Unlike excursions to Primm and Laughlin, visiting The Biggest Little City In The World is no day trip. Reno is more than 400 miles away from Vegas, and there’s not a whole lot in between. Even so, it remains an essential destination for many vacationers who don’t want to miss anything when they visit Nevada. Alternatively, we’ve heard of people planning to skip Vegas altogether and substitute in Reno as the focal point for their gambling when planning vacations. After all, one city full of casinos is just as good as another, right?
If the numbers are any indication, the answer is no. With approximately 40 million visitors each year, Las Vegas tourism dwarfs Reno’s four million. Reno’s casinos do roughly $600 million in annual revenue. The Boulder Strip alone tops that number, and Las Vegas proper exceeds $6 billion each year. Outpaced by the revenue brought in by places like Tunica and The Poconos, Reno doesn’t even rank among the top 15 US gaming markets. Reno may be small time by today’s standards, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, Reno was once the top gambling destination in the country.
Long before Las Vegas earned its “Sin City” moniker, Reno held the title. In 1931, seeking to boost a struggling Great Depression-era economy, Nevada lawmakers legalized both gambling and quick (by ‘30s standards) divorce. At the time, divorce in most states took more than a year and could involve significant time in court. Divorce in Nevada required little more than a six-week stay. Hotels and boardinghouses catered to divorce seekers, and business flourished. Reno made national headlines as celebrities began residing in town in order to take advantage of the liberal separation option. Paulette Goddard divorced Charlie Chaplin. Gloria Vanderbilt left Pat DiCicco. Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey split from Estelle Taylor. Covering these stories became so important that the New York Daily News hired a full-time Reno correspondent. The celebrity spotlight put Reno in the minds of the working class and cemented its reputation as the nation’s divorce capital.
As divorce seekers from around the country took up home in Reno to wait out their six weeks, newly opened casinos were ready to entertain. The city’s nightclubs and brothels also saw increased business and, with the end of Prohibition near, Reno was becoming an adult playground, all while garnering both national admiration and outrage. Several newspapers launched a campaign aimed at canceling Nevada’s statehood. Reno Mayor E. E. Roberts laughed off the attempts to legislate morality, stating “you cannot legislate morals into people, any more than you can legislate love into the hearts of some professed Christians.” The people of Reno, and visitors from across the nation, agreed.
Gambling in Reno took off in the late ‘30s and ‘40s. Places like the Bank Club and Nevada Club introduced table games and slots to the public. Harold’s Club, which operated on property later acquired by Harrah’s, paved the way for the themed casinos that would develop in Las Vegas. The casino’s extensive cowboy theme was anchored by a collection of guns and other western memorabilia that could be accessed at no charge. Its owners loved to tinker with new ideas. It was the first casino to introduce female dealers, pioneered the concept of match play, started the first casino credit office, and even created new games like “mouse roulette.” The game was as simple as it sounds. Instead of a ball, a mouse would decide the winning number by entering a corresponding hole. The game was pulled after gamblers found they could get an edge by startling the mouse with loud noises.
In 1942, Reno received a further influx of visitors as a result of World War II. Stead Air Force Base opened just north of the city and brought with it thousands of men armed with readily available cash. When the war came to an end, many recalled the fun they had while in Reno and returned. They brought with them a desire to play a game they picked up overseas and soon blackjack became the preferred table at which to wager.
The Reno that is known by visitors today got its start in 1946. Bill Harrah, who had previously operated a series of bingo parlors with varying success, opened Harrah’s Club. Harrah’s eschewed the novelties and themes that made places like Harold’s successful. Instead, Harrah’s relied upon the talents of professional entertainers to draw a crowd. The nearby Mapes Hotel, opened in 1947, also took this approach. Reno became a hot spot for entertainment, eventually bringing in stars like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
Throughout the ‘40s and into the ‘50s, Reno thrived. The city reveled in its booming casino business, steady divorce industry, and expanding entertainment sector. By all accounts, Reno’s growth seemed unstoppable. So, what happened?
In part two of our special report, we discover how a barren patch of road in the southern Nevada desert managed to steal Reno’s thunder and why the Reno of today is the inverse of everything Las Vegas. Read it here.