PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Harrah’s shut down during the COVID closures and now will remain dark.
By Frank X. Mullen
If Harrah’s walls could talk, they also would sing and laugh.
The voices of Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Merle Haggard, Chuck Berry and Loretta Lynn would ring out on key. Guffaws and belly laughs would chase the jokes and jibes of Phyllis Diller, Don Rickles, Flip Wilson and the Smothers Brothers. But today, even the spaces between the walls are silent. This month, exactly 42 years after the death of Bill Harrah, and 82 years since its founding, Harrah’s Reno is no more.
The hotel-casino was slated to go dark later this year, but the lights went out sooner thanks to the shutdown of non-essential businesses in March. Plans are for the two towers to transform into a non-gaming hotel and the “Reno City Center,” a mixed-use development with apartments, offices, restaurants and retail space. It’s a utilitarian fate for the venue where the nation’s biggest stars once appeared for two or three shows a night. It’s a quiet end for the casino where modern gaming was born, here in the heart of the tough little town on the Truckee.
The local icon was created more than eight decades ago, but Reno remembers.
In the beginning was Bill Harrah, who in 1937 set up a bingo parlor in Reno. It failed within weeks, but he opened another bingo hall on Virginia Street, the city’s main drag. Over the next four decades, he parlayed that small business into a gaming empire. Although his company has gone through many corporate twists and turns since his death on June 30, 1978, his name still shines atop casinos and hotels from San Diego to Atlantic City and from Las Vegas to New Orleans.
“He started it all right here in Reno,” said Neal Cobb, an amateur historian and popular Reno speaker. “He came up with things no one else had thought of. He set the pace for the gaming industry.”
The ink wasn’t quite dry on Cobb’s Navy discharge papers when he landed a job at Harrah’s Bingo in 1960. By that time Harrah had expanded the operation by buying up adjoining properties and adding more games of chance. Cobb worked a midnight shift for about a week when he invested some of his tip change in two 8-spot Keno cards. He hit seven numbers and raked in a windfall. Instead of sleeping, he bought a car, got measured for custom shirts and threw some money around. When the graveyard shift began at midnight, he quit the job, but not the casino business.
“The next year I got a job as a craps dealer at Harold’s Club, right next door to Harrah’s,” Cobb said. “There was a real rivalry back then about which was the best store in town, the best service, the best games, the best of everything. It was a competition and all the employees were serious about it.” There were winners: “The customers won,” he said. “You could go from one property to the other and each place would try to top your experience.”
Those who knew Bill Harrah said when it came to his gaming operations, customer satisfaction was his greatest concern. Money was a means to an end, not the end itself. Profits allowed him to build bigger and better properties, attract top acts and come up with innovations that were copied by his rivals. And it allowed him to indulge in his passion, collecting classic and rare automobiles that eventually numbered more than 1,400.
Holmes Hendericksen was a graduate student in Salt Lake City when he landed a summer job at Harrah’s Tahoe bussing tables in 1957. He was hired as a full-time cashier the following year. By 1967 he was general manager of the casino. Then Bill Harrah dealt him a joker by naming him vice president in charge of entertainment for both Harrah’s Tahoe and Harrah’s Reno, where a 24-story hotel was then rising. He hated it at first.
“The entertainment end was a job I knew nothing about,” Henricksen said. “Life was good at Tahoe. I didn’t want to be in Reno.”
“Bill Harrah was a perfectionist, a details guy, the small details as well as the big ones. He’d get a daily report from every manager, from the parking lot, to the table games, to the showrooms… If a report said the curtain rose at 8:01 for the 8 p.m. show, then he’d want to know why our shows can’t run on time. He’d say, ‘8:01 is not 8 o’clock. We don’t lie. We deliver what we promise.’ I heard that a lot: we don’t lie to customers.” — Holmes Hendricksen, who worked at the top levels of Harrah’s for 38 years.
Nothing escaped Harrah’s notice. If one light bulb in the casino was burned out, he would bring it to a manager’s attention. “The worst thing you could say to him was that something negative happened because you were trying to save money,” Hendricksen said.
For example, when Harrah’s Tahoe flew 24 Radio City Rockettes and their support people to the lake, Henricksen tried to keep costs under control by not including substitute dancers who could fill in if a regular hoofer couldn’t perform. “I figured if we needed to, we could fly substitutes in within a day,” he said. But when two dancers got sick, the East Coast was socked in by a blizzard and flights were grounded. That night, 22 Rockettes, not the 24 that would span the stage from end-to-end, kicked in perfect unison. Harrah was in the audience. He could count.
“I really thought I was going to be fired,” Hendricksen said. It was two weeks before Harrah talked to him directly, but when he did, the incident had been forgotten. “He never lost his temper, never used profanity, but you never wanted to disappoint him,” Henricksen said. “After a while, I got brainwashed. I started to think the way he did.”
Harrah and his team thought of new things all the time. He came up with bells and lights on slot machines and invented the “eye in the sky,” the drop ceiling above casino floors where managers could monitor the tables before the advent of video cameras. Harrah’s popularized bus excursions to Reno from the San Francisco Bay Area and other ways to appeal to middle-class gamblers. He realized that people would rather talk about going to Reno for great shows or fine dining instead of dwelling on the attraction of craps, roulette, slots or poker. Unless, of course, they came home winners.
Henricksen spent 25 years lining up acts, attending shows and getting close to some of the biggest names in show business. Sammy and Frank, Willie Nelson, Bill Cosby, Bob Hope, Debbie Reynolds, Wayne Newton and Tony Bennett were all headliners who came back again and again to Tahoe and Reno.
“They live different lives. But when you get to know them they have family problems and worries just like everybody else. They have egos you have to deal with. That was my job, to get to know them: what they ate, smoked, drank. What allergies they had and what the names and ages of their children were. I’d go to their birthday parties, weddings, bat and bar mitzvahs.” — Holmes Hendricksen, who retired in 1995 after 38 years with Harrah’s.
The talent flew to Nevada aboard Harrah’s planes. They and their entourage were put up in either a hotel suite or a house in Reno or Tahoe. A staff, including a cook, was provided. They stayed for one, two, or even three weeks in Reno, where the showroom was smaller than at the lake. “We made sure they were very comfortable,” Hendricksen said. It was his job to keep them that way. “I would see shows five times a week for 20 years, always at night,” he said. “I would have to sleep fast and for not very long.”
Part of keeping the talent happy was massaging egos. “Very few were difficult,” he said. “Most of the time they appreciated the work.” He noted that while star performers appear confident on stage, they often need reinforcement. “They need to be told how great they are.” Hendricksen didn’t have to stretch the truth, given the caliber of the acts at Harrah’s. Some became good friends. He once accompanied Sinatra on a trip to Israel and was a guest at the crooner’s wedding to his wife, Barbara. Sammy Davis Jr. was a friend for 31 years. Hendricksen last visited Davis two days before the singer succumbed to throat cancer in 1990. Sammy, he said, was the greatest talent he ever saw.
“He could sing, dance, do impressions, tell jokes,” he said. “He was the same on stage as well as off. His life was entertainment.” Davis would arrive with four steamer trunks full of clothing and suitcases heavy with watches, cuff links and other jewelry for his weeks-long gigs in Northern Nevada. He loved to cook, so Harrah’s provided kitchens wherever he chose to stay. He filled them up with pots, pans and skillets, Hendricksen said. Davis was a 5-foot-5-inch bolt of energy. He knew what to do with an audience.
“He would do three shows a night. That’s unheard of today. The last one was at 2:30 a.m. and he’d just blow the roof off the showroom.” The Headliner Room at Harrah’s Reno was renamed Sammy’s Showroom in 1991 and dedicated to his memory.
By the late ‘70s the era of nightclubs was fading; Reno and Las Vegas were keeping the tradition alive. “It was the end of an era and we knew it at the time,” he said. Bill Harrah died during heart surgery at the age of 66 in 1978. His company merged with Holiday Inns two years later. In 1990 Promus Corp. Took over and moved the company headquarters from Reno to Memphis, Tenn.
Hendricksen retired in 1995 from the job he came to love. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I was lucky. I had a once-in-a-lifetime career.”
As the years passed and gaming grew from a Nevada aberration to a national industry, Harrah’s adapted. In 1995 the company began an interstate expansion that continued for a decade. Las Vegas had long eclipsed Reno as the gaming capital. The last major casinos opened in Reno in 1995. Harrah’s Reno, an aging aristocrat among the younger upstarts, persevered.
“For a long time, we really were the preeminent casino in Reno,” said Rick Sorensen of Reno, who was a publicist at the property in the late 1980s. “The other operations looked to Harrah’s for how are they going to do things. If a new project was proposed, the others asked, ‘is Harrah’s in?’ We were the keystone.”
The stars kept shining: “Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, Joel Grey, Jay Leno, Emmy Lou Harris, I could go on and on, and that’s just the showroom,” Sorensen said. B.B. King, Paul Revere, Al Stewart and many more appeared in the cabaret. The property added a plaza and sponsored concerts, including appearances by Ray Charles and Chuck Berry. In 1999, Hilton Hotels bought Promus Corp., but the deal didn’t include Harrah’s, which gained it’s independence. In 2005, the company acquired Caesar’s Entertainment in a $5 billion deal.
Renovations came in 2006 and 2011, but over the last decade, the property began to delay maintenance, former employees said. The corporate game of musical chairs continued. In 2017 Harrah’s Reno was spun off to Vinci Properties and leased back to Caesar’s Corp. The sale and closure announcement came in January.
Last weekend, nearly every hotel room in Harrah’s towers was dark, but someone had placed lamps in a pattern of windows to spell out the letters THK U. Passersby on Virginia Street Saturday night stopped near the Reno Arch to gaze at the message carved in light. When questioned, some said they will miss the property. They recalled the shows, the stars, the restaurants and the changes over the decades.