The Olson-brothers’ great Harolds Club caper

Fallon, NV. 3:55pm.

Cruising through the Nevada desert marks a good moment for me to tell one of the truly great stories of the cross-country bike ride my dad and uncle did in 1961 – 16 and 12 years old. It’s a story of two young and very brave boys who knew how to set a goal and execute it with precision – while mostly winging it. A true fly by the seat of your pants-story.

Essentially since the beginning of the trip, in Frederick, Maryland, they’d seen roadside billboards advertising a place named Harolds Club in Reno, Nevada. Harolds Club was a casino that had made itself renowned all around the world by putting these billboards up not only in America but in many other countries too. It was also well-known because it was in fact the world’s biggest gambling casino. It had seven floors of gambling all connected by escalators, which were rare in 1961. The club’s famous slogan was ”Harolds Club or Bust!”. The two brothers were – from the very beginning – on route 40, a road that went from their house to Reno and onwards to San Francisco. Some of the signs they saw would therefore also inform the travelers of the actual distance to the casino. They started out roughly 3000 miles away and quickly made their way towards Nevada. The advertising worked its magic on the boys who were soon wanting to get into the big club.

After a few weeks of riding – now only a few days away from Reno – the brothers had formed a plan. As soon as they rolled into town, they went to what was called a nickel and dime-store – the dollar store of the day – to purchase a box of crayons and to ask for an old cardboard box. The woman in the store got curious and asked the boys what they were going to use the materials for. Not afraid to tell the truth, the boys explained to her that they were going to make a sign reading ”Harolds Club, Reno or Bust. Maryland to California” and tell the great Harold himself that the whole purpose of the trip had been to come see his casino and that he should therefore let them inside to see it. The clerk told the young boys that these were some very smart people they were dealing with, and that they simply would not fall for such a lie.

”We’ll see about that!” the boys chirped as they left the store.

A few blocks away from the casino they sat down on the sidewalk and carefully made their sign. ”Harolds Club, Reno or Bust. Maryland to California” Yes, that would do the trick. In an attempt to make the sign look as if it had actually made the trip across the United States, they then rubbed the piece of cardboard against the ground and wrinkled it up a little bit before they fastened it to Eric’s bike and rolled towards the casino.

Outside, they were greeted by the floor manager who asked the boys what she could do for them.

They explained that they had just biked across the country to get to this very place, and that they would like to speak to Harold.

”Harold is out of town on a business trip I’m afraid. His son, Harold Jr. is the one in charge right now.”

”That’s OK, any Harold will do fine!” the boys exclaimed.

The floor manager called for Harold Jr., and soon enough he came walking out of the casino lobby. He was a very well dressed man, clad in what was surely a tailored suit and groomed to perfection. A sort of playboy of the wild west.

He listened to the two brothers tell him their story, and when they fell silent he, now smiling, said:

”Well come on in boys, you must be hungry!”

”Oh yes, we are!” Eric and Nils said excitedly as they led their dirty bikes inside the luxurious casino lobby. They had done it. The two kids had just tricked this multi-millionaire business-man into letting them inside his casino – a place otherwise reserved by law for those over 21 years of age.

Before going to the dining room, they had to figure out a place to leave their bicycles. Harold Jr. took them to the Gun Club – a room with hundred – if not thousands – of rifles and guns hanging on the walls.

”They’ll be safe in here,” he said, again smiling.

Walking into the top floor dining room, Harold Jr. told the brothers that they could help themselves to anything on the menu – free of charge. Upon being handed a menu, Eric, the older brother, quickly located the most expensive item – a filet mignon – and ordered that.

”A flaming what?!” his brother tweeted from across the table.

They both ended up ordering the same thing.

After dinner and dessert, Harold Jr. realized that the two boys must be tired. He made a call for one of the hotel’s Jaguars to come pick the brothers up and drive them to the Harolds Club Pony Express Lodge – the hotel part of the casino.

They ended up staying for a whole week free of charge. During this week they were treated to new clothes, tickets to the famous Can-Can Review and a helicopter ride around Reno. Harold Jr., seeing the great promotional value in the boys’ story, also set up several interviews with local newspapers to get the word out that two kids had traveled cross country to come to his casino. The fact that the whole town eventually found out about the story worried the boys a little. They knew that there was one person in Reno who knew that they were fraudsters – and they didn’t want her to start talking. They needn’t have worried though as the week went smoothly – and before they knew it their Reno adventure was over.

On the last day of their stay, Harold Jr. asked them whether they’d like a tour of Disney Land in California.

“Yes we would sir!” they replied.

“I’ll make a phone call to my friend Walt and see what we can work out.”

Walt Disney turned out to be out of town that week. My father still talks about that as one of the great tragedies of his life – being denied a tour of Disney World by Walt Disney himself.

Harolds Club finally closed its doors on March 31st, 1995. 4 years later Harrah’s purchased the building and razed it to instead create an open plaza.

Definitely one of the greatest stories I’ve ever been told – one I think needs to end up in a movie of some sort. The pressure is on me to re-create this sort of madness. I’ve got one state left to go crazy unless I want to be known as the “calm” Olson for the rest of my life.

Better get working on that.

2 thoughts on “The Olson-brothers’ great Harolds Club caper

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