William Fisk Harrah was born September 2, 1911 in South Pasadena, California. He worked at his father's concessions at Venice Beach, California before moving to Reno, Nevada where he built the most successful casino company in the world. He experienced heart-related health issues the final ten years of his life and died at the age of 66 during an operation to repair an aortic aneurysm, June 30, 1978. Harrah's casinos were quickly sold to Holiday Inn.Harrah's Early Life
Although Bill’s father favored education and was himself a lawyer, Bill never finished his studies in mechanical engineering at UCLA where he was a member of the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity. Instead, he worked at the family’s businesses along the boardwalk at Venice Beach in Southern California. The hot dog stand and shooting gallery were steady earners, but the Circle game earned more than both combined when it was in full operation.
In the Circle or Reno game, players rolled small rubber balls down a ramp to light a suit and four card numbers, trying to match the “winning” sequence in a group, similar to bingo. Unfortunately, the local sheriff’s office considered the game to be gambling and it was shut-down each year at election time. Because of this, John Harrah refused to put any money into upgrading the facilities, so Bill offered his father $500 for the business. His father accepted and the younger Harrah fired the shills in the game, bought new drapes, new stools, and upped his prizes. Business increased immediately.
By 1937, Robert Ring was running the Reno Game for Bill while he scouted the actual town of Reno, Nevada for a place to set up shop in a legal climate. Harrah found a small building at 124 N. Center Street near successful casinos like the Bank Club and the Palace Clubs. Harrah changed the name from the Owl Club to Harrah’s Club Bingo and opened on October 30. It snowed every day, keeping players away, and Harrah gave up on his new venture on November 15, an inauspicious start to his gaming ventures, but he was learning how the game worked in his new home town.
He met with the local fraternity of senior gaming advisers, Nick Abelman, Bill Graham and Jim McKay, and waited to be accepted. Eventually, respected ex-bootlegger Cal Custer, a long-time customer of John Harrah's law firm and previous owner of Nick Abelman’s Stateline Country Club casino stood up for Bill and his partners. After an exchange of cash, the new business ventures were given the green light.
Income from the Circle Game back in California allowed Bill and Rob Ring to reopen down the street at 14 E. Commercial Row. The new Harrah’s Tango (bingo) Club was a success, and the upgrades to the interior and the heating system for guest comfort would become a hallmark of the Harrah business philosophy.Reno Partner Virgil Smith
Virgil Smith, who ran the gaming at Colbrandt’s and the Wine House next door, became a friend and financial supporter who helped Bill move into better quarters on N. Virginia Street where he joined the Reno Club and Harold’s Club. His move was just in time as an influx of service men from the nearby town of Stead and those traveling from the San Francisco Bay Area created a boom town for local casinos during the Second World War. Players could find craps, blackjack, Chuck-a-luck, faro, roulette, and plenty of silver Pace slot machines featuring a smiling sultan on a magic carpet on the spinning reels at Harrah’s casinos.Harrah’s casino on Virginia Street expanded backwards across the alley and onto Center Street where it took over several small clubs, including the Bonanza, recently owned my Wilbur Clark, who made his way to Las Vegas as Meyer Lansky’s front man at the Desert Inn. It was reopened as Harrah’s Bingo in 1953, complete with beautiful wood work, fancy lighting, and colorful carpeting. He was a highly exacting manager, but allowed his shift managers a great deal of authority and didn’t interfere with day-to-day operations.