Bill Harrah's back and boy, is he pissed


Expanded from the 6-11-2K Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

The title of this column has traveled these parts so long that it now approaches urban legend status.

This particular tall tale is now coming true and it's a bit of a revolting development.

The Great Harrah thought big: hotels, casinos, exotic cars and women to match.

On the good side, had he not died on the operating table at the Mayo Clinic in 1978, we well could have seen Harrah's Autoland become a reality (after buying the name from Artie and Faye Valentine's Rock Blvd. car lot, of course).

Those who know better than me say Harrah gave up on Autoland after the public refused to vote for a 1973 tax increase for bonds to provide city sewer service. You've passed the site if you've driven Interstate 80 west of the McCarran loop. The seven consecutive Harrah's billboards on the south side of the freeway mark the spot, near the current Home Depot location.

Anyone who ever viewed the magnificent Harrah's Auto Collection when it was housed in those huge old railroad warehouses south of the Sparks railyard know that the corpse of the collection in downtown Reno is not worthy of the name.

What a wonder it was. One of every Ford ever made. Not one but two Bugattis. That array of rolling iron would have been the equal of Lake Tahoe as a tourist attraction if properly housed and displayed. But Mr. Harrah wanted corporate welfare for his wonderfulness and the public refused to pay Bill's bills.

The difference between Harrah and John Ascuaga was perfectly expressed in the early 1970s by future Washoe County assessor and former John Ascuaga's Nugget chief photographer Bob McGowan: "You can't give them Anthony Newley and champagne when they want Buck Owens and a bottle of Coors."

Back in the 1970s, the Nugget's attitude was pretty much as it stands today, a slightly upgraded version of "no shirt, no shoes? No problem." Just bring your money and don't get nasty drunk.

Harrah's joint was different, as I once found out the hard way. Just before Christmas in 1976, I decided to treat my entire advertising agency staff to lunch. The logical choice was Harrah's Terrace Room (now an Italian restaurant named after former Bill-era executive Rome Andreotti).

About a dozen of us were seated in the second floor eatery overlooking the Cal-Neva. As we perused menus, a voice discreetly whispered in my ear: "Sir, will you please remove your hat?"

I wanted to know why.

"It's Mr. Harrah's policy that gentlemen must remove their hats."

Good enough, I thought. Then came the fatal question: if any of the ladies present were wearing a hat, would they have to remove theirs, too?


That really angered me. If I had it to over again, I would not have inconvenienced my employees and guests, but that antique double standard fried me. We adjourned to John Ascuaga's Nugget in Sparks, where nobody told me to undress.

At that time, Harrah's personnel policy was known as "the cookie cutter." If you expected to move up in the organization, you had to be skinny. Your ability and work ethic were secondary to your looks. I have known Harrah's employees who starved themselves trying to keep their jobs.

More recently, discrimination lawsuits have been filed against local hotels which still follow some of those cruel old rules. Some have even busted housekeeping staff for not meeting Cosmo magazine standards.

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The Reno Hilton fired a cocktail waitress for the crime of pregnancy. She was reinstated only after a lengthy court battle brought by her union.

Now, it appears Bill Harrah is back. You would have had a hard time finding any mention in the Reno Gazette-Journal, the publisher of which sits on Harrah's board of directors.

Sue Clark-Johnson herself may have to resign her lucrative moonlighting job because she does not appear to fit the neo-cookie cutter policies of the corporation. Both the Las Vegas Sun and the Chicago Tribune recently reported on Harrah's new "Beverage Department Image Transformation Initiative."

At a cost of $3,000 each, workers get makeovers. If they ever show up for work not looking like their makeover photos, that constitutes grounds for termination.

"The program establishes 'personal best' appearance guidelines for each beverage department employee and requires them to maintain those standards for the duration of their employment," the Las Vegas Sun reported. Look for 20- and 30-year employees to disappear from future puff advertisements.

About the only acceptable excuse for altering your company uniform is if you've had boob job! (Sorry, the corporate term is "positive body enhancement.")

When informed of the new standards, some women left group meetings in fear and tears. Corporate managers who enforce the rules do not have to follow them.

The new Harrah's policy "goes so far as to say that a woman who gives birth is expected to fit into her old uniform by the time the baby is 12 weeks old," the Chicago Tribune reported, "nursing or not."

"Harrah's prefers to view the program as a perk for its 1,400 beverage servers," the Windy City paper reported. Tongue-brushing is also one of the new rules.

"We see this effort as an important step in branding ourselves as a corporation," Harrah's spokesman Gary Thompson told the Las Vegas Sun.

Can brands on waitress asses be far behind?

Bill Harrah's back, and boy am I pissed!

Be well. Raise hell.


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© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of U-News, where the past four years of columns may be accessed. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 where an earlier version of this column appeared on 6/11/00.

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