Harolds Club Innovations

Harolds Club in Reno was the first modern casino in Nevada. Although it struggled financially following its opening in 1935, it soon began to flourish, due in large part to several innovations that changed the nature of the state's relatively new business of legalized gambling.

First came friendliness: Dealers were encouraged to chat with players and explain the games. General manager Raymond I. “Pappy” Smith would amble around doubling bets, and sometimes his son, co-owner Harold Smith Sr., would do the same. Or Pappy would commandeer a blackjack table and deal a “poor bastards” hand, hitting until he broke, then say, “Pay the poor bastards.” The club had a “once only” book through which big losers could receive enough money to get home. In his autobiography I Want to Quit Winners, Harold said that some years the club refunded half a million dollars this way. And to emphasize the club's honesty, a sign said “No one can win all the time. Harolds Club advises you to risk only what you can afford. ”

Another signal change was hiring female dealers. Some women had dealt at Harolds from the early days, but in a few years the club began hiring large numbers of them in order to broaden the customer base, on the correct theory that this would attract female customers who would not patronize the traditional clubs. When World War II came and huge numbers of men joined the military, the hiring of women accelerated dramatically until they became about ninety percent of the staff. Despite the wartime scarcity of men, only about a third of the other Reno area casinos used women dealers. Harolds Club remained their major employer.

This policy, while good for business, was also a great boon for women who wanted or needed jobs. At that time and for many years afterward, women faced limited job opportunities in the United States, mainly as teachers, nurses, secretaries, home economists, “greasy-spoon” cooks, and sales clerks. None of these jobs paid well. For instance, in 1946–47, about half of U.S. teachers earned less than $2,000 a year. By comparison, in the mid-1940s a good dealer with a year's experience could earn about $4,600 plus her all-important tips.

Being in the vanguard was not always easy for Harolds or its female employees. The women faced old prejudices, including the widespread belief that many were prostitutes. At one point, the Smiths had to fight off the Reno City Council when it proposed a law forbidding women dealers from being placed near windows where they could be seen from the street, on the theory that such a sight was immoral. But the Smiths could not prevent the state legislature from passing a law restricting women to six-day work weeks while permitting men to continue to work seven. Some observers saw this as an attempt to make it more difficult to use women as dealers, but Harolds responded by hiring more of them.

Women did not find equally good opportunities in management, however. While an occasional woman could be found as a floor boss, Harolds executive positions continued to be dominated by men. Even so, Edith Grisham ran the credit office for some thirty years, and Elsie Clifford handled payroll for nearly as long. An early restaurant manager was also a woman.

Another Harolds Club step toward sexual equality—although probably not seen as such by the Smiths—was their decision to dress women in pants at a time when few women wore slacks. This occurred when the club adopted western wear for its dealers.

Harolds originated the emphasis on slot machines. While slots were widespread in commercial establishments in the 1930s and provided local governments with much of their gambling-license revenues, they were not favored by old-line gamblers. The Smiths made them a major feature, emphasizing frequent jackpots in line with Pappy's philosophy of building business by sending home winners. The "one-armed bandits" proved highly popular, and today they are a mainstay of the casino industry.

Harolds was the first gambling establishment to adopt a central theme—in this case, the Old West. The theme developed in hodgepodge fashion over time, and never became as sophisticated as those of modern Las Vegas casinos. But at its height, it proved a highly effective attraction. “Roaring Camp” featured a huge collection of Old West guns. The Music Room displayed player pianos and nickelodeons. Old wagons hung from the ceiling. Dealers wore Western clothes. A large outdoor mural showed a wagon train camped for the night while menacing American Indians spied from a bluff—offensive to later generations but not controversial when the mural appeared in 1949.

The Smiths ran a series of newspaper advertisements telling stories of pioneer Nevada. These were later published in three popular Pioneer Nevada books, which often featured “marauding” American Indians. The Smiths, in fact, seemed fascinated with Native Americans, especially those on the attack, and the club's short-lived Fort Smith attraction featured a rooftop tableau of American Indians assailing the fort while soldiers fought them off. In adjacent Sparks, Harolds' Pony Express Motel featured a sign of Native Americans on horseback chasing a Pony Express rider. North of Sparks, Harolds' Gun Club hosted the Golden West Grand trap shoot for nearly two decades. The nation's second largest shoot, it attracted some 1,500 competitors and big-stakes gamblers. Dan Orlich, a Harolds employee, was a first-rank shooter, named to the All-American team twenty-two times and captain six times.

All of these improvisations were boosted by another innovation—extensive promotion. The other clubs advertised only in limited fashion, preferring to keep a low profile and not risk public distaste for an enterprise that still seemed experimentally legal. But Harolds put its name everywhere it could. Chief among its promotions were the famed “Harolds Club or Bust” roadside billboards that took the casino's name worldwide, even to the African Congo. Created through the Thomas C. Wilson agency, Reno's premier advertising company, the billboards featured a stagecoach rushing hell-bent for Reno, or gold-rush forty-niners paddling furiously while arrows flew around their heads, shot by American Indians drawn in jagged lines reminiscent of lighting bolts. At their peak, the billboards totaled more than 2,300. Another effective promotion involved a nearly naked man in a barrel proclaiming “I lost my shirt at Harolds Club.” This was audacious not just in its humor, but in admitting that people could indeed lose money gambling. At first a live man traveled the nation inside a real barrel, then a cartoon character took over.

Harolds was also unique in its extensive charitable contributions, something that later became routine for large casinos. It bought a house for the Catholic Day Home, supported Fourth of July fireworks in many towns, sponsored an annual Christmas party at the Eagle Valley Children's Home in Carson City, and paid off the YWCA mortgage. Harolds helped start the Reno Air Races and for years remained principal sponsor. Harold Smith Sr., who as a youth had dreamed of becoming a concert violinist, personally staged classical-music concerts featuring the likes of Metropolitan Opera stars Lily Pons and Dorothy Kirsten. During World War II, when rural newspapers struggled to stay alive because of a steep decline in advertising, Harolds bought numerous ads to keep them solvent. But perhaps the most beloved program was the Harolds Club Scholarships. Beginning in 1946, these went to one student in every Nevada high school at $1,000 per year for four years. The program tapered off in the mid-1950s due to rising casino costs, making its final payments in 1959.

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