpet --another Harrah's Club first!

 

            Harrah, always pressing for honest games and honest gamblers, led the industry in many "security" innovations. Harrah's was the first casino to line the walls and ceilings of every room with mirrors of one-way glass, behind which trained overseers watched for cheaters --whether they be sticky fingered dealers or card marking clients. These hidden observers also saw to it that the club remained imaculate. Dirty ashtrays, spilled drinks and the like were instantly reported by the invisible watchers via walkie-talkies to porters and other functionaries on the casino floor. Problem causing guests, like argumentative drunks, were likewise detected and radio dispatched security guards whisked them out of sight.

 

            It was Harrah's that convinced other casinos to join in a variety of intelligence sharing activities, such as the use of a private telephone hot-line between the clubs to share fast breaking information about rubber-check writers, dice palmers, or other problem customers. Harrah agents took surreptitious photos of suspicious characters and circulated prints and dossiers to all casinos, compiling a private rogues' gallery.

 

            All of these innovations came after his move to Reno, which was occasioned by the now open, now closed, nature of his Venice business. Each year in the fall, as Santa Anita Race Track opened, minions of the law saw to it that competing businesses, like Bill's, were closed for "illegal gambling." But the following spring, after Santa Anita had closed its gates for the season, its competitors suddenly found themselves "legal" again. Eventually the punctilious Bill Harrah could stand no more of this haphazard state of affairs. After a friend came back from Reno extolling its pleasures and "virtues," Bill decided to investigate for himself.

 

            A whirlwind trip to Reno in his Lincoln Zephyr confirmed his friend's report and decided him to relocate there. "That's the place!" he recalled telling another friend on his return to Venice. "Look at that; they don't close the bars and they don't close the games. They leave you alone." It is unlikely that he had any idea at that time that he had Norman Biltz, in no small measure, to thank for this liberality.

 

            Reno did not immediately become the land of milk and honey he was expecting. A month after he had decided to relocate to Reno he received a letter from a failed gambler. Without proper consideration as to why that fellow went bust Harrah leased the unfortunate's building. In 1937, after five months of effort and expense, on the seventy-third anniversary of Nevada's admission to the Union, which coincidentally was Halloween, October 31, Bill Harrah opened his first bingo parlor in Reno --only to be out of business two months later.

 

            That club had been located on Center Street, a mere two blocks from the other bingo parlors and casinos of the downtown gaming district, but it might as well have been on the far side of the moon; it was just too far from the action, and the customers. The realization of the importance of "location" hit Bill Harrah with the force of a spiritual awaking. It was a mistake he would never again allow himself to make.

 

            Down, but hardly out, Harrah came back swinging. Just half a year later, in July, 1938, he openned another bingo parlor, this one significantly closer to the action. Physically, it was little more than a shed, but it was in a good location right on Commercial Row, near the increasingly famous Harold's Club.

 

            In preparing it for opening he discovered that, among numerous deficiencies, the building was without heat. He could have settled for the solution called for by "conventional wisdom" --get a cheap stove for the corner for around $30.00 --or, he could use the "Harrah touch." Saying, of his customers, "...they are not going to play if they are not comfortable," Harrah bought a $600.00 oil heating system and had it installed in the basement.

 

            Three months later, on the anniversary of the opening of his first ill-fated venture, he acquired the Heart Tango Club, another bingo parlor. Later he expanded it into an "L" shape club along Douglas Alley which runs behind Commercial Row between Virginia and Center Streets, by leasing the back portions of one or two other businesses. When he acquired the Heart Tango he sold the Commericial Row "shed" with its expensive, and little used, heater.

 

            Three years later, in 1941, he purchased the Reno Club, another bingo parlor. The following year, in 1942, he took his first "baby" steps into casino operations by purchasing the Blackout Bar which had approximately 20 slot machines, one craps table and one "21" game. It was located between Harrah's properties on Douglas Alley and Harold's Club on Virginia Street. He and the Smith's worked out a mutually beneficial arrangement of cutting doorways from their clubs into the Blackout so that customers from both establishments could drink. No doubt many who had entered through the Harold's Club front doors never realized that they had drifted through the bar into another club --especially because of the close name similarity. Harrah used that advantage for decades, riding on the coat-tails of Harold's Club's world-wide publicity.

 

            It was at approximately this same time that Norman Biltz began work on the riverfront Holiday Hotel two blocks away on Virginia Street across the Truckee River, and on the three mansions that would become Camelot, a.k.a. the Gentlemen's Ranch, and eventually, Rancharrah.

 

            Despite the distractions of marriage (shortly after he arrived in Reno in 1937 he sent a taxi to Venice to bring back Thelma Batchelor, one of the girls who worked for him in the Circle Game, to be his first wife) and a hard schedule of heavy drinking, gambling and carousing; the young, dashing, playboy Bill Harrah, and his growing club, prospered. His commitment to customer satisfaction and his growing reputation for running an honest house, and for fairness with customers and employees, in time made him the king of the city's bingo parlors. That, of course, wasn't enough for Bill Harrah.

 

            In 1946, Harrah took the step that forever moved him from the bingo parlor business to full-scale casino operations. It was then that he purchasing The Mint Club on North Virginia Street in Reno. In doing this he leap-frogged Harold's Club, his far more famous neighbor, moving south of the Smith's joint to finally open on Virginia Street proper. Virginia Street is to Reno what The Strip is to Las Vegas. With a genuine casino located on Casino Row, Harrah was at last ready to enter the Big Time.

 

            But first, before the Mint could bear Harrah's name, it had to be remodeled to reflect Bill Harrah's taste. He horrified lenders when he tore up the rubber tile in the entrance way and replaced it with "frivolous" carpet. Previously casino owners and investors had given little thought to client comfort, like John Harrah with the Circle Game's cheap stools, and considered rubber tile or bare wooden floors adequate; carpet was viewed as a needless waste of money until Harrah showed them the light.

 

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