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Big-name Nevada entertainment began in 1941 in this small northeastern Nevada town.
Photo: Matthew B. Brown (Commercial Casino)
This story originally aired in December 2008 on NPR’s Weekend Edition, courtesy of Deep West Radio.
Now let’s play a game of word association. If I say gambling, what comes to mind? How about if I say “big-name entertainment?” I’ll bet for many of you, the answer both times is Las Vegas…the place that for as long as most of us can remember has been synonymous with big money, big stars…partying all night long.
Sure Atlantic City, Reno, and dozens of casinos on Indian Reservations have come along in more recent times…but they’ve all modeled themselves on the cocktail of gambling and show biz made famous by Las Vegas. Hal Cannon of the Western Folklife Center traces the success of the Vegas model to its very beginnings.
You might think that this story begins somewhere along the Las Vegas strip just after the War, and that it might include Bugsy Siegel and the mob. I thought so, too. But it actually begins here…430 miles north of Las Vegas in the town of Elko. “Elko started the big bands…and the big shows,” Diz Puccinelli says. “We started it here way before Vegas ever started it.”
Puccinelli’s boss first had the brainstorm to bring top-notch entertainers into his casino. It all began in April 1941 with the famous bandleader Ted Lewis (photo below). “The room was darkened, and here comes Ted Lewis out…and the spotlight is on him,” Morris Gallagher remembers. “He was a true showman, you know. And the song was “Me & My Shadow”…going down the avenue. We had never seen anything like that here in Elko.”
And Nevada was about the only place Gallagher and his friends could have witnessed history being made that evening in their little high-desert cowboy town of 5,000 people.
Back in the dark days of the Great Depression, Nevada, like the rest of the country, was suffering—a stalled economy, thread bare people shuffling down the streets—depression had become a state of mind.
Nevada was in the middle of nowhere, and being rescued just wasn’t in the cards. So in 1931, the state’s legislature came up with the idea of legalizing gambling. A poker-faced hotel owner, Newt Crumley, was just one of scores around the state who applied for a gaming license. But it was Crumley’s big handsome son, Newt Jr., who really wanted to make their hotel, the Commercial, into something bigger than a backroom poker parlor…and then he realized the answer lay right outside his door.
The main rail line connecting East to West ran within spitting distance of the Commercial. Everyone, including traveling entertainers, whizzed right through Elko without stopping. So Newt Jr. figured if he could get the big stars off the train, he could draw big crowds to gamble. So he offered Lewis the outlandish amount of $12,000 to perform that first week in 1941. It was a wager that paid off in more ways than one. “Well in those days, the Commercial was pretty active, and they had a lot of gambling going on,” Puccinelli says. “And then some of those entertainers would come in here, and they might end up owing Newt before they left…because they’d gamble. (sighs) So he did pretty well off it.”
Town’s people remember that by the time World War II was over the biggest names in show business were headlining at Crumley’s casino: Guy Lombardo, Sophie Tucker, Chico Marx…“We had Tennessee Ernie Ford, and then Vicky Carr,” Gene Peterson says. “And Frankie Yankovich…(cackles).”
“Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey. Spike Jones a couple of times,” DPorter says. “I remember Xavier Cougat, and he carried a little Mexican Chihuahua.”
And these folks didn’t just perform for the gamblers. Crumley’s contracts stipulated that they had to perform for the community—including shows for the local high school kids. Ann Nisbett was there. “And I can remember Anna Maria Alberghetti and all of these kids would come in, and we would squish up on the floor and sit,” she says. “And she was a great singer.”
People came to Elko from Boise, Salt Lake City, and everywhere in between, including Charley Chester. He drove from the mining town of Ely, almost 200 miles away. “My first wife, Rose, and I danced all the time,” Chester says. “You know she weighed 225 pounds…she was a heavy woman. And I had to ask for dances ’cuz everybody wanted to dance with her. She just had that rhythm, and when she grabbed hold, and you grabbed a hold of her, you could just glide away. And the next guy would get to her before I could get to her. I would have to ask her for a dance (laughs).”
“He’d bring in shows, but they had to be clean shows…very clean,” says Puccinelli, Crumley’s bookkeeper from 1946-49. “And if they weren’t…he’d fire them. I remember one was Redd Foxx. And the first night that he was on, he got a little risqué in his performance…and Newt fired him right then and there, and I had to pay him off. And so after that he made me go down to the hotel every time there was a new show to see how it was, and if we didn’t keep them I’d pay them off.”
While some performers weren’t invited back to Elko, others became attached to the place and its people. This was a time when America was redefining itself, and no other figure was as iconic as the cowboy. Mimi Ellis grew up in Elko, where her father owned a competing casino. She says it wasn’t just the money that drew the stars…it was something else. “Authenticity,” Ellis says. “Everyone was who he was, and they didn’t apologize for it. It was real. The cowboys were real, the gaming was real…It had all the characteristics of the old West.”
Jimmy Stewart’s daughter, Kelly Harcourt, talks about what drew him to Elko County. “Dad liked the guys who worked on the ranch, they were really cowboys. You know…named things like Tuffy and Coldwater Bill. I think he liked being around people who were working close to the land.”
Stewart’s Winecup Ranch was more than 500 square miles of open country. “All of us remember it as this paradise because we did things there that we never did anywhere else,” Harcourt says. “The landscape was so beautiful and those vast vistas and huge skies. It was so different from Beverly Hills.”
Stewart wasn’t the only one looking for a little ranch way out West. Peterson remembers one hot summer afternoon…when he saw a man and a boy traipsing down the road on his family ranch. “Now who in the devil is this out here this time of day? And they had a flat tire in this old Ford truck down there a quarter of a mile down the ranch house. And I didn’t recognize him to be honest. I went and helped him…got his tire changed and got him goin’. Well it was Bing and one of his sons. Lord have mercy, I didn’t know (laughs). I’s just a kid you know.”
Bing Crosby eventually owned seven ranches in Elko, including Peterson’s family ranch. “Uncle Bing was a working cattle rancher,” Carolyn Schneider says. “He didn’t just sit back in the office and give orders. Uncle Bing was out there with his chaps and boots doing the whole thing, helping mend fence or brand cattle, whatever needed to be done.”
Crosby’s niece, Schneider, visited the Crosby’s often in Elko. He was determined to teach his four sons the cowboy work ethic. But at the end of the day he also liked coming to town. “People would see him on the street, ‘Hi Bing.’ ‘Oh hi Dorothy…how are you?’” Schneider says. “You know it was just casual…people didn’t make a fuss over him. And he is quoted as saying, ‘I love these folks,’ and he really did.”
Crosby made a lot of friends including his hunting buddy, Crumley. People loved sitting near him at the local Catholic Mass just to hear him croon the hymns. Crosby got so involved in the community that in 1948 he was named Elko’s honorary mayor….
The Commercial Hotel and Casino is still open in downtown Elko. But the live entertainment is gone except for few diehards making a cacophony of digital slot machine music. By the time Crumley sold the Commercial 50 years ago, Vegas had far out-glitzed Elko. Still, it’s tempting to close your eyes and imagine the big bands, dancers gliding around the floor, and Crosby’s baritone voice echoing—here on his home on the range.
Produced by Taki Telonidis and supported by the R. Harold Burton Foundation.
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