William F. Harrah
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|William Fisk Harrah|
September 2, 1911|
South Pasadena, California, USA
|Died||June 30, 1978
Rochester, Minnesota, USA
|Occupation||Founder, Harrah's Hotel and Casinos|
Early years and education
William Harrah was born in South Pasadena, California, the son of a lawyer and politician. From his early years, William was a driven individual. When the car his father bought him was stolen and stripped he vowed to his sister that one day he would own a duplicate of every automobile the family had ever owned. Now, there is a William F. Harrah Automobile Museum in downtown Reno, Nevada.
He studied mechanical engineering at UCLA where he was a member of the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity. He was forced to drop out when the Great Depression of the late 1920s hit and soon began work at various family businesses including a pool hall, a hot dog stand, shooting gallery and a bingo-style operation called the "Reno Game".
The move to gaming
For quite some time, bingo was considered illegal in California, but games of skill which were often based on bingo were legal. The Reno or Circle Game involved rolling a ball down a board where it would register a card suit and number. If one of the 33 players seated in a circle around the board matched a four-card sequence, he or she won.
Harrah's father insisted that the Circle Game was a game of skill and not of chance and argued that it was legal. The District Attorney however, disagreed and closed the game down several times. This upset both William and his father who had difficulty in hiring players to round out the circle. Even if a hired player won, he or she was shut out of winning the pot. Eventually players grew tired of competing against the house. His father was tired of hearing his son complain that he wasn't making improvements to the interior of the building to provide more comfort for the players.
Expecting to give his twenty-year-old son a valuable lesson, John challenged him to run the operation by himself. Harrah said, "Dad, that would suit me just fine," and paid his father $500 for the business. He then headed down to the pier and fired the shills.
In the course of just three years Harrah made the $100-a-week game into a $25,000- and then a $50,000-a-year business. However, Bill grew tired of fighting the politicians and looked to expand his operations into Reno. It was on October 30, 1937 that he opened his first club at 124 N. Center Street, Harrah's Club Bingo, a full block and a half from the Bank and Palace clubs that garnered the bulk of the play in Reno.
As the locals expected, his tiny tango (bingo) parlor closed-up fast, lasting only until November the 15th. In July 1938 Bill opened another bingo parlor, this time closer to the action, called Harrah's Plaza Tango. Virgil Smith was the main financier and a partner in the operation, and also in the club that opened in 1938, called the Plaza Tango at 14 E. Commercial Row. Two months later Harrah found a better location at 242 N. Virginia Street, squeezed-in close to Harolds Club, called Ed Howe's Tango Club.
After a sit-down with Nick Abelman, Bill Graham and Jim McKay, Harrah waited to be accepted into the Reno gaming fraternity. Eventually, Cal Custer, a respected ex-bootlegger from California and a long-time confidant of John Harrah's law firm, stood up for Bill and his new business ventures were given the green light, after there was an exchange of money.
Ed Howe insisted on $25,000 for his business, but strangely, he agreed to accept just $1000 from Harrah now that he was a verifiable friend of Bill Graham's group, and the new location on Virginia Street sprang to life. Though the building itself was in disrepair, Bill spent generously on improvements. He soon gained a lifelong reputation for running honest games and treating his customers and employees with fairness.
Over time, Harrah expanded his casino several times, and built a hotel tower in 1969. Harrah's Lake Club at Lake Tahoe is another story in and of itself, having grown from one side of the highway and then to the other at the old Stateline Country Club, but Harrah loved it even more, if that was possible. Harrah's Tahoe opened its Hotel in 1973. Harrah was a huge sports enthusiast, but nothing compared to his love for old cars and his massive antique car collection grew to easily become the largest and finest in the world.
Harrah trusted his top executives, and while he spent time walking his properties and demanding that things were perfect, he delegated authority and his managers appreciated his trust in their ability to manage his properties.
Influence and legacy
Harrah was very influential in how the gaming industry operated in Nevada. He used his influence to create the Nevada Gaming Control Board in 1955, an organization used to regulate gaming in Nevada. In 1959, Harrah created an even stronger Gaming Commission to regulate the casinos in Nevada with the intent of ridding them of corruption and crime.
William Harrah was known for his relations with both his customers and employees. He was the first to invite African-American entertainers to perform in his casinos and welcome all races. He removed the color and sexual barrier by hiring women as dealers as well as other employees regardless of skin color or gender. The main theater in Harrah's Reno was named Sammy's Showroom after entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. (whose Duesenberg replica now resides in the museum that bears Mr. Harrah's name), and actor-comedian Bill Cosby recalls Harrah as a good friend.
The William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration is named after him.
Harrah had an extensive collection of classic cars. In 1966 his 1931 Bugatti Type 41 Coupe de Ville won Best of Show at Pebble Beach. After his death Holiday Inn planned on breaking up the collection at auction. An outcry by the people of Reno and Sparks led to Holiday Inn donating 175 vehicles to establish the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, a collection also referred as The Harrah Collection.
Harrah was married to singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry for a brief period in 1969. Harrah had seven wives in his lifetime. With ex-wife Sherry he adopted boys named John and Tony. His widow Verna has produced some movies, including Anaconda.
The highest Total Rewards Card Tier "Seven Stars" was named after his seven wives.
- "Nevada's Golden Age of Gambling"
- Mendel, Leon: William Fisk Harrah : The Life and Times of a Gambling Magnate, Doubleday, 1982, ISBN 0-385-15513-1
- Moe, Albert Woods.: Nevada's Golden Age of Gambling, Puget Sound Books, 2001, ISBN 0-9715019-0-4
- Moe, Al W.: The Roots of Reno, Booksurge, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4392-1199-1
Every Light Was On Bill Harrah And His Clubs Remembered, From Oral History interviews by Dwayne Kling