‘That’s Life’: The rise, fall and possible redemption of the Cal-Neva Lodge | SierraSun.com

‘That’s Life’: The rise, fall and possible redemption of the Cal-Neva Lodge

The Cal-Neva resort remains empty now, but once bustled with life brought in from legend Frank Sinatra.
Courtesy Don Graham

The Cal-Neva Lodge & Casino irreversibly changed the history of north shore Lake Tahoe when it opened in 1926. What started as a simple plot of land for friendly gatherings became 14 acres of walls that saw famous celebrities, mobsters, and guests from all over the region looking to gamble, get a taste of the good life in the basin, or simply start a new life all together. 

The History

Known as the “Lady of the Lake” and the “Castle in the Sky,” the once log cabin was built by wealthy San Francisco businessman Robert Sherman, who initially contracted out the project with Adler Larson to entertain his friends and guests. 

“North Lake Tahoe was known for gaming casinos even on the California side in the early 20th century before Nevada legalization,” said Tahoe Sierra Historian/Author Mark McLaughlin. “Same was true in Truckee. Tipsters would let operators know when law enforcement was on the way so slot machines and tables could be hidden before their arrival, similar to how alcohol was served here during Prohibition.

“The Nevada side of the lake was also very popular for gaming among movie stars and the rich across the country doing Reno’s Divorce Era; just another distraction while those trying to dumb a spouse spent the mandatory six week waiting period,” he added.

Gaming was legalized in Nevada in 1931 but with very little regulations, leaving the property that was split between Nevada and California to its own devices. 

There are many major players who have owned and operated the Cal-Neva, most notably Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, who brought members of the Rat Pack and Marilyn Monroe to frequent the Celebrity Room, where Sinatra and other legends like Eddie Fisher and Dean Martin performed. 

“By 1930 Hollywood celebrities like actress Clara Bow were already visiting and gambling at the Lake Tahoe Cal-Neva before gaming was legalized in the state,” said McLaughlin. “That was possible due to its relatively remote location and Nevada’s causal approach to law enforcement in the basin. It was simply the hip and chic place to hangout for those ‘in the know’ with financial resources.” 

At the time, the casino was owned by James McKay and William “Bill” Graham, who ran much of Reno in the 1930’s. McKay and Graham were the head of the local mob in Reno, who wanted full control of the area without any competition. The duo ran speakeasies during Prohibition and illegal gambling with their trusted partner Elmer “Bones” Reder.

Prior to the creation of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, matters were settled amongst owners in their own way. If a man was caught beating the house, he would end up with his arms broken by Reder, who ran the floor until 1947. Even Bow, who stiffed the casino $13,900 (a $198,000 value today) could have faced the wrath of Reder if she hadn’t been a silent film star, according to gambling history and true crime author Doresa Banning. 

As the popularity of the lodge grew in the 1930’s, it faced the unfortunate fate of burning to the ground on May 17, 1937. It was rebuilt in thirty days by Norman Biltz and Adler Larsen, who employed over 500 men to work night and day to bring the casino back to life. 

In the time before the lodge was owned by Frank Sinatra, a man by the name of Sanford “Sandy” Adler came to own the Cal-Neva Lodge. In that time, he built the famous Wigwam Room. 

“Moose and deer heads and bear skins adorned the walls, and on the right side, near the entrance, they constructed (and it’s still there) the massive fireplace, flanked by huge granite boulders that brought the outside inside,” wrote Bethel Holmes Van Tassel, an Incline Village local who was able to write of the casinos in the Lake Tahoe area in her book “Wood Chips to Game Chips: Casinos and People at North Lake Tahoe”. 

The Cal-Neva was then purchased by Wing Grober and his partner Teddy Tracton and his son Red Grober in 1955. During that time, Joe Kennedy, father of President John F. Kennedy, was the supplier of liquor and steaks at his Steak House in Miami Beach, which subsequently led to Joe spending a large amount of time at the Cal-Neva. During John Kennedy’s campaign, many of his family members spent time at the lodge, including Robert Kennedy and his wife, Ethel. 

The Sinatra Years

When Sinatra took over operations of the casino it was September 20, 1960, and he was known for filling the roster of guests with performers and stars, including Sammy Davis Jr., Vic Damone, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, and actress and singer Marilyn Monroe.

Monroe. Monroe spent time with Sinatra, Martin, and Davis. Jr., and spent her last weekend alive at the Cal-Neva after ending her five month affair with Robert Kennedy.  

With his arrival came the remodeling of the casino, which included the addition of the Celebrity Room and a helicopter landing. According to Tassel, Sinatra was the only one who used the landing pad, but had bigger plans for it that never came to fruition. 

The Showroom featured extravagant décor that brought the walls to life. |
Courtesy Douglas LeMoine

“Sinatra, according to some sources, planned to build Sinatra’s Shangri-La in Reno, transporting guests between Lake Tahoe and Reno via helicopter, a dream that, unfortunately for Sinatra and the economy of the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, did not materialize,” wrote Tassel. “The Sinatra years at Tahoe were the most profitable ever for that area.” 

Sinatra also utilized secret tunnels beneath the showroom and the bungalows behind the hotel on the lake. The tunnels were carpeted and lined with brick, and allowed for Sinatra and other celebrities to easily travel between the areas without the threat of traveling eyes and press. 

The Fall of Cal-Neva

Gaming, which had previously been regulated by the Nevada Tax Commission, saw a change in 1955. The creation of the Nevada Gaming Control Board that year was in charge of overseeing the licensing and operation of Nevada casinos, along with eliminating threats to the establishment of gaming and its integrity. 

One way to do that was the creation of the Black Book, which was a listing of nefarious characters and cheaters are not allowed in casinos. One member on that list was Sam Giancana. 

Giancana was the head mob boss of the Chicago mafia, and was referred to as “The Godfather” of the American Mafia. It is rumored that Giancana assisted Sinatra in purchasing the Cal-Neva, and was the eventual reason why Sinatra lost his gaming license in 1963. With the loss, Sinatra chose to close the Celebrity Room. 

“Thus brought the end of an era that will never be surpassed or ever seen again on the shore of the North Lake Tahoe,” wrote Tassel. “Frank Sinatra’s reign at Cal-Neva Lodge was as colorful as the man himself and will not be forgotten.” 

On Labor Day in 1963, Sinatra closed the lodge. 

Current Day

The lodge switched hands through many in the years following Sinatra’s reign, including mogul Kirk Kerkorian. In 2013, the resort and casino was purchased by Criswell Radovan, a Napa Valley-based real estate firm. The resort then closed in September 2013 for renovations. 

Like most who bought the Cal-Neva after its glory days with Sinatra, the firm hoped to bring the lodge back to what it once was. 

“With the reopening, there will be a rebirth … it will be a totally different creature,” said Robert Radovan, co-owner of Criswell Radovan and controlling partner of the property at the time. 

But that never happened. After years of pushing back renovations and the grand reopening, the New Cal-Neva Lodge LLC filed for bankruptcy. 

In 2017, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison gained bankruptcy court approval to buy the resort for $35.8 million, according to public records. Ellison has also claimed to hope to bring the property back to its former glory, but the coveted location remains untouched today. 

There are many rumors as to what the Cal-Neva Resort & Casino will become, but the mystery still remains to be answered; as will many that stemmed from the historic landmark to the North Shore. 

This article would not have been possible without the help of the Gatekeepers Museum and their staff, located in Tahoe City, California. 

Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2022-23 winter edition of Tahoe Magazine.

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