The quiet storm Bill Harrah changed the face of gaming — very quietly. Why aren’t we celebrating this unassuming innovator?
E by steve friess
Even in his day, Bill Harrah was an enigma. He was at once omnipresent, innovative and vain — as well as awkward, reserved and milquetoast. He loomed as large over the gaming industry and the state of Nevada as Steve Wynn or Moe Dalitz ever did, and yet he was no one’s idea of a force of nature, nobody’s best friend, no one you would have been all that excited to meet. This conundrum may go a long way to explaining why it is that, despite having his name on more casinos than anybody else in history, there will be little fanfare to commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday on Sept. 2. His original property, now known as Harrah’s Reno, is offering gambling tournaments and a special concert series, displaying some of his classic cars in the casino and gifting commemorative gaming chips to high rollers, but beyond that, you’d have to be a fairly astute student of gambling history to even know an occasion was passing. “It’s a business that’s not as devoted to history as it should be,” says Dave Schwartz, director for the Center For Gaming Research at University of Nevada at Las Vegas and author of “Roll The Bones: The History of Gambling.” “A lot of the casinos don’t really want to remind you they’ve been around a long time, which seems incongruous to me because, hey, you’ve got longevity.” Carpet, keno and eyes in the sky And not just longevity for longevity’s
sake, either. The list of casino-industry innovations implemented by Harrah, who died at 66
Bill Harrah, right, with his father, John Harrah, outside Harrah’s Bingo Club, circa 1959
What the heck happened to Atlantic City? Hear the tale on “KNPR’s State of Nevada” at www.desertcompanion.com/hearmore
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Photos Courtesy of UNLV SPECIAL collections