There are movie stars and shady characters, and then there's Mary ...
If you listen closely, you can still hear:
- Frank, Sammy, Dean, Peter and Joey echoing down the decades.
- Backroom money deals with Michigan mobsters and hitmen.
- 1950s nightclub crowds howling at the humor of Rowan and Martin.
- Analog noise from casino-floor jackpots.
- And – in winter – the winds off Lake Tahoe rattling the windows of vacant rooms.
The Tahoe Biltmore Lodge and Casino, all aging wood and worn carpet, has been perched at the lake’s less-glitzy north shore since 1946. It’s still there, more as a reminder of a bygone era than as a real competitor to Reno’s big-city vibe or the modern-day ski scene of Stateline.
It is a place of distant memories, sustained primarily because those memories are so rich.
The Biltmore was built the year after World War II ended by Joseph and Nathan Blumenfeld, two Jewish brothers from San Francisco. Their parents were refugees from Austria who spoke only Yiddish. The boys became Bay Area theater moguls who saw profits and prestige in trying to crack into Nevada's gaming world.
But expectations fell short, a familiar story for the Biltmore, and they sold out. The casino’s history has been one of high hopes, modest improvements, changing names, surging popularity, fallen dreams, repeat. For a time, Lincoln and Meta Fitzgerald were owners. Lincoln, once a rumored associate of Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang, was shot twice in Reno but both times asked police not to investigate.
The Crystal Bay casino had its glory years in the 1950s and ‘60s. The Rat Pack – Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford – appeared in its Nevada Room. So did comedian Phylliss Diller, entertainer Rudy Vallee and TV personality Regis Philbin.
Perhaps its most famous performer was a cabaret dancer known only as Mary. The story goes that she was killed in a car accident on Mount Rose Highway sometime in the late 1960s. Since then, she has appeared throughout the hotel and casino – usually wearing a hippie-era mini skirt. Sounds far-fetched, but the story of Mary is part of every new employee’s orientation.
The Biltmore today is a reminder of yesteryear, a throwback casino whose walls are dotted with pictures of an incredible history. And if you listen closely, you can still hear Sinatra singing. And if you look closely, you might catch a glimpse of Mary dancing through the halls.
Kevin @ Lake Tahoe Trading Company