October 23, 2021

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The Education Specialists

Ray Hagar: John Ascuaga a visionary, intelligent gaming pioneer (Voices)


I’m guessing it should have been 1958 or 1959 when I initially fulfilled “Johnny” Ascuaga.

This was when the Nugget was across the avenue from in which it is now. It was a 60-seat restaurant with some slot equipment.


Ascuaga, in his early 30s, ran the place, but it was owned by one more Nevada gaming legend, Dick Graves.


I was just a little child, 5 or 6. My Mother had brought my brother and me to the Nugget in downtown Sparks for dinner. It was a very well known place. Ascuaga would make the rounds and greet people in the cafe. He was personable. Everyone preferred him: quick in stature but a giant character.


He allow us phone him “Johnny” and carried a walkie-talkie on his hip. He would place it up to my ear and allow me chat into it. I was thrilled. Just about every time we arrived in, he allow me speak into his walkie-talkie.

Nevada gaming icon John Ascuaga died Monday, June 28, 2021, at the age of 96. Courtesy Photograph

 

The most attractive thing on the menu for me this a single time was the “Shrimp Boat” – five parts of fried shrimp trapped on a stick to seem like a sail. The plate it came on looked like a boat, way too.

I requested it, to my brother’s chagrin. I required to engage in with it, not eat it. So I ran into difficulty with Mother.


“Johnny” saved the working day. He experienced the waitress provide me an “Terrible Awful” hamburger as a substitute. My Mom couldn’t say no to his generosity and failed to want to smack me in community. It was mouth watering. The scolding I bought when we received property was not so enjoyable.


Connected: Nevada gaming icon, Sparks Nugget patriarch John Ascuaga dies at 96


Additional than 40 several years later, I was in Ascuaga’s workplace as the gaming/tourism reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal. I advised him the “Shrimp Boat” tale. He immediately grabbed pen and paper, scribbled “Shrimp Boat” on the notepad and explained, “Superior thought! Probably we should to carry that again.”

Ascuaga, at his essence, was an thought man. And in his time running just one of the great resorts in Nevada, he experienced a lot.


Even so, not all of them had been good. Just one angered my Grandma Hagar.


If I recall properly, it was the mid 1960s. Johnny suggested modifying the name of Sparks to East Reno, my grandma instructed me. Reno was in a Golden Age as a vacation spot-vacation resort town back again then, again before tribal gaming. People today who observed advertising and marketing identified “Reno” but not “Sparks.”


Sparks citizens were an unbiased whole lot, and no one desired to dwell in a put known as “East Reno.”


Ascuaga, nevertheless, identified a way to block the blowback and placate the populace.


In marketing, he just referred to the Nugget as “the Reno area’s finest’ vacation resort.” In other adverts, wherever he recognized the resort’s locale as Sparks, he set East Reno in parenthesis.


Other strategies, nevertheless, blossomed into key activities. His “Nugget Rib Prepare dinner-off” became a greatest barbecue celebration in the nation, attracting 300,000 individuals around 4 times and providing out resort rooms across the location on Labor Working day weekend. In 2004, 156,000 lbs . of pork ribs had been eaten.


Ascuaga was also instrumental in forming the granddaddy of all Northern Nevada exclusive events, “Very hot August Evenings.” But the rib cook dinner-off was his infant.


An additional wonderful Ascuaga notion was the Nugget scholarship application. It commenced in 1956, when it awarded deserving pupils $1,000 for higher education. That was a good deal of income 65 several years back. The program expanded to consist of college students from across Northern Nevada. The images of the scholarship winners were hung on a wall in the Nugget. My Mom explained she’d be happy if I ever won a single but, alas, on that place, sorry Mom.


By 2005, the 50-yr anniversary of the Nugget, more than 500 students experienced gained Nugget scholarships. I am confident Ascuaga’s generosity will usually be remembered by them. What a excellent bounce-start those scholarships have been to so numerous youthful Nevadans.


Yet another instance of Ascuaga’s showmanship was the “Golden Rooster,” a 15-pound, 18 carat stable-gold sculpture of a rooster that originally was at the entrance of the Golden Rooster Area, a Nugget restaurant specializing in fried hen.


1st created in 1958, the rooster was later on confiscated by the U.S. Treasury, citing a regulation that barred citizens from possessing more than 50 ounces of gold in their possession, except if it was a work of art.


Immediately after quite a few months, the rooster was returned immediately after a jury trial considered the rooster was, in truth, art. The confiscation and subsequent trial was a publicity boon for the Nugget.


And let us not forget the “Residence Sweet Property Sweepstakes” where by Ascuaga on a yearly basis raffled off a sweet 2,000-square-foot property in the Reno-Sparks spot. The probability at dwelling ownership would web virtually 40,000 raffle entrees yearly. The home raffled absent in just one yr in the early 2000s was detailed for $165,000.


Ponder what it really is value today?


Ascuaga initially acquired the Nugget from Graves in 1960. Though Ascuaga’s Nugget made the Dreadful Terrible well known, it was Graves who had imported the renowned burger to Northern Nevada from Idaho. Graves, Ascuaga’s mentor, also founded “The Nugget” in downtown Reno and Carson City.


The Sparks Nugget’s marketing selling price in 1960 was a reported $3.75 million. Graves reportedly claimed to Ascuaga, “Spend me when you can.”


It took Ascuaga 7 several years to fork out the debt, in a contract that gave him 12 many years, according to printed studies.


Soon after he bought the Nugget from Graves, Ascuaga built his legendary mega-resort throughout the street, beginning in 1961. The outdated Nugget grew to become “Trader Dick’s,” a restaurant with a Polynesian theme that stayed there until 1973, when it was incorporated into the most important resort making.


Part of 1961 growth was the building of “The Circus Room,” the place Ascuaga introduced in “Ed Sullivan Display”-caliber acts and entertainers. It was pretty an celebration for this tiny kid to go to a evening meal present with my loved ones and see performers these types of Crimson Skelton or Rowan & Martin, definite A-listers of the 1960s.


When our Bishop Manogue Higher soccer team won the point out championship in 1970, Ascuaga taken care of all of us, which includes head Mentor Chris Ault, to a supper demonstrate in the Circus Room.


“Mickey Finn,” a partner-spouse crew with a Dixieland jazz and comedy plan, set on the exhibit. They ended up extremely preferred back then, acquiring their possess Tv display and headliner gigs at Caesars Palace.


The finest aspect of each individual exhibit — and yet another a single of Ascuaga’s wonderful concepts — were being the Nugget’s preforming elephants. To start with came Bertha, then Tina and last but not least Angel. They turned synonymous with the Nugget, appeared on nationwide Television set and made their personal adhering to. People stayed at the Nugget just to see the elephants, who experienced their individual house and swimming pool on the Nugget house.


All the children cherished the elephants. When I was in second or 3rd grade at St. Thomas College in downtown Reno, Bertha paid out a stop by to the school’s all-purpose area. It was awesome to get an elephant in there. We got to pet her. Some young children fed her peanuts. 1st and only time I ever touched an elephant.


In some cases, you’d locate the Nugget headliners at Sunday mass at Immaculate Conception Church on Pyramid Way in Sparks. After, my aunt practically fainted when she observed Donald O’Connor using communion. (Starred in all the “Francis the Talking Mule” flicks. Perhaps ideal regarded for “Singin’ in the Rain”).


Immaculate Conception was also Ascuaga’s church back again then. He’d be there every single Sunday, family members in tow. He was a person of faith and was good to The Church.


As a result of the Ascuaga decades, the Nugget was regarded for its delectable food items in dining establishments like the Golden Rooster Home, Oyster Bar, Pancake Parlor and Round Residence steak property. The 5-piece fried chicken evening meal with mashed ‘taters and place gravy was my favorite as a expanding boy.


The Nugget’s foods was served for a reasonable selling price. The foods and its pricing became the resort’s top attraction and the primary rationale why the Nugget meant so much to the doing work individuals and railroaders who lived in Sparks 50 many years ago.


The Nugget experienced a national status, but it was also the top locals’ on line casino. When households went there to take in, mothers and fathers in some cases preferred to have a drink or gamble ahead of dinner — or although we waited for an open up table — the youngsters went to the Kid’s Theater. I noticed “Mighty Joe Young” and the authentic “King Kong” there.


My tale isn’t exclusive. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of children who grew up in Sparks also have fond memories of Mr. Ascuaga, the Nugget and how they impacted their lives.


A lot of mourn his modern passing, still his time on Earth was properly lived. I are unable to believe of anybody who has experienced a even larger role in the history of Sparks. Like to see a college named for him and his statue erected at Town Hall or on Victorian Square.


Ray Hagar, born in Reno and raised in Sparks, is a journalist who worked at the Reno Gazette Journal for many several years in advance of retiring in 2016. He carries on to perform element-time for Nevada Newsmakers and has worked with Sam Shad on Newsmakers considering that 2003. This article 
to start with appeared June 30 on Nevada Newsmakers and is republished listed here with permission.