SPARKS, Nev., July 17 -- I can't believe I missed Bertha the Elephant. For years I'd heard stories about John Ascuaga's Nugget in Reno, last of the old-style down-home western casinos, and the big attraction was Bertha the Elephant and her showgirl act.
Bertha and her younger assistant, Angel, lived in the Nugget parking lot all day, where tourists came to meet them, But then she did two supper shows a night when she was not traveling for her guest shots on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Alas, Bertha died in 1999 at the tender age of 55, and I was too late. John Ascuaga didn't even consider continuing the show with another elephant. Angel was sent to the Fort Worth Zoo, where she still lives and now the showroom is ruled by more traditional beasts -- Roy Clark, Boz Skaggs, Charo.
"Bertha did things that no other elephant could be trained to do," says Mike Greenan, public relations man for the Nugget, "so the show really couldn't be replaced."
A lot of things have passed away since the Nugget's heyday. The Nugget was a 60-seat coffee shop with a few slot machines when Dick Graves opened it in 1955. He was a restaurant owner from Idaho who decided to flee there when the state outlawed slots.
He brought John Ascuaga with him as general manager. The two men chose the little railroad town of Sparks, three miles from Reno, because they weren't primarily in the gambling business. They simply recreated three of their Idaho restaurants-cum-slots -- the other two were in Reno and Carson City -- and kept on going. After a few months they closed the Reno and Carson City operations and settled on Sparks. The main reason: no other casinos for miles.
But Gates and Ascuaga had arrived in Reno -- well, three miles outside Reno -- just at the end of its golden era, when it had not yet been surpassed by Vegas as the state's gambling capital, and so they got the building fever.
Unlike Vegas, Reno was not mobbed up and certainly not infested with eastern money. There were two big players in town. The world famous Harold's Club, owned by Pappy Smith, had a saloon atmosphere and was the kind of place where the Smith family would sometimes mount up and ride their horses through the gaming area, just to stir things up.
Harrah's, not yet a mega-corporation, was still run by Bill Harrah himself, and his big promotion was the world's largest classic car collection. (The collection is still there, but when the company passed out of the family, it shrank from 2,600 cars to a mere 200.) It was Bill Harrah, in fact, who instilled in Ascuaga his simple philosophy for running a gambling joint -- putting out cheap abundant food, giving the players MOST of what they want, and being loyal to your entertainers.
In those days Reno was run by flamboyant cowboys. Even the easterners who landed there became cowboys. Even the politicians who had never been on a horse ACTED like cowboys. So the Nugget grew like a jimson weed in April, thanks to its informal western-oriented theme.
To this day its biggest single event is the "Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off," which attracted 280,000 people last Labor Day weekend.
The 76-year-old Ascuaga is himself a rancher, commuting from his Jacks Valley spread south of Carson City, and his meat-packing plant supplies many of the casinos and restaurants in Nevada.
The Nugget was family entertainment before the term was invented, and, unlike Vegas during the same period, you never had to have a tux or a pinky ring to feel comfortable playing there. It's still that way today. Only clean acts are booked into the showroom. (Ascuaga was close friends with Red Skelton, whose career went into decline as soon as the irreverent hip comedy of the Smothers Brothers and "Saturday Night Live" came along. His clean act successors, Jeff Foxworthy and David Brenner, are regulars in the showroom.) A typical convention booking at the Nugget is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
In fact, to show you just how family the Nugget is, a show just closed called "A Wunnerful, A Wunnerful," featuring "stars from The Lawrence Welk Show" (presumably the ones that are still alive).
"A Wunnerful, A Wunnerful" may be one of the cheesiest names ever invented, even by the standards of casino production shows, but it gives you some idea of the Hokum Quotient I'm talking about here.
And Ascuaga comes by it honestly. He's a silver-haired, silver-suited, glad-handing icon who's so famous for his Northern California commercials that he's mobbed by fans when he attends San Francisco Giants games. Every May he presides over the Nugget Scholarship Awards, a 45-year tradition in which the top high school students in northern Nevada are inducted into a Hall of Fame that is available for viewing just off the lobby. (It's the kind of thing you would normally expect to find in a rural bank.)
He likes old car shows and rodeos and strawberry festivals. He reminds me of one of those grinning Route 66 tourist-trap proprietors from the fifties: "Stop at John's!" "Eat All You Can!" "See the Elephant!"
And, in fact, when the Nugget first opened, it was on a strip of old Route 40 that was a lot LIKE Route 66. A few of the funky little tourist courts can be found on the overdeveloped road into Reno, but most of that stuff is gone.
There are two other small casinos in Sparks --Dotty's Casino, which uses the original Nugget building, and the Silver Club Hotel -- but they're enveloped by the huge shadow cast by the empire that John built, and B Street has become malled, pedestrianized, landscaped, and otherwise stripped of its tackiness. It didn't survive quite long enough to become retro.
When Interstate 80 was built through Sparks, it threatened to cut off the Nugget's capacity to expand, so Ascuaga made a deal with the highway department. He was allowed to extend his casino UNDERNEATH the new highway. Notice those handsome columns in Trader Dick's restaurant near the 60,000-gallon aquarium? They're actually piers holding up the freeway. And most people come and go without ever noticing that a major interstate runs right over the place.
And speaking of Trader Dick's, it looks suspiciously like Trader VIC's, the very first Polynesian restaurant, founded in Oakland in the thirties by a colorful one-legged bartender named Vic Bergeron.
In 1958, when Trader Dick's opened, Trader Vic's was one of the most famous restaurants in the world, with branches in five-star hotels all over the country. Vic Bergeron was not amused by Trader Dick's and so he sued the Nugget, but Gates and Ascuaga prevailed, at least in part because Gates was known as Dick. Today Trader Vic's has about 30 restaurants around the world, but Bergeron always had a bad taste in his mouth after the lawsuit and never opened one in Reno.
But that wasn't even the Nugget's most notorious steal. At some time in the late fifties -- and no one is giving out details here -- Ascuaga and Gates ended up with the original recipe for Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken. (Stay in the gambling business long enough, a few things float into your hands.) Thinking that might be something worth exploiting, they opened the Golden Rooster Room, which sounds fancier than it was. It was a fried chicken buffet.
And to promote it they commissioned an actual golden rooster. This was an 18-karat gold statue of a rooster that San Francisco artist Frank Polk worked on for four months, to be unveiled at the opening of the new restaurant. But in December 1958 U.S. Treasury Agents showed up and confiscated it, charging that the Nugget was in violation of the Gold Reserve Act. That act held that a private individual was not allowed to possess more than 50 ounces of gold "unless it is in the form of an object of art."
The agents scoffed as Ascuaga's assertion that the rooster WAS an object of art.
The casino formally protested, a magistrate returned the rooster, and for a year and a half the matter was dropped. Then in July 1960 Treasury agents showed up again and handed the owners a complaint entitled "United States of America vs. One Solid Gold Object in the Form of a Rooster."
The rooster was seized and held for two years.
"The rooster's in jail," Ascuaga told everyone.
And then, at a jury trial in March 1962, ten men and two women declared the rooster a work of art and it was freed to return to the Golden Rooster Room, where it remained until 1987, when the Golden Rooster Room was dismantled to make way for an expansion of ... Trader Dick's!
Today the rooster sits in a special glass case near the check-in desk.
And all I've got to say is: Judging by the language of the official lawsuit, the number of photographers present at the seizure, the behavior of the lawyers at the trial, and the fact that the golden rooster, even today, is only valued at about $60,000, I would have to say that Dick Gates and John Ascuaga had a lot of good friends down at the federal courthouse. They did things like that in those days. I miss 'em. 0-
JOHN ASCUAGA'S NUGGET
Theme: We're on the Fun Bus Now
Total investment: $130 million
Known for: Restaurants. John Ascuaga is a foodie and is especially proud of John's Oyster bar, Trader Dick's, and the $3 million gourmet Restaurante Orozko, which has never turned much of a profit but he holds on anyway. The most famous meal served at the Nugget is the Awful Awful Hamburger.
Marketing niche: Northern California drive-ins, locals, conventions.
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Medium
Surrounding area: Interstate 80 and downtown Sparks, which consists of two much smaller casinos and a 14-screen movie theater. Amtrak's famous California Zephyr, connecting Chicago and San Francisco, stops at the hotel twice a day.
Overall rating: 81
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $30 after 90 minutes of Let It Ride: total to date: +$56 0- Email Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.commailto:JoeBob@upi.comor visit Joe Bob's website at Joebob-briggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.