Sing us a song about the South Shore Room
Kenny Smith knows the jukebox numbers by heart, and he punches them in: 1-3-0-1. Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” plays out of the speakers as Smith walks across the Moose Lodge back to the bar as somebody jokes, “Love that John Denver, don’t you, Kenny?”
It’s a running joke, because for a while, Smith really did think it was Denver who sang his favorite tune. Most days at the Moose Lodge, Smith plays a set of music, and he always starts out with good ol’ 1-3-0-1.
Smith prefers to stand at the end of the bar, next to Larry Fox, who’s almost always on the last barstool. But sometimes on Thursdays, Fox arrives too late to claim his favorite seat. Thursday, you see, is the day Larry goes downtown to gamble. If he does well, he sometimes stays later.
Routine is the staple at the Moose Lodge.
Fox drinks Bud Light, and Smith has scotch and water. Today, they are talking about a shared experience: They didn’t know each other at the time, but they both attended the first show at the South Shore Room inside Harrah’s Lake Tahoe. The headliner was Red Skelton. Fox attended the dinner show with his wife. Smith, who installed the room’s red-and-green carpet, was given complimentary tickets.
“I still have Red Skelton’s autograph on the ticket sub,” Fox says. “Back then, it was inexpensive ” 40 or 50 bucks included our dinner, and we had to buy our drinks.”
“It was a good show,” Smith said. “It was funny; I remember him (Skelton) always combing his hair after he’d tell a joke.”
Smith said he installed the South Shore Room carpet twice. After the first time, the builder realized a design flaw. The tiers weren’t high enough, leaving would-be patrons in the back looking at the backs of people’s heads.
He’s not a Moose member and did not go to that first show, but Gary Zascoda has plenty of stories about the South Shore Room. The stage manager began working there in 1967.
“When the Olympics came to Squaw Valley, Bill Harrah said, ‘We need a show room,’ ” Zascoda said. “They worked around the clock and opened December 1959. Jayne Mansfield handed out Harrah’s bags and dice at the Games.”
The list of some of the entertainers who performed that first year is impressive: Nat King Cole, Bob Newhart, Peggy Lee, Liberace, Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Durante, George Burns, Jack Benny, Benny Goodman, Andy WIlliams, Guy Lombardo, Johnny Mathis and Diana Shore.
On the walls behind the stage is a collection of postcards with the entertainers who would perform two-week stands. Virtually every big name from the 1960s is there, and they usually had just traveled from Los Angeles, where they had appeared on the “Tonight Show,” giving Harrah’s free publicity.
Zascoda recalls Bob Dylan’s appearance. He was instructed to not say anything to the mercurial singer. Zascoda still seems awestruck describing how he saw Dylan walk up the stairs just before his show. As he was told, Zascoda kept his distance, standing with his hands clasped behind his back. Dylan examined the postcards for several minutes before turning to Zascoda and asking, “What was it like to work with Lawrence Welk?”
Welk, the stage manager said, was so popular, a third show was added to the regular dinner and cocktail shows. But the altitude got to Welk, who was exhausted after that third show. Harrah’s decided to go back to two shows a night after that.
Who was Zascoda’s all-time favorite?
“Sammy, by far,” he said. “The real Sammy, not (Hagar). He was the consummate entertainer. He had a special relationship with Bill Harrah and would often play long, which he didn’t like because he wanted the people out gambling.”
Sammy Davis Jr., who died of throat cancer, performed his last nightclub show in the South Shore Room. Before the performance, Davis’ scratchy voice addressed the stage manager.
“Don’t believe everything you read,” he said. “I’ll be back.”
And then there’s Willie Nelson, who, instead of staying in the hotel, preferred the privacy of his tour bus.
To Zascoda’s chagrin, Nelson did not show up when it was time for him to go on. Zascoda frantically searched the casino floor, where he discovered Nelson wandering around with his guitar.
“Mr. Nelson, I’m the stage manager,” Zascoda said.
“Oh, hi,” Nelson said. “How do you get there, anyway?”