Lenin, windjammers and volcanoes: musings on things past

What do Vladimir Lenin, a windjammer and a volcano have in common?  Not much you might say, but in the gaming industry they are exactly the same thing, the same concept dressed in different clothes. Over the course of its modern history, the casino industry has attracted its share of unique characters and bizarre ideas.  In the early days of legal gambling in Nevada, gamblers from around the country who had wearied of being hassled by local law enforcement officers moved to Nevada to ply their trade legally.  Because they had operated outside of the law, they were by definition outsiders and by some people’s way of thinking criminals.  However, when they got to Nevada they became honest businessmen – licensed and regulated by the state – and, they played by the rules.  Still many of those early gamblers were cut from a different cloth than the rest of us.  They lived by their wits, calculating the odds in their heads, avoiding the law with their feet and enticing and teasing gamblers with tantalizing offers.

Early on, they learned the game was not always enough to attract gamblers; they needed a hook, a gimmick; hook is the more polite term, but gimmick may be the more accurate one.  The industry has changed a great deal since those early days, but one thing has remained the same.  The game is not enough to attract gamblers and it still takes a hook, a gimmick to draw them into the casino and the game.  We think that modern casino operators have become much more sophisticated; we think that the entertainment, retail outlets, restaurants, volcanoes, white tigers, hotel rooms, swimming pools, parking lots, free drinks, art museums and buildings that look like pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, New York City or the center of a city of the future are not gimmicks, but in truth they are just that.

The building itself is often the gimmick used to lure gamblers off of the street into its inner chambers.  Las Vegas has always been the epicenter of gimmicky architecture, but other cities, too, have had their own unique versions of the building as the gimmick, the hook that will pull the gamblers in the door. In Colorado, the casinos resemble buildings in the 19th century, in the Midwest, the riverboat casinos are meant to look like the paddle wheelers of the Mark Twain’s time and scattered across Indian country there are many casinos built to reflect a tribe’s culture and history.

Casino architecture meant to attract can be many things, leading edge, like the $10 billion CityCenter in Las Vegas, quaint like the casinos in Colorado, glitzy and crass like the Trump casinos, gaudy like most of the casinos built in the 1970s or like Luxor, Circus Circus and Excalibur they are amusing and to an outsider nonsensical.   In the last sixty years casinos have been all of those things.  But sometimes it is the casinos that don’t get built are the most amusing and nonsensical.  For example, Bob Stupak wanted to build a huge Ferris-like-wheel as part of his casino building in Reno.  Stupak had more than one bizarre plan for a casino design – rocket ships, the Titanic and the Moulin Rouge, were all on his drawing board – and unlike the Ferris wheel the rest were all intended for the famous Strip.

Stupak had big dreams and he had more gimmicks up his sleeve than most, million dollar display, million dollar jackpots and “free” vacation package mail campaigns to keep his hotel full. Stupak was more of carnival barker than bookie, but in Las Vegas that distinction is often blurred.  Whether carnival barker or bookie, the men that build casinos that looked like palaces, towers, circuses and castles were all dreamers.

Another dreamer, but one who never managed to open a casino was Max Baer, Jethro from the television series The Beverly Hillbillies.  It seems that Baer has always wanted a casino combined with a Beverly Hillbillies theme park. After all, the Beverly Hillbillies was a huge success in the 1960s; Baer imagined all of the TV fans being his casino customers; in his mind those fans were eagerly awaiting a return of Jethro and the Hillbillies.  He was sure the casino would be a winner, but he could never find a bank or a partner with enough one who agreed with him.  Like his character Jethro, Baer dreamed of an oil derrick spouting a stream of liquid gold.  Only in Baer’s vision, the oil derrick was towering reaching into the clouds. Jethro Baer was certain to attract would-be gamblers from miles around.  Another non-gambler casino-dreamer who never quite reached his dream was Doug Picking.

In the 19070s, Picking dreamed of sailing ship, the Windjammer, with 200-foot masts; the ship itself was to contain a casino filled with would-be sailors and gamblers attracted by the massive sails, looking for adventure on the high seas.  Picking did manage to raise more money that Baer; he raised enough money to begin construction, but not enough to build out his dream. Eventually, after filing bankruptcy, he abandoned the building he had managed to erect and sailed on down the road; in December, 2012 the state of Nevada finally tore down the remaining structure.  If it had not been for the article published in the Nevada Appeal I might never have remembered any of those long forgotten dreams of Stupak, Baer and Picking.

 The giant oil derrick proposed by former actor Max Baer to promote a Beverly Hillbillies-themed casino was not the first time that someone had a dream for a major attraction along that stretch of Highway 395. In the late 1970s, Minden resident Dug Picking proposed a casino complex featuring a 345-foot long replica of a sailing ship with masts 200-feet high. Picking sold stock in the project and built the four-story building at the intersection of highways 395 and 50 that the state tore down last week.  Dug’s Windjammer Casino was the dream of a world traveler who operated Dug’s West Indies restaurant in northern Carson City for nine years…He managed to raise enough money to build the four-story lighthouse building before going bankrupt. A mechanic’s lien filed by the architect in the amount of $637,000 on March 5, 1979, was the death knell for Dug’s Windjammer casino. Kurt Hildebrand, Nevada Appeal, 12-26-12

Max Baer and Bob Stupak were still dreaming those dreams into the 1990s, but that was the tail end of an era.  Even on the Strip in Las Vegas, the trend toward fantasy architecture seems to have run its course; the most recent of casinos are all modern buildings.  Except for their size and surrounding grounds and parking lots, they might be found in any city and serving any purpose.

However, there was another article that helped to remind me of gaming’s very colorful and imaginative past.  The Press of Atlantic City had an article about the end of a statute; a statue of Vladimir Lenin.  Outside of Red Square restaurant at the Tropicana until December there had been a statue of Lenin.  Lenin in a casino – surely you are kidding?  But, when it comes to hooks and gimmicks there is no limit.  The rule is simple; anything that attracts a customer’s attention is fair game.

 Al Garrett is happy that Vladimir Lenin doesn’t live in Atlantic City anymore.  Garrett, who does live in the city, was a vocal opponent of the bigger-than-life statue of Lenin — the former leader of the former Soviet Union — ever since it became a decorative touch outside Red Square, the former popular restaurant and night spot at Tropicana Casino and Resort.  But Red Square quietly closed its Atlantic City location this fall. …“That statue has been nothing but a curse. It’s a disgrace,” says Garrett, 69, who, in his anti-Lenin campaign, often made an argument with great potential power in the Atlantic City world view: He claimed Lenin was bad luck for its owners — and for Trop gamblers. Martin DeAngelis, Press of Atlantic City, 12-27-12

Was a statue of Lenin over the top? I think not; there are places in Las Vegas where girls do pole dances between rounds of dealing cards, carrying cocktails or servicing slot machines, so why not Vladimir Lenin or Vladimir Putin for that matter?  If the building looks like a pyramid or features a volcano by the front door, why not a windjammer or an oil derrick?  The only differences are in the success of the idea, not in the underlying principle behind the design.  Both are trying to do the same thing, one is just better at it than the other.  The successful gimmicks last longer and are copied or imitated by competitors; while the unsuccessful gimmicks become the fodder for bad jokes and ridicule.  I do not mean to imply there is anything wrong with employing gimmicks to attract customers, all businesses do it is one way or another.  In gaming the concept has been developed more than in most other industries and I, for one, find it to be quite entertaining; and I bemoan the loss of Jethro’s oil derrick, the windjammer and Stupak’s never-ending stream of bizarre ideas.  Sadly, the industry seems to have outgrown most of those dreams. Oh, well, onward and upward – Happy New Year!

1 Response to “Lenin, windjammers and volcanoes: musings on things past”

  1. 1 rexdstock1 January 1, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    One of your best pieces yet. Great job! I actually did something twice that I rarely do once (even when the writer has done a good job of telling the(ir) story), I read it again. Beautiful work.

    Sent from my Verizon Wireless Droid

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