Bill Harrah - Nevada Gaming Pioneer

Harrah's Casinos Help Reno and Lake Tahoe Grow

Photo Courtesy of (Angel Fire Press)
Casino founder Bill Harrah, circa 1965. Photo Courtesy of (Angel Fire Press)

William Fisk Harrah was born September 2, 1911 in South Pasadena, California. He worked at his father's concessions at Venice Beach, California before moving to Reno, Nevada where he built the most successful casino company in the world. He experienced heart-related health issues the final ten years of his life and died at the age of 66 during an operation to repair an aortic aneurysm, June 30, 1978.

Harrah's casinos were quickly sold to Holiday Inn.

Harrah's Early Life

Although Bill’s father favored education and was himself a lawyer, Bill never finished his studies in mechanical engineering at UCLA where he was a member of the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity. Instead, he worked at the family’s businesses along the boardwalk at Venice Beach in Southern California. The hot dog stand and shooting gallery were steady earners, but the Circle game earned more than both combined when it was in full operation.

In the Circle or Reno game, players rolled small rubber balls down a ramp to light a suit and four card numbers, trying to match the “winning” sequence in a group, similar to bingo. Unfortunately, the local sheriff’s office considered the game to be gambling and it was shut-down each year at election time. Because of this, John Harrah refused to put any money into upgrading the facilities, so Bill offered his father $500 for the business.

His father accepted and the younger Harrah fired the shills in the game, bought new drapes, new stools, and upped his prizes. Business increased immediately.

By 1937, Robert Ring was running the Reno Game for Bill while he scouted the actual town of Reno, Nevada for a place to set up shop in a legal climate.

Harrah found a small building at 124 N. Center Street near successful casinos like the Bank Club and the Palace Clubs. Harrah changed the name from the Owl Club to Harrah’s Club Bingo and opened on October 30. It snowed every day, keeping players away, and Harrah gave up on his new venture on November 15, an inauspicious start to his gaming ventures, but he was learning how the game worked in his new home town.

He met with the local fraternity of senior gaming advisers, Nick Abelman, Bill Graham and Jim McKay, and waited to be accepted. Eventually, respected ex-bootlegger Cal Custer, a long-time customer of John Harrah's law firm and previous owner of Nick Abelman’s Stateline Country Club casino stood up for Bill and his partners. After an exchange of cash, the new business ventures were given the green light.

Income from the Circle Game back in California allowed Bill and Rob Ring to reopen down the street at 14 E. Commercial Row. The new Harrah’s Tango (bingo) Club was a success, and the upgrades to the interior and the heating system for guest comfort would become a hallmark of the Harrah business philosophy.

Reno Partner Virgil Smith

Virgil Smith, who ran the gaming at Colbrandt’s and the Wine House next door, became a friend and financial supporter who helped Bill move into better quarters on N.

Virginia Street where he joined the Reno Club and Harold’s Club. His move was just in time as an influx of service men from the nearby town of Stead and those traveling from the San Francisco Bay Area created a boom town for local casinos during the Second World War. Players could find craps, blackjack, Chuck-a-luck, faro, roulette, and plenty of silver Pace slot machines featuring a smiling sultan on a magic carpet on the spinning reels at Harrah’s casinos.

Harrah’s casino on Virginia Street expanded backwards across the alley and onto Center Street where it took over several small clubs, including the Bonanza, recently owned my Wilbur Clark, who made his way to Las Vegas as Meyer Lansky’s front man at the Desert Inn. It was reopened as Harrah’s Bingo in 1953, complete with beautiful wood work, fancy lighting, and colorful carpeting. He was a highly exacting manager, but allowed his shift managers a great deal of authority and didn’t interfere with day-to-day operations.

After earning a comfortable living and marrying his second wife, Scherry, Harrah planned further expansions and eyed the summertime crowds at Lake Tahoe with understandable envy. He knew he had a much nicer casino than those at South Lake Tahoe, but the vacationers outspent his Reno visitors three-to-one.

In 1955 his banker, Edie Questa, advised Bill that George’s Gateway was available, and George Cannon and Harrah soon made a deal on the Quonset hut casino with its huge signs.

Attached to George’s were several small casinos, including Dopey Norman’s and Tony’s, but they faded quickly when their leases ended.

Harrah’s new Lake Club opened with a much improved ventilation system, new carpets, and many of Harrah’s more liberal pay-off Pace slot machines from the Reno club. Rob Ring was instrumental in working with Cal-Trans, the California highway department, to keep highway 50 upgraded and plowed during the winter and allow players to gamble at Lake Tahoe year round.

The changes took place the following year as Harrah purchased Sahati’s Country Club and opened a second casino. All those open roads were too good to be true, and Ring and Harrah worked with Greyhound Bus Lines to schedule regular routes from Northern California towns like San Francisco and Sacramento to bring day-trippers to Harrah’s properties. The routes eventually included round-trips to Harrah’s Reno casino also, and proved to be the most profitable casino innovation ever for a local casino.

Harrah's Expands in 1969

According to Nevada’s Golden Age of Gambling, Harrah sold his casino on the lake side of the highway to Harvey Gross in 1969 for $5 million and used the money to finish his new 600-room hotel in Reno and plans were put into place for a more luxurious hotel at Lake Tahoe. It was finished in 1973.

Over the years Bill Harrah promoted the fun and excitement of Northern Nevada and had jet boats built for racing on Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe. He also opened a small casino and restaurant at Zephyr Cove.

As Harrah reached his 50’s, his love of cars and women began to take over his life. His car collection became the largest in the world, and he and Scherry adopted two sons, John and Tony, he was eventually married seven times, including one short year to popular country singer Bobby Gentry. His last wife, Verna, is now a Hollywood movie producer.

Harrah’s Legacy

Aside from the expansion of safe, honest gaming, Bill Harrah was influential in creating the Nevada Gaming Control Board in 1955. In 1959, he helped create the Nevada Gaming Commission. His own casinos took Reno from a country-style town with cowboy casinos and hardwood floors to a more upscale atmosphere of lively entertainment. Harrah’s Corporation was also the first casino group to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

His beloved car collection became a part of Holiday Inn when the hotel chain purchased Harrah’s casinos and the most expensive vehicles were sold, but Holiday eventually donated 175 vehicles for the William F.

Harrah National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.