Casinos have storied history | TahoeDailyTribune.com

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Casinos have storied history

At the end of the 19th century miners laid their pick axes down, in order to exchange their pay for a drink and a few chips – hoping to get lucky.

Booming silver and gold mines paired with a burgeoning logging industry gave Lake Tahoe’s gaming industry its start. Today, the big casinos at Stateline are every bit the attraction they once were, but the industry has changed substantially since Nevada legalized gambling in 1931.

Casinos have always appealed to all types of people.

“It’s a universal common denominator – everyone has played either a little or a lot,” said Placerville’s Steve McLendon, a collector and historian of gaming. ” ‘Casino’ is a European name that meant the place would have a bowling alley, ballroom dancing and fine dining.”

“Clubs and saloons were the ones that had the gaming in the back room as opposed to the front,” McLendon said. “All 1931 did was bring it to the front.”

The earliest clubs were sparsely outfitted. McLendon estimated that, at most, clubs had 10 slot machines and one poker or faro table. Surprisingly, clubs provided outside dealers with a place to game.

“You’d go in and the owner would lease people a space,” McLendon said.

After dirt roads were paved in the late 1940s, mountain travel was easier. Casinos’ three-month summer season gradually turned into a year-round operation.

Harrah’s Resort and Casino was the first to accomplish this, according to McLendon.

“Bill Harrah was the one who made a deal with the bus lines in Sacramento,” McLendon said. “He told them to ‘keep ’em coming.’ “

Bill Ledbetter, who worked in South Lake Tahoe casinos for most of his adult life, agreed that Harrah’s was the place to be. “The biggest shows were always at Harrah’s,” he said.

Ledbetter said Harrah was known for treating his entertainers with “great flair.”

Harrah’s big shows began at 8:15 p.m. sharp, no exceptions.

“You could set your watch by it,” Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter’s ties to the gaming industry are rich. He came to the lake in 1936. After years of dating Beverly Gross, he married her in 1954. Beverly was the daughter of Harvey Gross, the owner of Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Saloon and Gambling Hall.

When he turned 19, Ledbetter began working at Sahati’s Club, where he washed cars during the day and parked them at night. He fondly remembers his three years there.

“Washing cars was a total delight.”

Ledbetter had the privilege of washing the cars of those who performed in area clubs, and seeing stars like Nat King Cole, who he said was a “wonderful entertainer,” and the Andrew Sisters’ trio. The only trouble with the trio was having to wash three cars.

Through the 1960s and ’70s, casinos presented stars like Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali, Frank Sinatra and the “Rat Pack,” Nat King Cole, the Supremes, Tom Jones, Wayne Newton, the Righteous Brothers, Tony Orlando, and Engelbert Humperdinck.

“We’ve seen everyone from Lawrence Welk to Bill Cosby,” said Jan McKinnon of Paradise, Calif., who visited the area nearly every year at Christmastime in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Jan’s friend who was an entertainment secretary at the Sahara Tahoe, gave Jan and her husband tips on the best shows.

“The New Year’s galas were really something,” Jan said.

Her favorite show was Elvis Presley, who appeared at the Sahara annually from 1971-1976.

As the years passed, big acts became harder to come by, said Ledbetter who was Harveys’ chief executive officer from 1983 until he retired in 1993. Ledbetter said the decline can be attributed to television. Stations paid entertainers more than did casinos. Ledbetter should know.

Ledbetter is hopeful that South Shore will become a world class ski village someday and be the mecca for tourists it once was. He said it will be difficult because locations like Las Vegas “have a pro-gaming environment,” whereas Tahoe has to deal with”a fixed status-quo situation.”

One walking into a casino in 1999 would probably not see many couples in formal attire, nor would they know that the plastic gaming chips they’re tossing onto the table used to be made of clay.

Touching a vintage chip belonging to McLendon makes it is easy to tell the difference between casinos of past and present. The old clay gaming chips deform if the temperature hits 116 degrees. McLendon said one of the the biggest scores for collectors in recent times came out of South Lake Tahoe.

Construction workers were in the process of building the Horizon’s parking garage when they “unearthed hundreds of 55 gallon drums filled with chips,” from the concrete rubble of the parking lot of the former High Sierra Casino.

Workers grabbed hundreds of thousands of chips and carted them away in wheelbarrows.

Owners were required to destroy all their chips when a casino changed hands. An easy way to dispose of the gaming pieces was to bury them in the foundation.

“Every chip tells a story,” McLendon said.