On with the show

A new book explores the lives of Reno’s casino showroom musicians from the ’50s to the ’90s

Author and musician Patricia Crane moved to Reno in 2001.

Author and musician Patricia Crane moved to Reno in 2001.

Photo/Brad Bynum

String players tended to consider the casino gigs merely a lucrative—hopefully temporary—job, while non-string players saw the gig as an “arrival,” professional success.

Patricia Crane is a musician and musicologist based in Reno. Her new book, Casino Sidemen: Reno Showroom Musicians of the 1950s-1990s, dives into the working lives of the musicians who backed marquee names like Sammy Davis, Jr., during the heyday of Reno’s casino showrooms.

In the book’s introduction, Crane wrote: “Before Reno’s population exceed 200,000, the city boasted an opera, philharmonic and chamber orchestras, a music department at the university, several exceptional jazz bands, and amazing school music programs. Today, this relatively small city still offers abundant musical options, a feature that impressed me since moving to Reno in 2001. … I now credit the casino musicians with generously ’planting seeds’ for music in Reno and nearby Lake Tahoe, and with continuing to nurture the fruits of their efforts.”

For more information about the book, visit arcadiapublishing.com.

In this abridged excerpt, Crane discusses a behind-the-scenes schism among different sections of the casinos’ musical ensembles. It’s a peek into the lives of the hard-working musicians of Reno’s casino glory days.

The great divide

In general, musicians identified themselves based on their training and career expectations. The wind (including woodwind and brass) and percussion players in the casino bands generally set out to play swing or jazz music, training in the military or any available academic programs. Their professional role models included popular jazz and big band musicians like Harry James.

Stereotypes of jazz musicians focused on individualism, masculinity, anti-social behavior, “narcotics, murky slum-area bars, prostitutes, the criminal element, loose morals, and the renegades of society … often regarded as one of society’s deviant groups and part of its social problems,” according to Robert A. Stebbins’ 1966 article “Class, Status and Power among Jazz and Commercial Musicians.”

Meanwhile, string players usually set out to play classical music, attending academic music programs and classical festivals. Strings lusted for solo careers like those of Jascha Heifetz or Fritz Kreisler or for careers in major orchestras. String player stereotypes suggested highbrow society, class, elegance, social restraint, and even femininity in comparison to the wind counterparts. As Ingrid Monson notes, “A player’s instrumental role is in turn viewed as having a long-term effect on his or her personality. The instrument may be cited in explanation of the player’s attitudes, modes of thinking, and musical perceptions.”

Still, musicians trained to play classical music found casino earnings attractive. A local string player, Valerie Nelson, remembered the warnings of her music professors at the University of Nevada, Reno during the flourishing casino shows: “I grew up in Reno and studied at the university with Harold Goddard, and when we were in college, Mr. Goddard really encouraged us to devote ourselves to studying the instrument and not get sidetracked by job opportunities that were out there. So, there was always this enticing element where you could play in the clubs. There came an opportunity to play, and of course, Mr. Goddard said, ’Don’t get involved in that because you can get sidetracked, and you’ll just start making money, and you’ll forget about practicing your instrument and what the goal is.’ … I was a music major. Of course, later on when [Goddard] retired, Dom Toti got him involved in playing in a show, and he totally loved it. He said, ’Oh, I wish I’d done this earlier.’ But for us who were in college, you know, there were a few of us, it was during the summer time, so I said, “Sure. I’ll go ahead and do that.’ … So, I played in lots of shows at Tahoe and sometimes there’d be employee shows during that summer, and later on, from Tahoe at 3 o’clock in the morning and then go to an 8 o’clock class—I had an 8 o’clock class. But the money was like he said. It was enticing, and you could make a—for someone in college—you could make a good amount of money in a short amount of time.”

Entertainers and bandleaders recognized a dividing line between the two sides of the orchestra, sometimes bringing attention to the division. Violinist “Siep” recalled Sammy Davis’ acknowledgment of the orchestra: “Sammy Davis used to always introduce us like, ’Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.’ He was talking to the string section. Then he walks over to the other side with the brass players and says, ’Hey mothers.’” Pearl Bailey also addressed the two sides of the stage during her act: “She’d point to the string section and say, ’This is the hotel side of the orchestra, and this is the motel side [referring to the wind and brass players].’” Even the advertised designation of “orchestra”—versus “band”—for the casino’s ensemble suggested a difference in audience perception between a group with or without strings, and therefore class.

Besides backgrounds and perceptions, the two sides of the stage defined successful careers differently. String players tended to consider the casino gigs merely a lucrative—hopefully temporary—job, while non-string players saw the gig as an “arrival,” professional success. A violinist described the work as “prostituting” himself, selling his skills in a shameful way while he could have been playing classical music elsewhere. As a percussionist noted, “String players [played casino shows] because they never made so much money in their lives.” His string-playing wife added, “It was a job for me. … For some people, it really was an identity.” Perhaps the differing expectations explained why more casino string musicians than non-strings taught in school music programs during the day, seeking occupational dignity. A jazz bass player straddling the band’s divide recalled, “For the horn players, this was like playing in the San Francisco Symphony. For the string player, it wasn’t this critical thing, but for the horn player, this was really it, and the horn player was expected to be a really hot player.” A brass player concurred, saying, “There was no step up from here unless you wanted to be the star yourself.”

The disparity between musician expectations likely created the social divide. Some people viewed the divide as more subtle, the undercurrent easily explained as when one violinist noted, “I would say there was about the same degree of mixing—that is, extent in the orchestras, which is not very much. You know, birds of a … feather flock together. … Between the horns—I mean the trumpets, the brass and the woodwinds—and the strings, there wasn’t much. … Harrah’s Christmas Party—I think the very first ones—the strings were not invited to the band party.”

A percussionist described an ongoing undercurrent between instrumentalists: “There’s a certain amount of arrogance associated with string players, not only in the casino bands, but in the symphony. They’re just arrogant people. I’m sorry, but they are. They think they’re a cut above other musicians because they play classical music. Well, excuse me. What we play—jazz and show music—is down here; it’s a couple of steps beneath them. And they accepted the job for the extra money, but that’s really all. You know, they don’t really want to admit that they might actually have played in a show band. Oh, by God, no … something other than the symphony. … They’re very clannish, I guess would be the term—very clannish, a cliquish group of individuals. The guys in the band used to make jokes about them because they were that way. Like, ’Who do these people think they are? We’re all doing the same job.’ But it’s actually beneath them to have to play. You know, if it’s not Prokofiev, they don’t want to play it. … It was like a bring-down to them [to play casino shows], whereas for us, that was the epitome. … They’ve never studied jazz; they don’t have an appreciation for what goes into being able to improvise, the basic knowledge you have to have to improvise takes years. But a lot of them don’t have an appreciation for that.”

Both ends of the band defined the opposite side with nicknames and quiet judgment of their differences. Non-string musicians called their string colleagues names to describe their instruments, names like “mice,” explained in an interview to mimic the high-pitched squeaks of violins; also the “strange” section and “scratches.” One horn player said, “We all joked around together. The string players were, of course, straighter.”

String players, meanwhile, commented on the alcohol, drugs and partying from their counterparts. One violinist attributed the rowdy behavior to playing on the road prior to settling into casino jobs, saying about the motel side: “Many more of the partiers were on that side. I was always kind of happy to be involved with some of those creative-type personalities that I found on the other side of the band. I was always drawn to that. Yeah, but it really is true about musicians, and especially rock musicians and jazz musicians, you know—sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. There’s a lot of truth to that. … There were people that did that for years and played on the road and that was part of their lives. That’s where they unwound. They weren’t on the road with their families, with their wives. And that’s where they unwound, was hanging out after shows with their buddies in the bars or whatever, or having a party at their house and passing the pipe around.”

Another violinist described similar observations, “seeing some of the behavior of some guys on the other side of the orchestra. … Sometimes, even in the band room, you’d think people were mixing their alcohol and drugs not in the right combination. I can remember one night this trumpet player decided that he just wanted to get into his locker and close the door and of course those lockers were not that big, you know, like a coat locker. I guess I found it strange that I always thought about people drinking and taking drugs as being more people that would be my peers … in my 20s, and to see guys that were in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and hitting it so heavily.”

Not all people interviewed recognized a social dichotomy within the band. A violinist, for instance, perceived no differences in career expectations. A married couple from opposite sides of the stage discussed this topic during an interview. After the cellist wife described, “I felt accepted. I felt like if you played well, you were accepted by your own side and the other side,” the trombone-player husband admitted sensing a split, saying, “Some people didn’t know how to relate to string players, you know. They didn’t feel comfortable about that. … Maybe our language over on our side of the band, you know, was there again—the motel. Whatever we could do to keep everybody laughing was no holds barred.”

Despite their perceived or unperceived differences, musicians from both sides retained professional respect. After describing difference in career expectations and musicianship, a “motel” player added, “Even though we called them ’mice,’ there was never a lack of respect. We always knew the string players were going to be good. They were the best around.”

Violinist Jody Weber remembered how several non-string band members remained on the Harrah’s Reno stage after shows to play jazz, led by Bob Barnes. Called a “kicks band,” the musicians, many with former careers in well-known jazz bands, played from favorite music charts of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Meanwhile, string players sat in audience chairs to enjoy the jam sessions. Then, band members changed roles for chamber orchestra concerts. Weber considered the relationship between band sides to be “a mutual admiration society,” further noting that the harmoniousness “might have started because [band members] were maybe involved with one another. … People became kind of attracted to other, and they had certain things in common, and it may start with music but end up being something more personal and some of those have developed into long-term relationships or marriages that are still ongoing.” Perhaps, said Weber, George Hernandez’s decision to purposely hire female string players nurtured his orchestra’s ability to blend, to “keep it balanced.” In contrast, Weber sensed the opposite relationship between band sides in Las Vegas showrooms, saying, “They’re like high class and low class. They never mingle or associate with one another.”

Casino environments varied in other ways as well, even limiting the focus on the Reno area. For instance, competition for musician seats varied according to band sizes, the number of available showrooms, the atmosphere at the Musicians’ Union, entertainer trends for instrumentation, and the number of musicians vying for seats. Competitive undercurrents depended to a large extent on perceived threats to jobs and personal expectations from stage work. For instance, the unsettling threat from the Harrah’s Tahoe leadership that hired and fired musicians for the string section left camaraderie especially in that section more in an “us/them” form and disrupted job security, an atmosphere seldom seen at other local casinos. This is not to say that other jobs came with any guarantees. A band conductor told a violinist substituting for the lead player that he wanted her to stay in the head position even when the regular player returned. She was told that if she refused the position, she could not stay in the house band. With limited options, the violinist remained in the seat, greatly relieved when the returning musician and she became good friends.

Conductors, especially in the early show years, sometimes exhausted the list of local musicians, and hired people from San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles or Las Vegas, creating different, less cohesive social dynamics in bands. A violinist explained that the better musicians rarely took Reno jobs because “if you were really working seriously [somewhere else], you can’t come to Reno. It seemed like the young ones almost always had some kind of attitude problems or something. I don’t know what it was, and they didn’t really know the business. They didn’t necessarily sight-read well. Maybe sometimes you got an older person that couldn’t play very well anymore.” Of course, the number of substitutes who eventually became permanent fixtures in house bands proves that some very capable, albeit inexperienced, players found niches professionally and socially. Local musician lists grew, peaking in the early 1970s.

A cooperative, professional environment generally persisted among band members, described as a “family” atmosphere. Realize, however, that the band led somewhat sequestered lives, dating and marrying other band members, socializing after work hours just from the nature of their jobs—their work hours, the close quarters between shows, their musical unity on stage, and their unique skills. A violinist recalled various musicians dating, sometimes with a disparity in age, explaining, “That was just the pool you had to work with. [The job] was your whole life. … There was just this very much herd instinct, a gig would be over, and people would just start filtering back up to the bar. It was just you didn’t get that far away from your clan.”

A woodwind player described the musician community that still prevails in Reno: “Here, I find it’s like a small town camaraderie because everybody knows everybody, and it’s a small geographic [area], so you have to be nice. I like that. I find that very pleasant about Reno.”