The Starlight Hotel-Casino , a new novel by William A. Douglass, is fiction, but the details are grounded in the author’s long experience in Reno gaming .
While a literary invention, the Starlight is a composite of the Comstock and Riverboat hotel-casinos that closed their doors in the late 1990s. Douglass, a Reno native and son of Jack Douglass, a legendary Nevada gaming pioneer and scion, was part-owner of both.
This novel details the stress within the owner-family and staff as desperate measures to save the business failed. It also traces the collapse of Reno as a major gaming destination in the wake of growing competition from Las Vegas, the legalization of gambling in other states and the spread of Indian casinos in California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. While a novel, Starlight is also quite autobiographical.
Frank Bergon, author of several Western novels, noted that: “The Starlight Hotel-Casino reveals the inner workings of the gambling world with a vividness and detail matched by no other book. Bill Douglass conveys his first-hand knowledge of the Nevada gaming industry while probing a family’s personal and business entanglements in a vanishing American West.”
Monte Burke, author of the best-selling books Saban and Lords of the Fly, also had praise for the book: “There is much to love about The Starlight Hotel-Casino—the touching love story, the captivating murder mystery and the compelling, ringside-seat look into the downfall of a family business and the concurrent failure of an industry in the town of Reno. William Douglass has penned a wonderful tale.”
In addition to his gaming background, Douglass is a retired professor emeritus. A University of Nevada, Reno, graduate with a BA in Spanish language and literature, he received his doctorate in social anthropology in 1967 from the University of Chicago. His dissertation was based on two years of field research regarding the causes and consequences of emigration from two Spanish Basque villages. Douglass was recruited by Robert Laxalt and the Desert Research Institute to found a Basque Studies Program for the University of Nevada System. He retired in 2000 after 33 years as director of what is now UNR’s William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies.
Excerpts from the Starlight Hotel-Casino
“Gambling promises the poor what property performs for the rich: that is why the bishops dare not denounce it fundamentally.” — George Bernard Shaw
God, Manny was nervous as he waited to be admitted to the in-progress meeting behind the closed doors. Manny Cohen had always thought of himself as a good ad-man, at least until he volunteered for the assignment in this burg. With Vegas’s hands around its throat and Indian arrows pointed at its heart, Reno gaming was toast—only the shmucks in the inner sanctum failed to realize it. They were prepared to spend a hundred million dollars (borrowed money, of course) on a new casino.
They needed a theme. Manny contemplated the word “Bethlehem” on the cover of his proposal. The subtitle “Fear, Loathing, and Learning in Reno” conflated and paraphrased the Robert Venturi and Hunter S. Thompson titles—the two Las Vegas books in his briefcase.
Two weeks in southern Nevada had given Manny creative constipation more than inspiration. Pyramids and pirate ships, New York City and Venice imploded into caricatures of themselves, the French Riviera, riverboats without mosquitoes, the endless circuses and prize fights, the tallest phallic symbol west of the Mississippi with its Big Dick ride. Manny glanced out the window at the twin domes over the Silver Legacy and the National Bowling Stadium and mused, At least this place has the biggest balls. Bowling for Chrissakes.
And races, too—balloon, airplane, car, bicycle, camel; the rodeo, and chili and rib cookoffs (all “national championships” to be sure). What did Reno want to be when it grew up? This could be it.
“If I blow this job, my next assignment could be Newark,” he sighed.
He almost missed his boring former stint with the potato chip manufacturer in South Bend. Manny leafed through the report, which suddenly seemed flawed and silly. The Bethlehem Casino, replete with animated wise men, live sheep and cattle, and a birth of Christ show three times daily. Christmas 365 days a year—a consumer’s delight! Think of the gift shop possibilities. Then there was phase two—simulated crucifixions and beheadings of baptizers, resurrections, assumptions, and ascensions. Manny wondered nervously if there was a Christian ayatollah lurking out there somewhere who might take vengeful umbrage over a guy just trying to make a buck. Would it all be one huge turnoff to his clients?
“Naw,” he thought. Nevada’s ready. Fuckin’ America’s ready.
The programmed talking head behind the name plate proclaiming “Priscilla, Executive Secretary” blew off another caller. The word-player in him reimagined her name as “Godzilla.” Manny stared at the stone-faced, stern-voiced guardian whose purpose in life was to protect Fitzsimmons from the world. All ten of Manny’s calls from Vegas to his boss had earned him an earful of Muzak, probably while she trimmed her nails before informing him that Fitzsimmons was not available. The buzzer interrupted his thoughts.
“The board will see you now, Mr. Cohen.”
“Jesus, it’s showtime!” Manny harrumphed.
“Oh, and Mary and Joseph, too.” A confused Priscilla stared at the back passing through the door of the inner sanctum.
“Hey, Mr. Clinton, here are your books back. I really enjoyed them,” Manny lied. He had found the architect Venturi’s work Learning from Las Vegas to be a slog. Hunter S. Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was more a criticism of America seen through the psychedelic distortion of Las Vegas hyperreality, certainly a more enjoyable read, but its relevance to his assignment escaped him. Never mind, he had struggled through both of them in the spirit that when your boss assigns you homework, you do it. There might be a quiz.
* * * *
Yet again Jeremy Clinton had run into himself coming around the corner. He sat alone in the darkened boardroom trying to come down off the emotional plane of the heated exchange. He didn’t regard himself to be a liar.
I just embellish a little, he thought.
There was the ninety-seven-yard touchdown run that gave his high school football team a state championship that, in his retelling over the years, became his own heroism rather than Cliff’s. His cheeks burned anew as he recalled the time that he made an eagle on the par-four seventh hole at Reno’s Lazy Creek Country Club while playing a solo round. At the bar afterwards, he claimed it was a hole-in-one on the par-three sixth instead. How was he to know that that damn reporter from the Gazette-Journal would make it an item in the paper? Since then he was the guy who’d sunk the shot that everyone wanted to talk about. Purgatory comes in many guises.
After that absurd presentation of the Bethlehem Hotel-Casino project, the board had turned its attention to “foreign gaming,” meaning anywhere outside Nevada. Jeremy was a two-per-cent owner and general manager of the Starlight Hotel-Casino, and he’d just had a confrontation with James Fitzsimmons—founder, chairman of the board, and majority stockholder in the enterprise. He was also the scion of one of the state’s pioneer gaming families. Arkansas was considering legalization and the Starlight had a secret option on a prime casino site in Little Rock. But opposition was growing in the polls and it was rumored that the governor was about to come out against gaming.
“Jerry, I just don’t understand why you can’t call your cousin and ask him to influence the gov,” Old Man Fitzsimmons had opined.
“It’s not that simple, sir. You don’t just tell the president of the United States that you need that kind of favor. He’s got many more important things on his plate. He’s busy running the country, not to mention running for re-election.”
“Even I could beat Dole. Hey, what are relatives for if you can’t get something out of them once in a while? You’re his cousin, aren’t you? Are you going to make the call?”
“Of course. I’ll make it, but don’t expect much.”
“Oh, yeah? Maybe we’ve got the wrong GM around here!”
Jerry brooded in the twilight of the waning evening, his face turned alternately crimson and blue by the blinking neon pulses of the Starlight’s street sign. “Why in hell did I ever say ten years ago that I was related to that damn Arkansas governor?” At the time, it had seemed like such a little fib—a minor claim to fame by a guy otherwise saddled with the humdrum of a pit boss’s life. What now?
Excerpts from The Starlight Hotel-Casino are published with permission of the author and publisher.