Slot exhibit took the hard way to get to the Capitol

Only the back-lit photographs of Carson City's seven casinos reveal any hint of the drama that was behind staging a historic slot machine exhibit now at the Capitol.

Unsettled skies mixed with sunshine suggest that Nevada State Museum photographer Scott Klette had to fight the elements to capture photos of the casinos while high above the streets.

"I wasn't sure we would be able to do it," said Klette, who climbed aboard a city cherry picker with Vern MarKussen to get the best angles of the casinos. "It was blowing and nasty weather. The wind blew Vern's hat off and I had to clean the lens from snowflakes."

From 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Dec. 8, Klette and MarKussen persevered through the everchanging weather to capture images of the Carson Nugget, Ormsby House, Carson Station, Pinon Plaza, Slot World, Cactus Jack's and the Horseshoe Club.

Less than three weeks later, those photographs and 30 historic slotmachines from the collection of brothers Marshall and Frank Fey were unveiled in the Capitol's old Assembly chamber in a special millennium exhibit called "Big Deals from Three Reels."

Local casinos are among the sponsors of the exhibit celebrating the mechanical slot machine era that ran from the 1890s to the 1960s. The exhibit put on by the Carson City Millennium Committee and Nevada State Museum runs through June 3.

"It was extraordinary and heroic, given all the work the museum exhibit staff had to do," said Guy Rocha, assistant administrator of the Nevada State Library and Archives.

The Nevada State Museum was asked to create the exhibit even though no budget was in place and exhibit staff was booked up for the year. Plus it came during a year of transition at the Nevada Department of Museums, Library and Arts, where director Dale Erquiaga came and went in the time it took to organize and open the exhibit.

The museum's four-person exhibit staff and museum volunteers designed and assembled the show.

Exhibit Director Doug Southerland made use of his engineering background. Exhibit preparators Klette, Dorothy Nylen and David Shipman each added their specialties: Klette shot photos, mounted historic photos and created the security system for the most historic slot; Nylen excels with colors and computer graphics; and Shipman undertook carpentry duties.

Prison inmates at Silver State Industries built the pedestals and display walls and hauled them up the stairs at the Capitol because they were too big for the elevator.

"We pretty much worked nonstop on this from mid-November to Dec. 23," Klette said. "There was a lot of overtime. We made it a point to be done before Christmas."

The dedication ceremony was the day after Christmas and the exhibit opened to the public Dec. 27.

The exhibit originally had only a three-week run to make way for Gov. Kenny Guinn's state of the state address, but Guinn chose not to speak and the slot machine exhibit was extended to Feb. 29.

A second extension kept the slot machines in the Assembly chamber until April 29. By April, museum staff were too busy with a new exhibit at the museum and they got permission from the Fey brothers to extend the exhibit for the third time.

"Definitely June 3 will be the final day," said Bob Nylen, the museum's curator of history. "At that point he really does need his machines back."

The Fey brothers' grandfather, Charles Fey, in 1899 invented the first self-paying slot machine called the Liberty Bell. One of seven known remaining Liberty Bells is on display at the exhibit.

Fey's mechanical payout system remained virtually unchanged until electronic slots quickly relegated mechanical slots to oblivion in the 1960s.

The exhibit also features slot machines that dispense gumballs, sticks of gum and mints that players could exchange for cash to get around gambling laws in the 1910s and 1920s.

Coincidence plays a role in "Big Deals from Three Reels."

"The room where the exhibit sits is the same room where the bill legalizing gambling was signed in 1931," said Candy Duncan, executive director of the Carson City Convention and Visitors' Bureau.

Duncan served on the Carson City Millennium Committee, which organized events to celebrate the new year, including the slot machine exhibit. Rocha suggested the slotm achine exhibit.

"I was asking who is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the self-paying slot machine," Rocha said. "I don't know of anybody doing anything. Las Vegas isn't doing anything. Reno isn't doing anything."

Rocha and Nylen got a positive response from Marshall Fey to borrow dozens of historic slots from Fey's Liberty Belle Saloon and Restaurant. Then money needed to be raised for the $14,000 exhibit.

Bally's Gaming Systems gave $4,000, the millennium committee gave $3,600 and each of the local casinos chipped in $500 and a slot machine bearing the name of their casino (except the Ormsby House).

"My boss said the casinos stepped to the plate and gave money. 'Go out and get some pictures,'" Klette said. "I drove to Slot World. It didn't look like a $500 picture from the ground. Pinon Plaza looked awful from the ground. They deserve better than me standing on the street with a power line in the way."

Klette wanted to get into the air. But how?

He called former Nevada State Museum director Judy Hendrix, who called Duncan, who called Klette - "You want what?" - and then Mayor Ray Masayko, who called Chuck Knowlton at city public works, who called Klette.

Knowlton made a cherry picker available for 7 a.m. Dec. 8. Even with inclement weather, Klette figured it was easier to go ahead and shoot pictures than reschedule the cherry picker.

"I just can't say enough cool stuff about Vern MarKussen," Klette said. "He would say, 'If you don't like it we can move down and move the truck 20 feet.' I said move me a foot and he would.

"The weirdest moment for me was when we were over the street and semis were driving underneath us. Because of the wind, I thought there would be a lot of vibration in the cherry picker, but it was like being on the sidewalk. It was real stable."

What: Best Deals from Three Reels

- An exhibit of historic slot machines

When: Through June 3

Where: Old Assembly chamber in the Capitol


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