Recently I traveled to Lake Tahoe’s South Shore and while visiting Harrah’s, realized that the magnificent building would be 50 years old in a couple of years. The highrise edifice still dominates the skyline at Stateline and the legendary Harrah’s credo of excellent service, extreme cleanliness and the latest in innovations continues on today.
On opening day, 48 years ago, many luminaries were on hand for the ribbon cutting ceremony. From show business the irrepressible Sammy Davis Jr. was the Master of Ceremonies and the top politician on hand was Nevada U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon. The charismatic Pete Echeverria, one of the best Nevada attorneys and at that time the Chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, gave one of his trademark speeches.
In addition to Bill Harrah himself, the other two top Harrah’s execs who were roundly quoted in newspaper articles following the opening were Vice Chairman Bob Ring and President Maurice Sheppard who always preferred to be called “Shep”.
The towering hotel was the final piece of the equation that Bill Harrah had envisioned when he first came to the South Shore in the mid-1950s. When Harrah made his initial move across Highway 50, he purchased Sahati’s Stateline Club, which had been run by the brother team of Nick and Ed Sahati.
Quickly expanding and renovating what had been a rather dowdy summer establishment, Harrah topped it off by building what, at the time, was one of the biggest showrooms in the state. He brought it to completion just in time for the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley and had a stupendous opening. The room was configured so that in the busy summer months it could comfortably seat close to 2,000 spectators. During the slower winter seasons, it could be curtained off to a more intimate 750-seat showroom.
Like the more opulent North Shore clubs of that era, the gaming joints on the South Shore routinely closed up for most of the frigid winter months. Harrah soon put a stop to that when he came onto the scene. He entered into a very profitable deal with the Greyhound Bus Company to keep chartered buses rolling in from key points in northern California.
I recall that Lee DeLauer and Candy Hall were the main cogs in the bus operation that saw thousands of passengers come over the hill in all but the most inclement weather. Top name entertainment was another value-add that Harrah brought to the South Shore.
Harrah himself was a rather enigmatic individual, except to those who knew him best. While many people thought him aloof, his inner circle of top execs always said that he was an exceptionally shy man who devoted most of his time to quiet thinking—a trait that served him well as he developed his properties to become the benchmark not only in the world of gambling, but also resort and leisure activities.
On the other side of the coin, as seemingly somber and quiet as he was, Harrah had an overriding obsession with speed. That speed appealed to him in his very fast cars, his hydroplane and his fleet of private aircraft. His favorite annual sporting event was the Indianapolis 500 and his eventual massive auto collection, which still exists in Reno, were emblematic of his fascination with all things featuring the internal combustion motor.
During his early years in Reno, Harrah dressed in conservative attire that best resembled the many bankers and stockbrokers who strolled Virginia Street in those days. His iron gray hair was slicked straight back and he favored no-nonsense steel rimmed eyeglasses.
Later, and up to his untimely death at age 66 in 1978, he did a complete makeover and adopted a very “mod” look, with sharply tailored outfits made from extremely original materials. His hair was now longer and combed straight forward like some Roman Senator of old. The steel rimmed specs also gave way to larger, Hollywood-esque horn rims.
When you got to know the man, Harrah was extremely gracious and caring. I recall that whenever we were catching a show at one of his establishments, the waiter would always approach my table and say, “Mr. Harrah is taking care of your check.” Acknowledging his generosity with a raised hand, he would return the gesture.