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.