Guy Farmer: Harrah’s: A Reno landmark disappears

“The End of an Era.” That was the Reno Gazette Journal headline on a recent page one story announcing that Harrah’s Reno, a downtown landmark for more than 70 years, had been sold to a local company that will turn it into yet another upscale condo complex. Bill Harrah must be turning over in his grave.

Unfortunately, once developers show up, history disappears and that’s what’s happening to Harrah’s Reno. Like the historic 1875 Adele’s building in Carson City, Bill Harrah’s crown jewel will disappear into the dustbin of history. Kudos to the RGJ’s Siobhan McAndrew for writing a comprehensive history of Harrah’s gambling and hotel empire, which dominated Reno and Lake Tahoe when I arrived here in January 1962.

Harrah, whose father operated Southern California bingo parlors, moved to Reno in 1937 and opened his namesake downtown casino in 1946, followed by Harrah’s Tahoe in 1955. By doing so, he transformed the gambling business from sleazy carnival-type “sawdust joints” into clean, modern “carpet joints” that were attractive to middle-class gamblers and their families.

Harrah’s 1999 University of Nevada oral history book is titled “Every Light Was On” for good reason because, as longtime Harrah’s vice president Holmes Hendricksen explained to gaming historian Dwayne Kling, “People used to make fun of the fact that he (Harrah) wanted all the lights to be on, but it was just another part of the whole picture. If one light is out, there’s something wrong – it isn’t perfect.”

Lloyd Dyer, who was president of Harrah’s during the period 1975-80, quoted Bill Harrah’s business philosophy: “I want the customers to be treated properly; I want the employees treated properly ... and I want the place maintained and clean at all times. If we make money after that, fine.” And that’s the way it was until Harrah passed away in 1978 at the age of 67. After his death, there was a long and slow decline in the quality of his clubs.

If there’s a villain in this story, it’s Reno attorney Mead Dixon, who drafted Harrah’s estate plan and controlled the properties after Harrah’s death, selling them to Holiday Inns for approximately $300 million in 1980. The Harrah’s empire, which stretched from Nevada to the Gulf Coast and beyond, was eventually acquired by Caesar’s Entertainment.

“To me, Harrah’s was a fixture and foundation of downtown Reno,” said longtime RGJ business reporter John Stearns. “It no longer being Harrah’s symbolizes the change that is happening in Reno.” And throughout Nevada, he might have added.

I had some fleeting contact with Harrah when I worked for Nevada’s gaming control agencies in the mid-1960s. I would see the “Gray Ghost,” as he was known behind his back, slipping quietly from corner to corner in his casinos, making sure every light was on. And I covered his sponsorship of the Gold Cup unlimited hydroplane races at Lake Tahoe shortly before I departed Nevada to join the U.S. Foreign Service in 1967. Harrah loved fast boats, fast cars and beautiful women. In fact, he loved women so much that he married six of them on seven different occasions.

Not long after I arrived in Washington I received a personal letter from Harrah thanking me for my public defense of then-Gov. Grant Sawyer’s controversial “Hang Tough” gaming control policies that resulted in the 1963 revocation of crooner Frank Sinatra’s gambling licenses for hosting Chicago Godfather Sam “Momo” Giancana at North Lake Tahoe’s Cal-Neva Lodge. Harrah was an honest gambler and I treasure that letter.

Harrah’s Reno will soon be gone, but we’ll still have our memories of a respected gaming pioneer.

Guy W. Farmer has been an adopted Nevadan since 1962.


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