Bill Harrah thought he’d live forever. Northern Nevada would have been better had he done so.
His toys, the world’s largest auto collection, filled several huge warehouses next to the Sparks rail yards. Well over a thousand vehicles spanning a century of America’s expansion were housed there in running condition, including two of the most expensive cars in the world, classic Bugattis. Wanna see one of every Ford ever made? Buy a ticket.
The collection was supposed to be the centerpiece of Harrah’s Autoland, a major theme park on the south side of I-80 betwixt Boomtown and Reno.
In 1978, Harrah checked into the Mayo clinic for heart surgery. He had plans to meet his family at some vacation spot during his recovery. He died on the operating table at age 66. Like Howard Hughes before him, he left no will.
Because he personally owned so much of the company stock, his estate owed about $45 million in federal inheritance tax. The only way out was a corporate takeover. Holiday Inns acquired Harrah’s and soon spun off its motel business because gambling was so lucrative.
What to do with that non-performing asset, the car thing? A sports memorabilia entrepreneur named Joel (I forget his last name), went to Holiday directors to show them how to have their cake and eat it, too: Start a tax deductible non-profit, donate perhaps 100 cars and solicit equal donations. This way, there would always be a Harrah auto something in Reno.
Then, auction off all the rest. Holiday Inn did just that, cashed Autoland for hundreds of millions, then parked the carcass at Lake and Mill streets.
Now, Caesars has sold off Harrahs-Reno which will close this summer for renovation into “market rate” apartments. Alas, developers have gambled into the teeth of a looming recession. Ga-ga downtown boosters may soon have a giant version of the derelict Mapes, Sundowner and Kings Inn hotels on their hands, vacant until the invisible hand of the market turns things around. At least homeless squatters might find a place to stay.
Bill Harrah, Don Carano and John Ascuaga were the last of the oldtime paternal casino overlords. Anti-union, starvation wages.
And discriminatory. Anyone who did not fulfill Mr. Harrah’s ideal of physical attractiveness could never get a job involving any public contact.
“Harrah runs a cookie cutter,” a lawyer told me years ago. Even after his death, the corporate culture remained. Twenty-year bartender Darlene Jespersen was fired because she was uncomfortable dolling herself up like a hooker to fit the corporation’s “personal best” program. You got photographed after a makeover, then were required to look just like that for the rest of your life, age discrimination incarnate. Otherwise, you’re fired. (Barbwire 10-8-2000 et seq.) Jespersen’s world-famous “lipstick lawsuit” made new law in 2006. Upon request, I’ve sent the story and photos to publications worldwide, including legal publishers. It’s taught in law schools to this day.
The local gambling industry is a victim of its own incest. Gamblers used their political clout to redline Reno casinos downtown to prevent an LV-style strip from forming. Harrah, Harolds Club’s Smith family and Detroit Purple Gang refugee Lincoln Fitzgerald bought large swaths of south Reno farmland to prevent competition. Meadowood Mall, adjacent shopping centers, office buildings and apartments stand today on the former Smith ranch. RanchHarrah is a few blocks away.
Harrah’s will fade away this summer never having recognized any union. But inbreeding eventually becomes sterile. Downtown Reno is cavernous skyways and boarded-up buildings. Sparks has turned the former Victorian Square into a Soviet-style housing project.
So maybe Gomorrah South treating us like we don’t exist is not far from reality. Read on.
CHOPPED LIVER DEPT. Last week, Las Vegas unveiled a vanilla update of its most famous slogan, something like “what happens here gets videotaped here.”
Lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis, owner of the LV convention authority’s longtime ad agency, issued a statement to the fake news media about the uncatchy revision.
“By the 1980s, Vegas was the only destination to legalize gaming,” he told the Reno Kazoo-Journal, “and then Atlantic City came along.” Geewillikers! I’m getting old. I thought Nevada legalized casino sinning statewide in 1931 and I distinctly remember seeing casinos in Reno and Sparks before 1980. Maybe I’ve gotten used to LV treating the provinces like paté patsies. Get out the bagels and cream cheese, chopped liver R us.
ALTERNATIVE FACTS DEPT. Maybe Billy V was misquoted. Outside of these parts, “gaming” means video games and casinos are properly termed as engaging in “gambling.” So maybe video games were illegal until the 1980s and I missed it because I stopped at PONG.
ALTERNATIVE FACTS PART DEUX. Last Saturday and Sunday, our colleagues at the Reno Gazette-Journal printed several thousand words decrying the local affordable housing crisis. Instead, they could have run lotsa cute puppy pix from the animal shelter and condensed matters down to a few words of harsh reality: “Affordable housing crisis. Still talking. No help in sight.”
BTW: The shibboleth “rent control” remained unmentioned. As usual.
IGNORING HISTORY DEPT. An ever-expanding update of the July 17 Barbwire, “Reno City Council passes rent control,” will be linked to the web edition of this column at NevadaLabor. com/
Reno City Hall did so during our last boomtown housing crunch in 1977-78. Bill Harrah hisself wondered how much expansion this area could stand after eight gambling joints opened in less than a year. A year later, eight had closed.
Be well. Raise hell. Esté bien. Haga infierno.
Andrew Barbano is a 51-year Nevadan, executive producer of Nevada’s annual March 31 César Chávez Day celebration and editor of NevadaLabor.com. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Tribune since 1988.