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Nevada's First Casino

Surprisingly, the first of Nevada's great casinos was not in Vegas at all but in its northern counterpart, Reno, the "biggest little city in the world." This casino was Harolds Club.

The year was 1937. Gambling was still a product of the Wild West. Casinos were dark, honky-tonk places, their floors covered with sawdust and misses at the spittoon. Fistfights were not uncommon and gunfights were not unknown. The clientele was unsavory and all of it was male, not exactly a spot with much out-of-town draw, and certainly no place for the ladies. Raymond Smith, founder and one might say "inventor" of Harolds Club, changed all this. Within the first year of his management he successfully face-lifted his establishment into the twentieth century, modernizing its facilities, lighting up its fašade at night, installing plate-glass windows out front so that people could look in and see that this casino at least was not the devil's den. Mr. Smith, an ex-carnival barker and a man with a taste for the shocking, then raised more eyebrows by not only allowing women into his gaming emporium, but inviting them, and, at the same time, hiring them as dealers, a deed equally impious in this macho community.

This was just the start. Advertising was Mr. Smith's forte. He started by running a roulette game with a mouse as the ball and numbered mouse-holes for the wheel. Next came fireworks displays, float parades through the center of town, bonanza releases of helium balloons, tattooed with club's insignia. More than twenty million club matches were printed. Seven hundred and fifty one-armed bandits were installed, more than one-fifteenth of all the slot machines in Nevada. The dimensions of the casino itself were expanded, with a Wild West museum built to house Smith's collection of western memorabilia, and five saloons constructed nearby, one of them boasting a giant bourbon waterfall that flowed day and night behind the bar.

Of all the stunts ever launched by the industrious Mr. Smith, however, his "piece de resistance" was the coast-to-coast billboard blitz. Why confine one's reputation to local gentry, the wily promoter asked. Why not implant our moniker in the minds of every living American, the Connecticut Yankee and the Southern Belle, as well as the western dude? After all, four out of five of the five thousand people a day who visit Harolds Club are out-of-towners. Why not take advantage of this fact? By the time World War II had come and gone there was a chain of more than four thousand signs stretching from Miami to Fairbanks, each depicting a covered wagon full of grotesquely drawn pioneers, one of whom calls out to the spectator that for him it is "Harolds Club or Bust." To this day, several teams of construction engineers are kept busy across the country erecting these incredible contributions to Pop culture. And what's more, they work. Since 1946 Harolds Club has been the most successful and the most highly patronized casino in the world.

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