William Fisk Harrah and His Gambling Empire

He was a college dropout, a former carnival barker and Bingo operator who looked like a haberdasher. Some thought he resembled Harry Truman.

Whatever his background, William Fisk Harrah was destined to achieve gambling greatness. Born in Pasadena, CA. on Sept. 2, 1911, he dropped out of college where he was studying mechanical engineering and went to work for his father, an attorney, small-town politician, and entrepreneur.

Bill worked in the family's pool hall, hot dog stand, shooting gallery and Bingo operation. He learned how to deal with the public and how to count money -- to important traits when you run a casino.

California law made it illegal to operate a Bingo hall for profit. Harrah's father gave the legislation a close reading and decided if he added a variation to Bingo that would require a small skill to play the game, he could operate legally and make money.

The city prosecutor didn't agree with him. He shut down the Reno game the elder Harrah had recreated. When the lawyer stubbornly re-opened the game, the prosecutor shut him down again.

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Finally, in frustration, the attorney closed his operation. Bill offered his dad $500 for the business and said, 'I can make it work.' Shaking his head with a smile, the senior Harrah handed over the reins to the business.

Bill Harrah was 20 years old. The first year, he made $25,000 with his Reno game. The second year, he earned $50,000. Then he took his money and traveled to Reno, Nevada where he opened up a small Bingo room with slots at 124 N. Center St.

Two months later, after Reno was socked with unusually cold weather that brought blizzards and heavy snow, young Harrah closed down his operation and moved his location to 242 N. Virgina St., where the original Harrah's Casino was built.

He believed in going first class and spent a lot of money on improving the looks of the casino, including carpeting. Harrah brought in all the table games -- dice, roulette, baccarat and poker.

A lifelong fanatic when it came to driving and cars, he began collecting and restoring old cars, including a 1911 Maxwell. Eventually he would own one of the largest antique auto collections in the world, more than 1,400 vehicles restored to as near perfection as he could make them.

A perfectionist, Harrah was good at not over-managing his casino. He delegated authority to his supervisors and they made him money. A lot of money. Harrah started up other casinos in the area, including one at beautiful Lake Tahoe, about an hour's drive from Reno.

Bill Harrah was an innovator who didn't mind taking chances. He became the first casino owner in Reno to hire female dealers. And he also booked black acts for his showrooms. After Harrah and Sammy Davis Jr. became close friends, he named his main theater at Harrah's Reno Sammy's Show Room. Another good friend and regular performer in his casinos was Bill Cosby.

A good student of human nature, he realized women preferred slots to the other gambling games and made sure his casinos always had a good variety of slot machines to offer the public. He used meters to track their play and came up with one of the first rewards cards in Nevada. The meters would award points according to the amount of play his customers gave the machines, and the points could be exchanged for sets of golf clubs, television sets and other gifts.

Not an exceptionally handsome man, Bill Harrah was a good dresser and made himself look exceptional in his casinos. He traveled to Italy at least once a year on a clothing shopping spree and would have his suits and ties made by Brioni.

Harrah had two weaknesses -- boats and women.

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He owned a private yacht built by George Whittell and named the Thunderbird. The sleek vessel was powered by twin 550-hp engines and the boat could reach a top speed of 60 miles per hour.

Harrah had many lavish parties on the yacht. His guests ranged from Sammy Davis Jr. to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. And of course there were girls. Harrah would invite some of the most beautiful show girls in Reno to go with them on their moonlight champagne cruises to nowhere.

When it came to women, Harrah led with his heart rather than his head. He was married seven times. One of his wives was singer Bobby Gentry who recorded a smash hit, 'Ode To Billy Jo.'

Born in the Mississippi delta country, Bobby wrote many of the songs she recorded. She also designed and made her own clothing.

Harrah was impressed with her singing as well as her appearance. He invited her for an extended run of performances at his Reno club and paid her top dollar. When he contract expired, he hired her back for an even bigger weekly salary.

They became friends and Harrah spent many evenings dining with the sultry vocalist at Reno's best restaurants. After he and his fourth wife were divorced, Harrah impulsively asked her to marry him. He was 58. She had just turned 25.

She accepted.

The couple had two homes, one in Reno and the other in Los Angeles where Bobbie Gentry recorded her music, made movies and appeared on top television shows hosted by Glen Campbell, Johnny Carson and Johnny Cash.

After three months of being married, Bobbie wanted out. There were various reasons but they boiled out to the age difference and the fact that Bobbie did not want to be tied down to any geographic area. Surprisingly, Harrah agreed to the divorce. He even paid her a $3.5 million settlement. They stayed friends after their divorce and remained friendly for the rest of Harrah's life.

After she moved back to Los Angeles, Bobbie continued making her appearances on America's top television shows. She also hosted her own weekly CBS television show, 'The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour.'

She used part of the cash settlement to invest in the Phoenix Suns basketball team. She also bought some real estate in southern California and retired from show business in good shape financially.

“'I can make it work”

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    catapultaudio

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    Two weaknesses - boats and women! Anybody want to hazard a guess at which of these two vices cost our good friend the most over the course of his addiction??? Still, all jokes aside its fascinating to hear about where the 'Harrahs' brand came from, I'd been totally ignorant up til this point so thx LCB.
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    pinkxxx

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    This was an interesting story and one I didn't know . My mother lives in Lake Tahoe and for years I would go visit and we would go to Harrahs casino everyday . She knows all the cooks and staff and asks them to make specialty items when we visit . Ive always liked the atmosphere of the casino the slots play well also . The main casino I hang out at when I visit Tahoe . Nice to know the history behind how it got started .

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