Casinos of the Past: Where Glamour Has Become Kitsch

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The Virginian Casino tower is now an extension of the Cal-Neva.

Casinos have always been about glamour. Today that glamour comes in the form of immensely tall fountains, priceless art, and recreations of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, from Venice to the Eiffel Tower. The casinos in Las Vegas particularly draw in guests using the most lavish and extraordinary productions. I’m not talking about Blue Man Group or the regular Celine Dion shows, I’m talking about the built environment: fountain shows that are timed with the stoplights so everyone in their cars can watch and pretend volcanos that erupt on a schedule synchronized to music. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, however, casino glitz came in the form of color, shows, and lights–lots of lights.

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Little Italy… in Las Vegas

Cue old Reno. In recent years, Reno has diverged from Las Vegas in the arena of casinos. A transportation hub with a diverse economic base, Reno has been able to shift the focus from casinos to the natural beauty of the mountains (Reno is within an hour of a dozen ski resorts), Lake Tahoe (no shortage of natural beauty there!), and other tourism draws. Reno boasts half a dozen large casinos but Virginia Street, what could once have been called Reno’s version of The Strip, is no longer the focus of the city.

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The Flamingo Hilton’s feathers of lights.

Reno’s Virginia Street is the old highway, cutting directly through town from the mountains to the north towards Carson Valley. This was the heart of Reno in the early and mid-20th century. Development clustered around Virginia Street and 4th Street, and the casinos that fronted Virginia Street featured all the glitz of their day. Cars drove slower and visitors took in a show of colors, glittering and flashing lights, lit-up letters, and extravagantly decorated signs. Nevada’s state legislature legalized gambling in 1931. By 1966 Frank Sinatra released his album “Live at the Sands,” which he recorded with Count Basie and his orchestra in Copa Room at the Sands Casino in Las Vegas (notably, Reno has a Sands Casino, as well). Casinos quickly became an attraction and something Nevada was known for, right next to the accessibility of quick marriages and divorces. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, attention drifted away from Virginia Street, but many of the old casinos stayed.

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The Nugget: small kitschy casino facades don’t get better than this.

Some of the over-the-top lights displays have been lost as their casinos closed, like ostentatious pink feathers of the Flamingo Hilton. A handful of older casino facades remain on Virginia Street, however; they serve as a glimpse into the past of not only Virginia Street but Reno, itself. The lights and displays now seem garish or just kitschy, but I think if you stroll the street on a quiet day you can imagine the old cars rolling in from Carson City or Roseville, their passengers gawking at the columns of glittering lights.

(Don’t think your imagination is good enough? Head to Reno for Hot August Nights, when classic cars roll down Virginia Street once again. I love Reno’s transition to and outdoor-lovers paradise with dozens of fantastic local restaurants, but sometimes it’s fun to take a look into the past.)

Some quick credits:

Credit to Vistanature and Wikimedia for the Little Venice photo, top left. Credit to Nevada Max for the old Flamingo Hilton photo, middle right. Finally credit to Campingandroadtrip.com for the (gorgeous) photo of Tahoe, below (I’m packing my bags!). All other photos are my own.

Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is now a focus of Reno tourism–and rightly so!
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