The Reno City Council, which cannot wait to duplicate the fate of Harolds by taking down the art deco Mapes next Super Bowl Sunday, gave Harolds every chance to come back. The city fathers and the Nevada Gaming Control Board allowed the old place to open for four hours in 1997 in order to preserve its ability to hold an unlimited gaming license without now-required hotel rooms.
Raymond I. "Pappy" Smith, (1887-1967), Harold Sr.'s father, created arguably one of the top 10 advertising campaigns of the 20th Century to promote a simultaneously tacky and friendly gambling joint. His takeoff on "Pike's Peak or Bust" created consumer curiosity which established his gambling hall as a must-see attraction. As oldtimers, employees and even Smith family members said, "it wasn't much when you got here, but you had to get here." Pappy placed "Harold's Club or Bust" signs all over the world beginning in 1941. An aged world map once hung in one of the old place's darkened hallways, covered with pins like red ants on honey. Each represented the location of a Harolds Club or Bust sign. (Originally "Harold's" Club, the Smiths eventually eliminated the possessive apostrophe.)
In addition to making the place his traveling carny show family's permanent tent, Pappy basically created the Nevada gambling industry. The joint never had gourmet food or expensive decor, but the dealers were friendly and the facility kept clean. Pappy made much of touring the casino and doubling the bets of table game players. He also had the reputation of occasionally returning ten percent of the losses of someone who had gone bust, telling the gambler to use the money to get out of town. Perhaps that legend was a bit exaggerated, but three hard pieces of evidence exist as testament that some kind hearts which once beat within an exploitive business. First, the casino's dealers had standing permission to advise players when they were making a dumb bet. (Harolds was the first casino in Nevada to hire female dealers.) Even after the Howard Hughes Summa Corporation's 1970 purchase of the place, original Smith family employees would stop and advise a player against making a self-defeating blackjack play. They would also give advice when asked, something almost unheard of today. At Harolds' old competitors, such as the Mapes or Ponderosa, such actions brought automatic firing.
Harolds Club's 7th Floor Fun Room and third floor postage-stamp (today it would be called "intimate") lounge featured major entertainers until the early 1980s. The Smiths placed a world class gun collection behind the high-ceilinged third floor bar which drew viewers from everywhere. America has never grown up from playing cowboys with sixguns, so the collection became a natural draw. However, two other small items in that third floor gambling area were more indicative of the kind of place Harolds was, and that they don't make 'em like that anymore.
There was a small clock among the guns behind the bar. Next time you venture into a casino anywhere, try to find one. Casino layout is pretty basic. Use red meat colors to irritate the clientele into betting more. Never have windows so that the gambler will more easily lose track of time in a surreal world suffused with alcohol-bearing, tittyesque and statuesque women. Stay open 24 hours a day to minimize the potential of someone leaving while ahead of the house. (That's why casino interests in other states lobby hard for 24-hour gambling.)
Billionaire Howard Hughes, who came to Nevada to launder Mafia investments into legal businesses, bought Harolds as a token northern property after acquiring six Las Vegas operations: the Desert Inn, Frontier, Landmark, Sands and Castaways hotel-casinos and the Silver Slipper Gambling Hall. At Hughes' behest, the Nevada Legislature, during the administration of single-term Gov. Paul Laxalt, R, legalized the licensing of corporations, paving the way for the Wall Street darling Nevada of today. Prior to that statutory revision, only individuals could hold gaming licenses. If you are a cynic and unimpressed about the Smith's legendary generosity and fair treatment of customers all the way to providing them with the correct time, there was one other artifact at Harold's Club (please permit the old apostrophe one last time) which has seldom, if ever, appeared at any casino anywhere else.
A little, square plastic sign was hung on the side of the escalator, facing that high-ceilinged bar festooned and hung with all those guns.
"Gambling is a game of chance. We advise you to wager no more than you can afford to lose. The Management."
I hope I remembered it right.
Rest in peace, old gal and old pal. You were something special.