Rick's Resort/The Willows (site)

Rick's Resort was opened around 1909 by Rick DeBernardi, the son of Swiss immigrants, several miles west of Reno on what was then called the Old Verdi Road. In the summer of 1910, the resort shot to fame as the training quarters for prizefighter Jack Johnson, who defended his heavyweight championship title against Jim Jeffries in Reno on July 4th of that year (see separate entry on the Johnson-Jeffries Fight). After Johnson's victory, the resort went back to its role as a local getaway, known for $1.00 chicken dinners and eclectic entertainment.

The enactment of Prohibition threatened to close the resort, until it was taken over in 1922 by Bill Graham and Jim McKay, two somewhat shady characters who renamed it The Willows and undertook an expensive renovation costing approximately $160,000. When it reopened, delicate filigree work adorned the hundreds of lights inside and on the surrounding grounds. An avenue of colored lights led to the main entrance.

The Willows became the most exclusive gambling house and speakeasy in all of Nevada, gaining a national reputation for its gaiety, hospitality, beauty, and opulence. Its interior was divided into four areas: the Blue Room, the Chinese Room, the restaurant, and the dance floor. After 1931, gambling was openly conducted in the Chinese Room, which was decorated with Chinese red and blue lacquer on the walls, ceiling, and fixtures. Soft lights shimmered on gold tablecloths and upholstery and on silk draperies.

The resort catered not only to the more exclusive gamblers and fun-seekers in the western United States, but also to members of the so-called "divorce colony," in Reno to secure a quick divorce. A Saturday night in the Blue Room resembled the premiere of an important motion picture. Men dressed in tuxedos and women in evening gowns would enter the room, and pianist and manager George Hart would introduce the new arrivals, describe their fashionable appearance, and sometimes their marital status. He would then take his seat at the piano and paraphrase a popular song, substituting the real names of persons for the original lyrics.

The merriment came to a sudden end on June 14, 1932 when The Willows burned to the ground in two hours while closed for remodeling. Although James McKay stated his intention to rebuild, he never did so.

Images

Barker, Morris, and Lawrence

Barker, Morris, and Lawrence

Visiting performers from San Francisco often entertained patrons of Rick's Resort. Image courtesy of Special Collections University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

Jack Johnson's training camp

Jack Johnson's training camp

Fighter Jack Johnson and his entourage arrived in Reno by train on June 24, 1910, and were immediately driven to Rick's Resort where Johnson commenced his training for the "Fight of the Century" against Jim Jeffries on July fourth. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

As Jack Johnson's training camp in summer of 1910, Rick's Resort was thronged day and night by the press and curious onlookers. Many of the newspaper correspondents lodged at the resort as well. Image courtesy of Special Collections University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

Jack Johnson and his entourage

Jack Johnson and his entourage

Johnson and his trainers often cooled off by jumping into an irrigation ditch that ran behind a barn on Rick's property. Image courtesy of the Nevada Historical Society View File Details Page

Famous rendezvous

Famous rendezvous

A publication called The Reno Divorce Racket, published in 1931, highlighted the role of The Willows as a prominent rendezvous for the divorce colony. View File Details Page

Elegance at The Willows

Elegance at The Willows

In the 1930s, visitors to The Willows enjoyed table games in elegant surroundings said to approach the magnificence of Monte Carlo and other continental casinos. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

Good credentials necessary

Good credentials necessary

Travel writer Basil Woon wrote, "You must be introduced or bear good credentials to enter The Willows." Its glamorous atmosphere contrasted greatly with most of the clubs in downtown Reno. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

Willows ad, 1930

Willows ad, 1930

In August 1930, a special advertising feature in the local paper encouraged "vacationists" to dine and dance at the elegant Willows resort. Image courtesy of Reno Evening Gazette View File Details Page

Street Address:

2775 Mayberry Drive, Reno, NV [map]

Cite this Page:

Alicia Barber, “Rick's Resort/The Willows (site),” Reno Historical, accessed July 25, 2017, http://renohistorical.org/items/show/15.

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