Raymond I. "Pappy" Smith, one of the foremost pioneers of Nevada gaming, and his son Harold Smith Sr. were the two men chiefly responsible for the creation of Harolds Club. Harolds was one of the first modern American casinos, and it put Nevada gaming on the national and even international map.
Pappy was born April 30, 1887, in Addison, Vermont. He grew up on a struggling family farm near Lake Champlain, and in 1906 married the first of his five wives, Dora Mae Pigeon, age sixteen. They eked out a living in the dairy business, and their first child, Raymond Alonzo Smith, was born July 3, 1907. But the couple grew tired of the endless work and pitiful profit of the farm, and Smith looked longingly at the county fairs. He thought being a pitchman promised a far better life. So in 1908 he moved his young family to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and soon bought an old roulette wheel from his landlord, a former pitchman himself.
Carnival games did not immediately provide a solid income either, and for several years Smith worked odd jobs in the off season after following the summer fairs from the Rockies to the Northeast. But he learned the trade, and especially that honest games made more money than crooked ones and when people won, the games drew more customers. He also discovered that a personable pitchman could attract and hold a crowd, so he talked loud and fast and entertained with anything he could think of, including hog calls, all of which came naturally to his outgoing nature.
The family moved to Denver, Colorado, and on February 23, 1910, their second son, Harold, was born. Dora began working with her husband, and the family became almost as itinerant as he was. But by 1918 this existence took its toll on the marriage, and Dora left him for another man. In 1920 the divorced Smith headed for California and for the next fifteen years operated carnival games in the north, including San Francisco and Santa Cruz. As his sons grew, they joined him during the summer and then permanently, although eventually Raymond A. entered banking.
But in the mid-thirties, the state of California began cracking down on carnival games, so Harold decided to try his luck in Nevada, which had legalized gambling in 1931. His father loaned him a small amount of money, and Harold opened Harolds Club in a tiny space in Reno. The date was February 23, 1935, Harold's twenty-fifth birthday. Raymond A. soon joined him because during the Great Depression he could not find a banking job. Then, with the club losing money, their father came aboard as general manager, but not as an owner. For many years, the only owners would be Harold with two-thirds and Raymond A. with one-third.
Over the next two decades, a friendly atmosphere, numerous gaming innovations, and inspired advertising created one of the largest and most profitable casinos in Nevada. The innovations included chatty, helpful dealers; large numbers of women dealers; an emphasis on slot machines as well as table games; handouts to big losers; a themed casino emphasizing the Old West; and intense promotion, including the famed billboards saying "Harolds Club or Bust" erected across the world. Although the club was named after Harold, most of the public credit for its success went to his father, and it is generally believed that the majority of innovations originated with him.
Outside Harolds, Pappy was equally prominent. For instance, the roadside ads he funded in California played a significant role in convincing the federal government to build the I-80 freeway over the Sierra Nevada mountains. When the freeway opened in 1964, it helped the casinos by making Reno more accessible in winter, but it also delighted travelers in general because they no longer had to crawl over the Sierra behind trucks belching diesel smoke on a winding two-lane road.
Pappy was never reluctant to take credit. A close friend is quoted in Pappy's biography, Harolds Club or Bust!, as saying that Pappy would give speeches saying how good he was and never mention Harold. When it came time for awards and praise, they went to Pappy, not Harold. For instance, in 1965 the Reno Chamber of Commerce created the Raymond I. Smith Civic Leader of the Year award, and honored Pappy as the first recipient. Bob Ring, president of Harrah's, called him the father of Nevada gaming.
After Pappy's death years later, Reno staged a Pappy Smith Parade.
Harold was outgoing and likeable, but many employees seem to have liked Pappy better, possibly because of Harold's mood swings. Men and women alike loved Pappy's enthusiasm and friendliness. Longtime employee Don Orlich said Pappy "created a loyalty to the club that I don't think you would see anywhere else in the industry." However, Harold had his supporters, and employees considered themselves "Pappy's man" or "Harold's man."
Pappy's prominence must have troubled his son greatly. Constantly living in his father's shadow might have helped lead to the long alcoholic binges that plagued Harold in midlife. So when Harold published his autobiography, I Want to Quit Winners, in 1961, it might have been an attempt to make people appreciate his own role in the club's success. He portrays himself as very much his own man and an expert professional gambler. He even includes advice on how to play table games to the best advantage. He makes surprisingly few references to his father in relation to the club years, and almost always with a criticism or complaint, such as writing that "he, or the thought of him, was responsible for some of my biggest losses." Often Harold tries to soften this criticism by saying he loves Pappy or that "there is no other man I should rather have had for a father." On the surface this softening sounds unconvincing, but it could well demonstrate deeply divided feelings that Harold could never resolve.
But the father was equally troubled by his son. Pappy worried not just about the drinking but about Harold's penchant for big-time gambling. Pappy fretted that someday Harold's debts might ruin not just him but the club. So it is not surprising that, according to those who were there, the two men argued frequently. In fact, the Smiths seemed to have been argumentative in general; Roy Powers, head of advertising and public relations, recalls numerous embarrassing fights at board meetings between Pappy, Harold, Raymond A., and Harold Jr., who apparently chafed under his father's rule just as his father chafed under Pappy's.
Pappy's and Harold's strained relationship was also evident in the decision to change the name of Harold's son Raymond to Harold Jr. Some Smith family members say Harold himself ordered the change because he was mad at his father, for whom the boy was named. But Diane Smith, Harold's daughter and the boy's half sister, said it was assumed that the change was "Junior's" idea to make him more like his father. In any event, the name was changed and Harold's son became Jr. while Harold himself became Sr.
The Smith family and employees seem divided over who was most responsible for the club's success. In a University of Nevada oral history, Harold's daughter Diane says the club was her father's and "he was the one who came up with all the ideas." She says Pappy was a better manager because he was better organized, "but it was Daddy's innovative ideas and his flamboyancy and his risk taking and his gambling that made Harolds Club what it was." In other oral histories, 1940s dealers say Harold, not Pappy, was on the floor most of the time (Harold learned to deal every game, while Pappy never did). Employee Les Kofoed says Harold created the entertainment philosophy, including the seventh floor Fun Room; and employee Dan Orlich says Pappy ran the club but mainly as a promoter while Harold was the casino man. Orlich remarks, "…when people say that without Pappy there wouldn't have been a Harolds Club…I don't think that's true. Harold and Raymond were very important, and Dorothy was also very instrumental in putting Harolds Club on the map.” Pappy's daughter Twyila says that while Pappy might have been domineering, Harold's "extreme mood swings and bouts with depression and alcoholism" forced Pappy to be in charge "since at times Harold was non-functioning." Two of Harold's daughters say Harold was manic-depressive.
In any event, Harold suffered an overpowering blow when he returned from a two-year stint in the Army at the end of World War II. He learned that his wife Dorothy had been seeing officers from the nearby air base and had lost interest in him. On January 20, 1947, after fifteen years of marriage, she divorced him, and he gave her half his share in the club, or one-third of the total.
Even as a young man, Harold had liked to gamble, but now he descended into a decade-long binge of heavy gambling and drinking. While this binge was caused directly by his wife's desertion, it might well have been exacerbated by the inadequacy he felt with his father. In his autobiography, he discusses his drinking frankly although insisting he was not an alcoholic, and he portrays his gambling not as a weakness but as a positive talent at which he was very good. During this time he continued his duties at the club.
Through all of this, the Smiths exhibited a profound spirit of generosity. It was not just that they returned hundreds of thousands of dollars to heavy losers or that they funded numerous charitable activities, including fireworks displays, concerts, and university scholarships. Every Christmas they hosted a twenty-four-hour party for their employees at Harolds Gun Club. Also at Christmas, Harold personally drove around and gave stuffed animals to children in poor neighborhoods. The Smiths paid for any number of surgeries for the needy and desperate. On a personal level, they seemed to hold no grudges. When Pappy's first wife Dora became permanently hospitalized with no memory of their past, he frequently took her for a ride in his car. And for several years, Harold paid the medical bills for his second ex-wife, Lois, as she unsuccessfully battled cancer.
On December 15, 1959, Pappy bought Dorothy's share and finally became an owner of Harolds Club. When the Smiths sold the club property to the Webbel Corporation in a lease-back arrangement in 1962, Harold and Pappy each took 48 percent ownership while Raymond A.'s share fell to 4 percent.
Pappy died May 24, 1967, of prostate cancer, and Harold Sr. began drinking heavily again. Harold began to run up huge gambling debts, and while there is some disagreement as to whether this forced the sale of the club, several family members said that was indeed the cause. On the other hand, Harold's daughter Diane speculated that Harold didn't want to run the club without his old nemesis, and Harold's attorney, Jack Streeter, agreed that Harold just wanted to get out. In any event, after the Howard Hughes Corporation took control in June 1970, Harold continued to gamble to such an extent that he agreed to let Streeter become trustee of his money. He died on October 21, 1985, four years after Pappy was named Grandfather of Gaming during the fiftieth anniversary celebration of legalized gambling in Nevada.
Long after both men were dead, Pappy continued to gather the honors that eluded his son. As the twenty-first century approached, a panel of historians and civic leaders named Pappy one of the twenty most influential northern Nevadans of the twentieth century. And in a 2004 book, They Made America, author Harold Evans chose Pappy as one of the fifty-two greatest American innovators.
None at this time.