Gambling on Reno’s history

The Fey brothers’ slot machine heritage brought them to town, and they built on that heritage. Now it may be lost.

Photo By David Robert

There was no land rush when the Fey brothers threw open the doors of the Liberty Belle on Nov. 20, 1958.

“On our first day, we did twenty-eight dollars and forty eight cents,” says Marshall Fey, drawing out the amount with his voice. “I’d say we probably had 30 drop in and drop out to see what the place looked like.”

The place was different then. The building was much smaller, the big bar wasn’t present (the Feys advertised a “rolling bar,” but Marshall cannot remember today what that was), and there was no food. The $28.48 came entirely from the bar, though it didn’t count whatever take there was from 10 slot machines. A reference book on Reno says the Liberty Belle had a 21 table, but Marshall says, in fact, they were turned down for the license. The place was open from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., compared to today’s 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (10 on weekends).

The machines above, according to Liberty Belle owner and slot collector Marshall Fey, are typical of slots used during the 1930s and ‘40s. They had oak sides, and their iron facings were cast in aluminum molds, known in those days as “the miracle metal.”

Photo By David Robert

Within weeks of opening night, the Feys were approached about adding food.

“And the way we got in the restaurant business is the maitre’d of the [Mapes] Sky Room—they closed down, so he phoned us up and wanted to know if he could run the kitchen, and we said, ‘Sure.’ So he ran it for a while, and it didn’t do very well. I think the top night was 28 dinners. And then he got the chef from the Christmas Tree to take it over. He did a lot better.” Then that chef failed to appear for work on Labor Day, whereupon the Feys stopped contracting the restaurant out and ran it themselves.

The 1938 slot above paid off not in money but in additional plays.

Photo By David Robert

When the Liberty Belle opened, its owners included the instruction “Go 5 Minutes South” in their advertising. Today a five-minute drive from downtown will get a driver about five blocks, but in those days, there were only a couple of stoplights or stop signs on South Virginia Street, and the street could be driven almost without interruption. (And the month the saloon opened, there was a complaint from one resident about the “asinine” stop sign at Virginia and Hash Lane, now McCarran Boulevard.) Five minutes was quite a distance from downtown, though it was certainly not isolated out there. Moana Lane, with its hot springs, had long been a Reno hot spot, and the Big Hat at the corner of Moana and Virginia had been a fine dinner house since 1947.

Fey says ploys were used to get around laws in other states that made gambling devices illegal. The 1930 Caille device above was a combination slot and gumball machine. (That probably made it a nutritional aid.)

Photo By David Robert

But it was a rural setting. The Anderson/Sparks ranch house was within sight of the Liberty Belle, trees lined Virginia Street, and boarding houses cum “guest ranches,” where divorcees established their residences, sat among many of the trees. (A sign in the Liberty Belle calls the property the “site of Reno’s first settlement,” but a historian says this isn’t established by research.)

In the years after opening night, the city crept south, to, around, and past the saloon. Originally licensed by the county, it moved into the city. A significant benchmark came on July 27, 1959. Reno voters approved bonds for the construction of an auditorium downtown and a convention center south of town. The convention hall was built behind the Liberty Belle.

In the case of the 1898 Caille musical cabinet on the right, a Swiss music box was installed behind the window on the bottom, making it an entertainment device.

Photo By David Robert

In 1967, the Feys expanded the building and started staging melodramas. The Drunkard was the first. They were popular for a while. When the audiences tapered off, the dining area was expanded into the theatre space.

The Feys ended up in Reno because of their heritage. They had been running a Gay ‘90s-themed beer joint in San Mateo called the Swinging Door. Their father, who held 21 patents on arcade devices, ran Playland at the Beach, and the saloon was a part of it. When the lease was up, they looked around for somewhere to go. Their grandfather, Charles Fey, had invented the slot machine, and they owned one of his old slots, which were technically illegal in California. They came to where slots were legal.

In Reno, the Feys opened the Liberty Belle in the former Li’l Red Barn, a bar and restaurant that had some gambling. The new place was named in honor of one of Charles Fey’s slots.

Marshall Fey, above, contemplates the collection he has spent decades assembling.

Photo By David Robert

In time, the place grew to be one of those fixtures of the community that so few restaurants become. In 2003 when the Liberty Belle was in a face-off with the convention center, which wanted to acquire the saloon and tear it down, the Reno Gazette-Journal, normally the champion of the overdog, pointed out that officialdom never seems to want to demolish transient restaurants; it’s the ones that the community embraces—like Columbo’s, Mimi’s Hideaway and the Liberty Belle—that fall under the wrecking ball.

The slots arrayed above were all manufactured by Mills Novelty in the 1930s and ‘40s. They are known for their ornate castings.

Photo By David Robert

Many of those who have lived in the valley for a few years have stories of the Liberty Belle. Some tell of their first time at the Belle, some of their first beer after turning 21. That warm connection is why the Good Old Days Club likes meeting there. The Kiwanis and the Nevada Judicial Historical Society meet there, too. (Marshall let me use the meeting room for a memorial gathering for my father, who loved the place, and Marshall himself attended.)

The attic of the Liberty Belle is filled with collectibles. The unit with the large horn is a 1928 Atwater-Kent radio. To the left of it is a 1931 Bally pinball machine.

Photo By David Robert

The first advertising offered customers a saloon and museum, and the museum then was just the one antique slot plus some old arcade machines. “We weren’t basically a slot museum then,” Marshall says. Today’s display heavily emphasizes the slots. As the years passed, Marshall expanded the museum, collecting one machine after another, some of them manufactured by Charles Fey Manufacturing, the company that once operated at 1885 Mission St. in San Francisco. Marshall has no idea how much he has spent acquiring the collection over the years. But many of his purchases were made before inflated prices for collectibles drove ordinary people out of the market. Of today’s values on his machines, he says, “We had no idea they were going to go up the way they did.” He gestures to one row of six slot machines. They cost him $100.

Marshall says preserving the collection was made doubtful in part because “the second generation doesn’t really have much enthusiasm for it. Oh, they’re proud that their ancestor invented it.” But that’s not the same as taking on the massive job of holding the collection together. The saloon is closing because fire officials require a different kitchen fire prevention system be installed. The Feys sold the water rights and raised $69,000 to pay the $50,000 tab for the new system. But the building also needed a new roof, and the family wanted to call it quits.

The reels from a 1930s Mills Novelty Co. slot.

Photo By David Robert

In a development that reminds some of the breakup and auction of the cream of the Harrah’s Automobile Collection, the Fey machines will all be auctioned off in a July 8 sale. Marshall says he feels “terrible” about the impending breakup of the collection he spent decades building. “I was hoping there’d be a national museum for slots. We have the best slot collection on public display.”

And out of public display. The stuff on the restaurant floor is only part of the collection. In storage upstairs are additional machines—slots, pinballs, flip card viewers, a juke box.

A list of the awards for a 1901 Caille poker slot machine.

Photo By David Robert

For the casino industry, it seems like a safe bet that a slot-machine museum could enhance respectability, emphasize heritage and attract customers. Unless such a benefactor emerges soon, though, in 140 days, the collection that took a generation to assemble will be gone.