Jerry E. Smith
He also dug up the sidewalk in front of the casino and put steam pipes under the paving so his customers would not have to walk on ice or snow in the winter months. Harrah began his practice of using outside consultants at this time. The Mint was long, but very narrow and space was at a premium. After Bill read an article about an architect who had designed a space-saving bar, he traveled 500 miles to meet him. Harrah's Club opened in its present location on Virginia Street on June 20, 1946. It would be another two years before Harrah would meet pavement at eighty and be transformed from "alcoholic" to "workaholic."
Bob Ring was Bill Harrah's oldest, closest friend. They met when Bob was an employee of John Harrah's Reno Game in Venice. Ring came to Reno with Bill and eventually rose to President of Harrah's. John Harrah also moved to Reno, joining his son in running the clubs that bore their name, after his wife, Amanda Fisk Harrah, Bill's mother, died. John Harrah worried about his son's drinking. Bill and Bob were drinking buddies and never worried about it --until Bill's near fatal accident. That accident occurred in late 1948, but, Bill maintained he didn't actually quit drinking all together until 1952. Bob Ring sobered up first, and then, like a true friend, helped wean Bill off the bottle. Harrah always gave Ring the lion's share the credit for his personal turnaround, and from that, the streamlining of the business along corporate lines. The remainder of the credit for his cure Harrah ascribed to his doctor's instructions to "go fishing."
"It was a whole new ball game after that..." he told reporter Caudle, speaking of his and Ring's conversion to sobriety. "We both had a lot more hours that we didn't spend in bars or in bed soberin' up. So you added a good six or eight hours to your working day. Well, we took a look at things. Wooow! Lookit what we got here! Two sober guys --look at this, look at this, look at this! We'd never really seen it before."
For some people, their lives are like streams meandering across the prairie, taking gentle wide bends around the hills of life's obstacles, for Bill Harrah life was more like a rally race run on crowded city streets. Bill Harrah, in many ways, lived life as he drove his cars --fast, damned fast. Several periods of his life were lived as though he were flying down a straight away, pedal to the metal, going more for the rush of going then for someplace particular to go. These stretches each abruptly ended in tire-squealing two-wheel turns onto new, unexpected roads. That metaphor became reality in 1948 when a too-sharp turn at eighty pitched him into Virginia Street and a new phase of his life. The other changes in his life occured in nearly as drastic a fashion.
A national depression turned a school boy overnight into a professional gambler. Being shut down by the law one too many times blew him out of California. A few more increasingly sharp turns followed over the next decade: a failed business (the first bingo parlor), reopening the business, then several expansions and moves, led, like a symphony building to its climax, to the fateful hair-pin curve that was 1948. That year saw: a failed marriage (his marriage to Thelma Batchelor ended in divorce in April); purchasing of an 1911 Maxwell, which, after Harrah discovered the pleasures of antique auto restoration and rallying, became the seed of the Automobile Collection; a new marriage to Mayme Kandis Lucille Teague Fagg, a.k.a. "Scherry," on August 5, 1948; and then the near fatal accident on Virginia Street.
Of the next phase of his life, Leon Mandel wrote: "His determination to try hard in his marriage to Scherry and to try even harder to make a success of his first club in Reno, required harsh self-discipline. He cured himself of alcoholism. He stopped smoking. He ended his career as a player. As a gambler he turned from minor tactician --operator of a child's game --to strategist; opening a serious casino, reaching for larger, long-term gains. He affected sobriety not only in his veins but also in his manner. During the next twenty years, he would establish his reputation for aloofness. He would take to wearing gray and brown and dark-blue suits. He combed his hair as though he were preparing for a day on the federal bench. In all of this Scherry had great influence. ...Harrah did listen to her. He did plan with her. He did weigh her judgments. She was a strong woman, and during most of the years of their marriage, she and Harrah were compatible. They were silent, together; almost without a discrete personal life --energies devoted entirely to the business. No coincidence that these were the years of great growth for Harrah's."
In 1953 Harrah's purchased the old Bonanza Club across the alley from Harrah's. In a brilliant move, Scherry convinced Bill to carpet the alley between the two clubs. Later, she convinced Bill to purchase the Pony Express Museum. In 1955 while scouting Tahoe as a possible place to locate the museum, Bill went into George's Gateway Club in Stateline and was amazed at what he saw. In his opinion George's club was in terrible shape, far beneath his standards for appearance and client comfort --and yet, it was doing a booming business, several times what Bill's nice club in Reno was doing. The importance of location hit him all over again. It was then and there that he decided that he had to move into the Lake Tahoe market. A few months later when he learned that George's was for sale he snatched it up.
Over the next twenty years Harrah kept expanding his Tahoe properties, first by moving across the street to take over the former Stateline Country Club then to buy and demolish the Nevada Club as the site for building his five star masterpiece in carefully planned stages. The first phase was the construction of the 3.5 million dollar South Shore Room, a theatre-restaurant with seating for 750. Comedian Red Skelton headlined its gala opening in 1959.
1959 was a banner year for Harrah's Club. As well as opening the South Shore Room that year also saw a significant expansion of the Reno operation into the Grand Hotel and Grand Cafe on the corner of Second and Center Streets between the two Harrah's property. With this Harrah had most of the south end of the two main blocks of the casino district. He only lacked the bank building on the corner of Second and Virginia --which eventually he would own and locate his office there (today it houses part of the Virginia Street Casino and Planet Hollywood). In 1962 two more buildings were incorporated into the ever expanding Harrah's Reno while construction of a new casino-restaurant began on site of the old Grand Hotel. That same year the Harrah Automobile Collection was opened to the public with 325 cars on display.
In 1964 a 8,500 square foot extension was added to the Tahoe casino and in 1966 the Golden Hotel joined the Grand in being swallowed up by Harrah's Reno. On June 20, 1966 the 400-seat Headliner Room theatre-restaurant opened where the Grand Cafe had been. Sammy Davis, Jr. was one of the regulars on that stage and one of Bill Harrah's closes friends. After Sammy's death the Headliner Room was renamed Sammy's Showroom. May of 1967 saw the opening of Harrah's award-winning Steak House on the lower lever of the Center Street Casino.
In 1968 they began construction on the first tower at Harrah's Reno. Construction took place over the main casino without ever interrupting business. The 24-story, 325-room tower opened the following year in November of 1969 with Danny Thomas and Mitzi Gaynor officiating.
While the Harrah's Corporation grew in those two decades, Bill and Scherry also grew --grew apart that is. They adopted two young boys but rather then cement them together as a family, that only seemed to speed the pace of their choosing different paths. With their divorce in 1969 Bill Harrah cranked the wheel of his life into another abrupt turn and punched the accelerator down a very different road.
As Leon Mandel put it: "Suddenly there was a new Bill Harrah, a man who wore casual clothes tailored in Italy and Beverly Hills, who wore his hair as though it were a nest of lace perched on his head, whose standards of taste changed not only for himself but were visible in the Club. Playing a topless revue is the case in point. Harrah became looser, freer, more tolerant. He married three times in as many years. Changing presidents of his company mirrored impatience with his conservative past."
The pace of growth for Harrah's empire also quickened. The one-millionth visitor mark was reached at Harrah's Automobile Collection in 1970. The following year the plans for Harrah's Tahoe were finally approved and construction began on the first phase, a three level parking garage. 1971 also saw Harrah's go public as a way to raise the funds needed to finance the Tahoe expansion.
Norman Biltz went through a string of wives and lovers at the beginning of his life, Harrah did the same near the end of his. Bill was clearly, even desperately, searching for something; some of his closest friends and employees were sure that not even he knew what. Leon Mandel thought it was love. Whatever it was, he certainly seemed to have found it in Verna Rae Harrison. It took him five years and three more divorces to find her.
Bill Harrah never spent much time single. He married his second wife, Scherry, just 5 months after divorcing the first. Within a year of separating from Scherry he was hitched again, to a drop-dead beauty named Bobbie Gentry. She was a one-hit wonder with a her "number one with a bullet" hit of Ode to Billy Joe, which is still a perennial on the oldies channels. When she married Harrah she was at the beginning of what she thought would be a career as a pop headliner and had no intention of giving that up to become a housewife: even with a house like Rancharrah and Bill Harrah's eight figure income. Ode to Billy Joe's run in the top ten out distanced their marriage.
Just five months after divorcing Bobbie Gentry, he to went to the alter with Mary Burger, who was then an employee of Harrah's Club. That marriage lasted a touch over a year, ending in divorce in 1971. A year after their divorce, almost to the day, Bill Harrah married Roxana Darlene Carlson. There were remarkable similarities between Mary and Roxana. They were both intelligent --Harrah abhorred stupid women; they were both very good looking (Roxana was working as a model in local tea rooms); both were from small towns (Roxana was from Yerington, Nevada); and they were both recently divorced (Mandel relates that one piece of evidence suggests that Mary received a divorce from her previous husband the same day she married Harrah!). Like Bobby Gentry, they both left Harrah (though he divorced them) because of lack of common interests and friends, and, beyond the pleasures he was able to purchase for them, it would seem that he didn't have much --personally --to offer lovely young ladies. That was about to change.
Between his marriages to Mary and Roxana he went to the Mayo Clinic and very possibly received the most important news of his life --that he didn't have many years left. In 1972 Harrah went for his annual check-up at the Mayo Clinic where an aneurysm was discovered. Soon after, he underwent heart surgery there, undergoing a procedure nearly identical to the one he died following six years later. While Bill Harrah never spoke of it, Leon Mandel believes that the Mayo surgeons told him that he would probably need a follow-up operation in five or six years --and that unless medical technology significantly advanced, his chances of surviving it were not good.
He did two things as soon as he returned from that operation in '72. One was to hire an efficiency expert to tell him how he could better use his time. After a week of following Harrah around and recording everything he did, the man told Harrah that he was sorry, but he could offer Harrah no efficiencies he was not already practicing! The other thing Bill did was to marry Roxana. By some accounts their divorce came as a surprise only to them. Following it, Bill cranked the wheel over and punched the accellarator one last time.
He pushed for the completion of restoration projects on the hundred or more cars that were waiting to be added to the Automobile Collection. As part of his push to reach the goal of one of every kind of car ever made, he bought Winthrop Rockefeller's extensive auto collection in 1975.
The Tahoe project advanced as well. In 1972 the Tahoe parking garage opened and construction began on the 18-story, 250-room hotel. An additional 9,000 square feet of casino openned north of the garage on that Memorial Day weekend. Harrah's stock was accepted for listing that year on the American Stock Exchange. The following year Harrah's was listed on the New York Stock Exchange and Harrah's Tahoe officially opened on November 9.
Bill Harrah won half-a-dozen Man of the Year type awards. In 1969 the Northern Nevada Life Underwriters named him "Financier of the Year." In 1971 the Reno Ad Club named him "Promotion Man of the Year" for the attention he brought to Reno with his Automobile Collection. He was presented "The Man of the Year Award" by the University of Nevada in 1972. In the Jan-Feb 1975 issue of Rouge et Noir News, a newsletter devoted to the world of casino gaming, Bill was given their "Casino Man of the Year" for 1974 and later in 1975 the Greater Reno Chamber of Commerce proclaimed him "Civic Leader of the Year."
In 1974 he met and married Verna. Of her Leon Mandel wrote: "Verna was young, she was beautiful, and she came from Idaho; all three important to Harrah. In common with his other wives, her background was humble. In contradistinction to her immediate predecessors, she was a stayer.
"Nobody expected it when they married in 1974, but Verna Harrah would domesticate the Sole Proprietor. At last he would have a family. Finally he would feel comfortable with a woman. From skepticism at first, Harrah's high command, almost to a man, ultimately agreed that his final five years were the richest of his life. They agreed also that a good deal of credit was due Verna."
Floors in the second phase of Harrah's Tahoe began opening in November of 1976. In 1976 the Bureau of Land Management published a limited edition history of the Pony Express, Pony Express in Nevada, from material supplied by Harrah's from the collection of the Pony Express Museum. The Pony Express Museum never did find its own home, it languished in a back corner of Automobile Collection for many years waiting for a site. That site was finally chosen, but never built; it was Bill Harrah's last big dream --"Harrah's World."
Harrah's had acquired a grassy knoll west of Reno on I-80 with a spectacular view of the city. Bill Harrah knew location, and that would have been one hell of a location. There he planned to erect "Harrah's World" (what today would be called a "Las Vegas-style" mega-resort) with over a thousand hotel rooms and a Disneyland-like theme park with rides and exhibits devoted to transportation. His Auto Collection, of course, would have been the heart of the project. Harrah's World died and was buried with him.
Harrah's World wasn't his only future focus. He was preparing the legal and political ground to open one or more casinos in Australia. His consultants were working up plans to open a Harrah's in Las Vegas, too. Another tower was planned for Reno, as well.
1977 was the 40th anniversary of Harrah's gaming operations in Reno. Publicity pieces, articles and interviews appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the U.S. Bill Harrah probably stood in front of more photographers, and answered questions from more reporters, in that year than he had in his entire life previously --and for the most part, he actually seemed to be enjoying it. The ballyhoo climaxed with a gala celebration at Harrah's Reno where Bill was presented with a diamond money clip for his years of "loyal service to the company." The ever-modest Bill Harrah told the audience that night, "I came to Reno at the right time. It was luck." Few observers, seeing Harrah's success through his commitment to hard work, good taste, and honesty, would agree that it was all "luck," however.
Less than a year later, at age 67, William Fisk Harrah was dead. More aneurysms had been found, surgery to correct them proved unsuccessful. He died on June 30, 1978 at about 4:30 pm, Reno time, two days after the first of two operations in St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester, Minn., an affiliate of the Mayo Clinic. Verna was with him when he died.
Quirks of fate, or luck, attended his death, as they had his life. He died on the last day of Harrah's Club's fiscal year, and the $500,000 in insurance paid to the Club propelled the annual profit and loss statement from red to black ink, a stroke of luck he would have taken ironic pleasure in. When word of his death reached Reno, employees and guests openly wept --and not just at Harrah's. Another twist of fate was that three new casinos opened in Reno the night he died. The news of Harrah's death swept across their floors, eclipsing the gala opening festivities. Someone who knew Bill well later said, "Hell, he didn't just feel rivalry, he wanted to bury his competitors." Surely we would gotten a kick out of knowing that he had knocked the stuffing out of three competitor's Grand Openings with one "stone."
Bill Harrah's funeral was held at 11 o'clock in the morning at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 1070 W. Plumb Lane, a short distance from Rancharrah. He was buried soon after in Idaho near his favorite fishin' hole. In the Reno service he was symbolically laid to rest by 76 honorary pallbearers. In addition to many of Bill's closest friends and Harrah's Club executives, among the 76 were Nevada's entire Congressional delegation, the governor of the state, the mayors of Reno and Sparks, the county commission chairman, a U.S. district judge, the owners of several competing casinos, and an array of over a dozen top entertainers, all of whom had appeared on the Harrah's Club stages, including John Denver who sang at the service.
Here is the officially released list of the 76 Honorary Pallbearers, arranged in alphabetical order: George Allen, Rome Andreotti, John Ascuaga, Pete Barengo, Dean Batchelor, Jim Bennetts, Gordon Buehrig, Walter Burleigh, Dr. Harold Cafferata, Glen Campbell, Sen. Howard Cannon, Dr. Ed Cantlon, James Cashman Jr., Edward A. Catlett, Robert Cole, James Connant, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr., John Davidson, Albert Denney, John Denver, Dr. James DeWeerd, Mead Dixon, Lloyd Dyer, Ken Gooding, Harvey Gross, Floyd T. Harrison, Frank Harrison, Robert L. Helms, Holmes Hendricksen, Pat Henry, Barron Hilton, Tom Hubbard, Bob Hudgens, Merle Haggard, Lee Jellison, Rex Lanham, Sen. Paul Laxalt, Mayor James Lillard, Sam Lutz, Joe McMullen, Mayor Bruno Menicucci, Curly Musso, Jim Nabors, Jack Nethercutt, Bob Newhart, Wayne Newton, Gerald Nicholson, Gov. Mike O'Callaghan, Harry Parker, D. Cameron Peck, Frank Perez, Ralph Phillips, Don Rickles, Bob Ring, Mike Roberts, Milton Rudin, County Commission Chrm. Robert Rusk, Ivan Sack, Rep. Jim Santini, George Schroter, George Schuster Jr., Frnak Sinatra, Red Skelton, Art Smith, Dr. Ralph Smith, Virgil Smith, Judge Bruce Thompson, Larry Thompson, George Vargas, Fred Vogel, Clyde Wade, Wallie Warren, Jerry Weintraub, Lawrence Welk, and Dr. Orland Wiseman.
It seems fitting to conclude this the way Bill Harrah ended one of those 40th anniversary interviews... In telling a reporter how the success of Harrah's sometimes surprised him, he related a story of driving from Reno to Tahoe several years earlier on the old two-lane mountain road and becoming impatient with the traffic. "Then I realized where they were all going," he ended with a wry smile.
Blum, Walter. The House of Harrah. California Living Magazine, February 19, 1978.
Caudle, Sheila. The Turn of the Cards. Nevada Magazine, November 4, 1977.
Collier, Peter and David Horowitz. The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.
Elliott, Russell R.; with the assistance of William D. Rowley. History of Nevada, Second Edition, Revised. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1973, 1987.
Friddell, Jay. The Legacy Of Bill Harrah. Harrah's People Magazine, Spring 1995.
Lincoln, Freeman. Norman Biltz, Duke of Nevada. Fortune Magazine, September, 1954.
Mandel, Leon. William Fisk Harrah: The Life and Times of a Gambling Magnate. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1982.
Monroe, Keith. The New Gambling King and the Social Scientists. Harper's Magazine, January, 1962.
Shipler, Guy. The Duke of Nevada. Nevada Magazine, November, 1981.
Stevens, Carole. The Historical Times of the Crummer Mansion. Privately published essay and prospectus for sale of her property, 1992.
Wernick, Robert. The World's Biggest Gambler. Saturday Evening Post, February, 1965.
Sierra Magazine: "Norman Biltz Unlimited," Annual Issue, 1963; Time Magazine: "Mr. Big," June 15, 1953; and numerous other newspaper articles, editorials and obituaries taken from The San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle, The Sunday Oregonian, The Sacramento Union, The Nevada State Journal, The Reno Evening
Gazette, The Reno Gazette-Journal and others.
Return to A HISTORY OF "RANCHARRAH" -- page four