The casinos in the Reno-Tahoe area have long offered much more than just gambling, but the world of casino entertainment has changed quite a bit through the years. Historian Alicia Barber shines a spotlight on the golden era of casino showrooms in this episode of Time & Place.
Reno’s casinos started opening their own elegant nightclubs and dinner showrooms in the 1940s, and by the fifties, they were in fierce competition to book big-name entertainers to headline them, often for a week or two at a time. Lounge and opening acts could stay on even longer.
One of them was the Gaylords, a musical and comedy act from Detroit featuring Burt Bonaldi, Ron Fredianelli, and Don Rea. They arrived in Reno in 1959 for a two-week engagement at the Holiday Hotel, and quickly found themselves in high demand, as Bonaldi recalled in a 2005 oral history interview.
“We worked all over. We worked at the Holiday, and then from there we went to the Mapes, because they offered us a little bit more money. And then we went to the Riverside, and then Harrah’s made us an offer that was just incredible, so we ended up working for Harrah’s for 22 years,” remembered Bonaldi.
It might have been the pay that drew the Gaylords to Harrah’s at first, but it was the treatment they received that kept them there.
“The best guy to work for was Bill Harrah. He set the precedent for the entertainers,” Bonaldi said. “First, you never had to pay for any of the food. You got carte blanche for the food throughout the hotel, and for the bigger stars, he’d have the houses here that they lived in with butlers and maids and everything to take care of them.”
That level of pampering not only gave Harrah a competitive edge, but it also helped his bottom line.
“The way he treated you royally that way, that was a big asset for him,” Bonaldi explained, “because he ended up paying some of the big stars a lot less than they would get, say, if they were working at the Sahara and the other places because they loved the way they were treated at Harrah’s. Like Sinatra…Frank worked here for half the money he would get anyplace else because he was treated so well. It paid off for him.”
The glory days of the showrooms came to an end as casinos cut their house orchestras, menus, and nightclub-style formats in favor of individual concerts and house productions that can play for months or even years. Burt Bonaldi lived in Reno until his death in 2017 at the age of 90.
Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. Burt Bonaldi’s complete oral history transcript can be found in the compilation The Italian-American Experience in Northwestern Nevada, from Territorial Days to the Present, published by the University of Nevada Oral History Program.