Harold’s Club or Bust: Looking back at one of Reno’s biggest businesses
Special to the NNBV
RENO, Nev. — For more than a half century, a trio of gaming establishments dominated the downtown Reno scene with the clanking of their slot machines, dealers shuffling cards at the 21 tables or patrons shouting bingo.
But only one casino beckoned visitors from every corner of the world with its memorable “Harold’s Club or Bust” motto that dotted the landscape with billboards or signs or with the message painted on the side of a barn.
Reno native and Nevada historian Neal Cobb recently presented his personal recollection, along with archived information, on “Harold’s Club: Nevada’s Oldest Casino Remembers” as part of the Churchill County Museum’s Fall Lecture Series.
As a craps dealer decades ago at Harold’s Club, Cobb had an inside seat into the rise of the casino, which began as a small gaming establishment and later dominated North Virginia Street with its towering white seven-story building and huge 75-foot by 35-foot mural of pioneers.
Cobb, who was once married to the daughter of Raymond I. “Pappy” Smith, took his audience back to a smaller, yet exciting Reno after the legalization of gambling in the early 1900s.
Cobb said Harold’s Club began as a little parlor with a small neon sign advertising bingo. The club’s growth depended on Pappy’s sons, Raymond A. Smith and his brother Harold, whose outgoing personality personified their establishment.
“Harold was extroverted,” Cobb explained. “He was a character but a very smart character. As the club changed and grew, so did the city.”
With Reno’s population increasing, Harold’s Club grew from a small parlor to a major gaming hall. Harrah’s Club also opened a few locations in downtown Reno to compete against the Smiths.
Cobb, who worked at his father’s successful FM radio station, KNEV, from 1953-1980, said the Smiths believed a successful gambling establishment needed winners.
“You had to hustle and be able to bring the customers in,” Cobb said.
The aggressive marketing campaign began in 1941 months before the start of World War II. Cobb said Harold’s Club produced a color postcard that included the establishment’s name and the first Reno Arch.
The following year saw, according to Cobb, friendly female dealers dealing the cards because the men were overseas fighting the wars. The first shipment of slot machines arrived from Chicago, and shops and restaurants surrounded Harold’s Club.
“Harold’s Club expanded with a Western theme,” Cobb pointed out. “The paintings were done by local artists.”
After the war, downtown Reno boomed. Other clubs such as the Frontier and Mint sprung up, and the Mapes Hotel, which would be at the time the tallest building in Reno, opened next to the north side of the Truckee River.
On the south side of the Truckee River sat the post office and Riverside Hotel. Cobb said Reno held different parades for different reasons, and banners hung from buildings and light poles promoting the Reno Rodeo.
Harold’s Club erected a new façade in 1949 with a huge Old West mural depicting pioneer life.
“The photograph of the mural was only second to the Reno Arch,” Cobb said.
Cobb then showed an old photograph from the late 1940s.
“The photo show how alive Reno once was,” he said.
Adding to that vibrant time was the worldwide marketing implemented by Harold’s Club. The “Harold’s Club or bust!” slogans found their way attached beneath the metal frame holding license plates, on billboards or buildings.
Cobb said the Smiths bought 10,000 metal slogans for the license plate holders. The task of promoting Harold’s Club fell to Harold junior, who was being groomed for upper management.
“He did the basic jobs,” Cobb said. “He placed signs around the world including signs on the sides of barns.
The 1950s witnessed additional growth with the addition of a parking garage near the railroad tracks that featured pigeonhole parking, and by 1955, Harold’s Club towered seven stories over North Virginia Street.
“We were the largest casino in the entire world,” Cobb boasted.
On the seventh floor was Fort Smith, a display of mounted guns on the wall to include rifles and pistols originally owned by movie star and cowboy Tom Mix.
The club had some 21 tables where the minimum bet was a quarter, or patrons could belly up for a drink at the Silver Dollar Bar. What many customers didn’t know was the generosity of money and time coming from the Smith family.
“Harold’s Club supported the community with fireworks and scholarships,” Cobb said.
Raymond A. Smith, on the other hand, owned a private airplane and headed the local Civil Air Patrol for years.
The casino expanded by adding two Pony Express motels in the area, one at the western edge of Sparks on Prater Way and El Rancho Drive and the other on South Virginia Street near Moana Lane.
Pappy Smith died in 1967, and three years later, Cobb said the Smiths sold Harold’s Club to the Howard Hughes Corporation for $11.5 million. Four years later, Gamma International Ltd. bought the club and shuttered the doors several months after the purchase.
Former rival Harrah’s Club stepped in to purchase what was left of Harold’s Club in 1999 but had the building demolished. The huge mural, though, was dismantled and taken to the Reno Livestock Events Center, where it still stands.
Virginia Street from the railroad tracks to the Truckee River is a shell of what it once was. For Cobb, though, Reno’s history remains a major part of him from his years of serving on the Washoe County Planning Commission to those on the Reno Historical Resources Commission.
As he said, in its short 60-year existence, Harold’s Club catered for winners only.
Steve Ranson is editor emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News based in Fallon.
“I point out many cases of where privately owned companies do just as bad a job as publicly owned companies,” says Reno resident and former teacher Robert (R.D.) Gardner.