On Jan. 22, the last surviving artifacts of one of Reno’s smallest — yet most-memorable — casinos will go under the hammer in an online auction.
Signs, casino tokens, decks of cards, slot machine reels, cocktail glasses and other memorabilia from the Little Nugget Casino will be offered in 183 lots. The artifacts hearken back to a time when downtown Reno was the heart of the city and the Awful Awful hamburger was the biggest draw at the Nugget’s diner.
“It’s everything that’s left,” said Hudson Stremmel of Stremmel Auctions in Reno. “The signs, the framed news and magazine articles that were on the walls, cards and tokens… The Little Nugget had quite a large following among locals and visitors. Everyone seems to have a story about the place and the time when the small casinos made (patrons) feel welcome and valued.”
AUCTION DETAILS: The auction takes place online. Bidding begins Jan. 5 and closes on Jan. 22. All bidding is on the internet. The lots are timed with bidding for each item closing at a listed time that day. Bidders can set a maximum amount they are willing to pay and the bid amounts are increased as the auction goes on. To prevent from being “sniped,” bidders are asked to place their highest and best bid prior to the close of the item.
A local icon
The Little Nugget closed for good in August 2020 and its legendary giant hamburger vanished from the Biggest Little City after 70 years. Memories and artifacts remain.
The casino, with a footprint 30 feet wide at the street front and 140 feet long, was a small fish in a big pond. But it had a whale of a reputation.
Rick Heaney, 77, who bought the Little Nugget in 1989 and ran it until its closure, said in the early years the business was “fabulous. It was like I fell into a gold mine.” Small casinos were nestled among the larger gaming properties and the gift shops, and herds of tourists and locals walked up and down Virginia Street clutching plastic jackpot buckets.
“That was when downtown Reno was Reno. All the kids worked downtown and the economy was driven by downtown casinos. Virginia Street was like walking down the midway at a carnival.” — Rick Heaney, who owned the Little Nugget for 31 years.
The skinny little joint became a college hangout and a gathering place for “old Reno” folks, he remembered. Tourists and locals would use the small, 4,200-square-foot casino as a convenient meeting place, rather than arranging rendezvous at larger, more crowded properties.
A place to meet
“It was kind of a jumping-off spot for Virginia Street,” Heaney said. The Nugget also could be crowded, but visitors could walk in and see the whole place in a glance. Patrons sat shoulder to shoulder at the slot machines. The passage behind the gamblers was so narrow, cocktail waitresses would stand at the end of the line of one-armed bandits and ask players to pass drinks down to other patrons.
After dark, anything could happen in the biggest little casino.
“I loved the motley crew of customers in the Little Nugget diner; the back door from a scruffy alley; the hustle of the cooks; the smoke of the grill; the jaw-stretching burger itself, a 3 a.m. booze-sponge layering red onion, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and a half-pound of charbroiled beef, its juices coursing down my hands and onto a drift of fries.” – Johnathan Wright, RN&R food editor, quoted in the Reno Gazette Journal.
In the wee hours, the casino was a great place to observe some odd occurrences and memorable characters. “Bar crawl” events always brought in interesting patrons, Heaney said. One December, the Little Nugget staff was treated to the sight of a couple, wearing nothing but Santa hats, dancing in the casino.
“We put the kibosh on that,” Heaney said. The dancers, once dressed, were escorted to the alley and given free drink tokens for the Cal Neva Casino. Nothing unusual about it, he said, “it was party town back then.”
Decline and fall
But as the 21st century approached, downtown Reno waned. Large new casinos opened on South Virginia Street. Gaming proliferated in other states and Indian casinos sprouted in Northern California. The Nugget’s customer base eroded as the downtown corridor fell out of favor with visitors. North Virginia Street’s glory faded even more with the rise of Midtown as a new party destination.
“All those things took their toll,” Heaney said. The pandemic was the final nail in the coffin. “The Little Nugget survived as long as it could,” he said. “But I just couldn’t do it any longer.”
The giant burger was the star of the casino’s diner. The delicacy was made famous by articles in the New York Times, Esquire magazine and other national and local publications.
A famous feast
The Little Nugget and its massive meat sandwich was a mainstay of the Reno News & Review’s annual “Best of Reno” competition. The Nugget’s diner regularly won the designations of “Best Hamburger,” “Best Place to Eat When Drunk” and “Best Greasy Spoon.”
“We won so many of those awards,” Heaney said. Those framed RN&R “Best of Reno” awards and national feature stories are included in the auction pieces. Many of the signs tout the Awful Awful, food and drink specials and feature images of prospector “Last Chance Joe,” the Nugget’s mascot.
Heaney and Stremmel said the auction will be of interest to locals looking for a piece of nostalgia and folks who collect casino memorabilia.
Pieces of history
Richard Hogan of Reno, who collects casino artifacts, will be among the bidders.
“The Little Nugget was certainly a bit of a Reno icon,” Hogan said. “At some point, everybody went there and had an Awful Awful. If you came to town, you had to go there for one.”
Hogan has a passion for gaming memorabilia. He collects everything from gaming chips, to slot machine glass and “everything related to casinos and gaming.” He said the auction is sure to attract people who want pieces for their nostalgia value. “There will be lots of nostalgia interest,” he predicted. “(The pieces) will have a greater intrinsic value for that former patron. “
A dose of nostalgia
Now that the casino is history, will the value of the memorabilia increase?
“You can’t know, even looking at things with a collector’s eye,” Hogan said. “Sometimes the things I think will be extremely valuable lose value in time and sometimes things I pick up for a few dollars that I think are just knick-knacks, turn out to be really valuable.”
Hogan’s advice for bidders in any auction: “Buy what you love. My advice is to invest in something that you like. If it never goes up, you still like it hanging on your wall… If that ‘Awful Awful’ sign doesn’t go up in value, so what? If it does increase in value, even better.”
The auction items can be viewed and bids can be placed on the Stremmel Auctions’ website.