Filed Under Gambling

Harolds Club (site)

"The Friendly Club" brought a personal, lighthearted touch to Reno's gambling landscape.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of Harolds Club on the city of Reno, the trajectory of Nevada gaming, and the entire U.S. casino industry. Founded in 1935 by Harold Smith, Sr. with the help of $500 borrowed from his father, Raymond I. "Pappy" Smith, Harolds Club (apostrophe intentionally omitted after the first few years) was largely responsible for changing the perception of gambling in the United States from a vice to a respectable form of recreation. The members of the Smith family were renowned not just for their showmanship and marketing savvy, but for their immense dedication to promoting the entire city of Reno, providing scholarships for local students, and treating their employees like family.

Harold Smith, Sr. together with his brother, Raymond A. Smith, first opened their family's modest casino in June of 1935 in a single storefront with only an eight-foot-high penny roulette wheel and two slot machines. Within months they were joined by their father, "Pappy" Smith, and expanded their offerings to include fan-tan and craps. They were perhaps most infamous for an early, albeit short-lived, game of mouse roulette. The club did well, and expanded into a neighboring storefront in 1941, which allowed them to add a greater variety of games, including poker, craps, and 21.

Harolds Club is widely recognized as the first casino to hire female dealers, a practice they initiated in the late 1930s with female members of the Smith family. In 1947 the club expanded north into the former site of Harrah's Bingo and opened the Covered Wagon Room, a pioneer-themed visual extravaganza that included the famous Silver Dollar Bar, featuring more than 2,000 silver dollars encased in plastic along the bar top.

In 1949 Harolds Club expanded again and opened the Roaring Camp Room, full of more western memorabilia including hundreds of historic firearms. In 1949 the Smith family hired artist Theodore McFall to design the famous mural that adorned the club's Virginia Street facade for the next fifty years. Like the club's interior decor, the mural capitalized on the popularity of stereotypical depictions of cowboys, pioneers, Indians, and the West that dominated American culture at the time. Harolds Club was also known worldwide for its groundbreaking marketing slogan, "Harolds Club or Bust," which at its height blazed across more than 2,300 billboards across the United States and selected locations worldwide.

Continued success led to more expansion in 1950s with a seven-floor addition topped by a showroom called the Fun Room. The Smiths sold the property and buildings to a New York investment firm in 1962 but leased back the casino. In 1970, the entire venture was purchased by Howard Hughes and in 1994 was set to be purchased by a New Jersey gaming company that eventually called off the sale. Harolds Club closed in 1995 and never reopened. The property was purchased by Harrah's Reno, which demolished Harolds Club in 1999, but not before the famous mural was carefully removed. It was later reinstalled at Reno's Livestock Events Center.

Images

Iconic Harolds Club
Iconic Harolds Club Harolds Club was an iconic presence on Virginia Street, particularly after the installation of its famous mural in 1949. The club reflected and capitalized on the national fascination with the American West in the mid-20th century. Source: Philip Galbraith
Virginia Street in 1945
Virginia Street in 1945 As pictured in a 1945 postcard looking south on Virginia Street, Harolds Club was one of many casinos housed in older storefronts along the street's east side between Second Street and Commercial Row. Source: Philip Galbraith Date: 1945
The Harolds Club Gun Collection
The Harolds Club Gun Collection The casino's western decor included displays of authentic historic firearms including flintlock muskets, dueling pistols, Civil War weapons, Winchester rifles, Colt revolvers, and much more. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries
Female dealers at Harolds Club
Female dealers at Harolds Club Harolds Club began to introduce female dealers to the casino floor in the 1930s, and was widely recognized as the first casino to do so. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno
Harolds Club mural
Harolds Club mural The famous Harolds Club mural on a 1970s postcard. The mural, created by Theodore McFall, was 35 feet high and 75 feet wide and composed of 220 separate porcelain panels. It took four months to complete and instantly became a Reno landmark. Source: Philip Galbraith Date: 1970s
Famous Harolds Club
Famous Harolds Club The seven-story addition to Harolds Club provided much more room for entertainment and dining. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries
Harolds Club postcard
Harolds Club postcard Harolds Club's advertising often poked fun at gambling and those who engaged in it, embracing a light tone and cartoonish imagery. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries
The post-Harolds Club landscape, 2013
The post-Harolds Club landscape, 2013 After Harolds Club closed for good, Harrah's Club purchased the property, demolished the buildings, and used the space as an outdoor entertainment plaza. Creator: Alicia Barber Date: 2013

Location

236 North Virginia Street, Reno, Nevada

Metadata

Alicia Barber and Dwayne Kling, “Harolds Club (site),” Reno Historical, accessed May 19, 2024, https://renohistorical.org/items/show/258.