With a single pull of fifty-two cards, Ellie Begley, 96, is taken back to a time when downtown Reno was a much different place.
“There were 35,000 people in 1950 and everything was on Virginia Street. Everything,” Begley said.
At that time, one casino dominated the social and gaming scene.
“From Boston to Reno, every state had a sign: Harold’s Club or bust, Harold’s Club or bust. There wasn’t another Harold’s Club and there never will be,” Begley said.
When brothers Harold Sr. and Raymond Smith opened the club in 1935, gambling was considered a man’s game, set inside a smoke-filled parlor.
“We had people with money.
If they came in from out of state or out of country, it was Harold’s Club,” Begley said.
By the time Begley joined the staff in 1955, the Smith family, led by the brother’s father, Pappy, had reinvented the status quo.
“Come to Harold’s Club, you’re going to have fun,” Steve Ellison with the Historic Reno Preservation Society said.
“They were the first club to allow ladies to deal, so they absolutely paved the way for every other operator in the state and country.”
After stumbling across a book regarding Harold’s Club, Ellison became engrossed with Smith family history.
“Other clubs in town actually borrowed from the Smith family’s ideas.
Bill Harrah took the best of the Smith family and incorporated it into his own business, John Ascuaga did the same.
They would come into the club and look at the Smith’s in awe,” Ellison said.
“We all started on change, everybody.
That proves your honesty, your personality and I was on change for six months,” Begley said.
It wasn’t long before Begley proved she had exactly what the Smiths were looking for and was invited out of the change cage to deal blackjack on the seventh floor, reserved for VIPs.
“I was there thirty-one years, ten years up on the seventh floor.
You could only go there if the Smith’s wanted you, and if you didn’t like it, tough.
If you said you didn’t want to be up there they’d tell you to grab your purse and we’ll see you another time,” Begley said.
From Liberace to Louie Armstrong, Begley dealt blackjack to some of the biggest names in show business.
“I love Louie Armstrong because he was a character, but he had a lousy voice – he really did.
There was one time he was asked to sing 'Hello Dolly' ten times in a row and by the end he said, ‘Get the hell out of here, I can sing another tune,'” Begley said.
During the thirty-five years the Smiths ran the club, Harold’s wasn’t only the place to be seen, it was THE place to work.
“The Smith family literally gave away millions of dollars to the community.
They paid for employee’s hospital bills, funerals and a lot of this wasn’t widely known,” Ellison said.
“Why wouldn’t you want to work at a place like that?” Begley said with a smile.
As good as times were for the casino and staff, each year that came and went brought the worry of what would happen to the club when Pappy was no longer there to run the day to day operations.
“We all knew when he died, that was it - and it was,” Begley said.
In 1967, Pappy Smith passed away at the age of 80, leaving Harold Sr. in charge.
The club lasted three years before the family was forced to sell to Las Vegas Casino operator, Howard Hughes.
“He didn’t want to run the club by himself and it was no secret Senior was a constant gambler.
He untimely had no choice but to sell the club,” Ellison said.
The club stayed open for twenty-nine more years, during which time Hughes sold to Bill Harrah.
In December of 1999, the casino was demolished to make room for an open plaza in front of Harrah’s casino.
Harrah’s bought the property and there’s not even a little sign, ‘Here stood Harold’s Club,’ because everybody who knows Reno, knows Harold’s Club,” Begley said.
Now a deck of cards and a quick shuffle are all that’s left to bring back a lifetime of memories.
“You had to be around when it was going because that’s the only way to see what we’re trying to say.
It was a unique place, it was a special place and I’m very, very lucky,” Begley said.