By Ray Hagar, Nevada Newsmakers
I’m guessing it must have been 1958 or 1959 when I first met ‘Johnny’ Ascuaga.
This was when the Nugget was across the street from where it is now. It was a 60-seat restaurant with some slot machines.
Mr. Ascuaga, in his early 30s, ran the place, but it was owned by another Nevada gaming legend, Dick Graves.
I was just a little kid, 5 or 6. My Mom had brought my brother and me to the Nugget in downtown Sparks for dinner. It was a very popular spot. Mr. Ascuaga would make the rounds and greet people in the restaurant. He was personable. Everybody liked him: Short in stature but a giant personality.
He let us call him “Johnny” and carried a walkie-talkie on his hip. He would put it up to my ear and let me talk into it. I was thrilled. Every time we came in, he let me talk into his walkie-talkie.
The most appealing thing on the menu for me this one time was the “Shrimp Boat” — five pieces of fried shrimp stuck on a stick to look like a sail. The plate it came on looked like a boat, too.
I ordered it, to my brother’s chagrin. I wanted to play with it it, not eat it. So I ran into trouble with Mom.
“Johnny” saved the day. He had the waitress bring me an “Awful Awful” hamburger instead. My Mom couldn’t say no to his generosity and didn’t want to smack me in public. It was delicious. The scolding I got when we got home was not so fun.
More than 40 years later, I was in Mr. Ascuaga’s office as the gaming/tourism reporter for the Reno Gazatte-Journal. I told him the “Shrimp Boat” story. He immediately grabbed pen and paper, scribbled “Shrimp Boat” on the notepad and said, “Good idea! Maybe we ought to bring that back.”
Ascuaga, at his essence, was an idea man. And in his time running one of the great resorts in Nevada, he had plenty.
However, not all of them were good. One angered my Grandma Hagar.
If I recall correctly, it was the mid 1960s. Johnny suggested changing the name of Sparks to East Reno, my grandma told me. Reno was in a Golden Age as a destination-resort city back then, back before tribal gaming. People who saw advertising recognized “Reno” but not “Sparks.’
Sparks citizens were an independent lot and nobody wanted to live in a place called “East Reno.”
Ascuaga, however, found a way to block the blowback and placate the populace.
In advertising, he just referred to the Nugget as “the Reno area’s finest’ resort. In other ads, where he identified the resort’s location as Sparks, he put East Reno in parenthesis.
Other ideas, though, blossomed into major events. His “Nugget Rib Cook-off” became a largest barbecue event in the nation, attracting 300,000 people over four days and selling out hotel rooms across the region on Labor Day weekend. In 2004, 156,000 pounds of pork ribs were consumed.
Ascuaga was also instrumental in forming the grand-daddy of all Northern Nevada special events, “Hot August Nights.” But the rib cook-off was his baby.
Another great Ascuaga idea was the Nugget scholarship program, It started in 1956, when it awarded deserving students $1,000 for college. That was a lot of money 65 years ago. The program expanded to include students from across Northern Nevada. The photos of the scholarship winners were hung on a wall in the Nugget. My Mom said she’d be proud if I ever won one but, alas, on that point, sorry Mom.
By 2005, the 50-year anniversary of the Nugget, more than 500 students had earned Nugget scholarships. I’m sure Ascuaga’s generosity will always be remembered by them. What a great jump-start those scholarships were to so many young Nevadans.
Another example of Ascuaga’s showmanship was the “Golden Rooster,” a 15-pound, 18 carat solid-gold sculpture of a rooster that originally was at the entrance of the Golden Rooster Room, a Nugget restaurant specializing in fried chicken.
First made in 1958, the rooster was later confiscated by the U.S. Treasury, citing a law that barred citizens from having more than 50 ounces of gold in their possession, unless it was a work of art. After many months, the rooster was returned after a jury trial deemed the rooster was, indeed, art. The confiscation and subsequent trial was a publicity boon for the Nugget.
And let’s not forget the “Home Sweet Home Sweepstakes” where Ascuaga annually raffled off a sweet 2,000-square-foot home in the Reno-Sparks area. The chance at home ownership would net almost 40,000 raffle entrees annually. The home raffled away in one year in the early 2000’s was listed for $165,000.
Wonder what it’s worth today?
Ascuaga originally bought the Nugget from Dick Graves in 1960. Although Ascuaga’s Nugget made the Awful Awful famous, it was Dick Graves who had imported the famous burger to Northern Nevada from Idaho. Graves, Ascuaga’s mentor, also founded “The Nugget” in downtown Reno and Carson City.
The Sparks Nugget’s selling price in 1960 was a reported $3.75 million. Graves reportedly said to Ascuaga, “Pay me when you can.”
It took Ascuaga seven years to pay the debt, in a contract that gave him 12 years, according published reports.
After he bought the Nugget from Graves, Ascuaga built his iconic mega-resort across the street, beginning in 1961. The old Nugget became “Trader Dick’s,” a restaurant with a Polynesian theme that stayed there until 1973, when it was incorporated into the main resort building.
Part of 1961 expansion was the construction of “The Circus Room,” where Ascuaga brought in “Ed-Sullivan-Show” caliber acts and entertainers. It was quite an event for this little kid to go to a dinner show with my family and see performers such Red Skelton or Rowan & Martin, definite A-listers of the 1960s.
When our Bishop Manogue High football team won the state championship in 1970, Ascuaga treated all of us, including head Coach Chris Ault, to a dinner show in the Circus Room. “Mickey Finn,” a husband-wife team with a Dixieland jazz and comedy routine, put on the show. They were very popular back then, having their own TV show and headliner gigs at Caesars Palace.
The best part of every show — and another one of Ascuaga’s great ideas — were the Nugget’s preforming elephants. First came Bertha, then Tina and finally Angel. They became synonymous with the Nugget, appeared on national TV and developed their own following. People stayed at the Nugget just to see the elephants, who had their own home and swimming pool on the Nugget property.
All the kids loved the elephants. When I was in 2nd or 3rd grade at St. Thomas School in downtown Reno, Bertha paid a visit to the school’s all-purpose room. It was amazing to get an elephant in there. We got to pet her. Some kids fed her peanuts. First and only time I ever touched an elephant.
Sometimes, you’d find the Nugget headliners at Sunday mass at Immaculate Conception Church on Pyramid Way in Sparks. Once, my aunt almost fainted when she saw Donald O’Connor taking communion. (Starred in all the “Francis the Talking Mule” movies. Perhaps best known for “Singin’ in the Rain).
Immaculate Conception was also Ascuaga’s church back then. He’d be there each Sunday, family in tow. He was a man of faith and was good to The Church.
Through the Ascuaga decades, the Nugget was known for its delicious food in restaurants like the Golden Rooster Room, Oyster Bar, Pancake Parlor and Round House steak house. The 5-piece fried chicken dinner with mashed ‘taters and country gravy was my favorite as a growing boy.
The Nugget’s food was served for a fair price. The food and its pricing became the resort’s top attraction and the main reason why the Nugget meant so much to the working people and railroaders who lived in Sparks 50 years ago.
The Nugget had a national reputation but it was also the top locals’ casino. When families went there to eat, parents sometimes wanted to have a drink or gamble before dinner — or while we waited for an open table — the kids went to the Children’s Theater. I saw “Mighty Joe Young” and the original “King Kong” there.
My story isn’t unique. Hundreds, maybe thousands of kids who grew up in Sparks, also have fond memories of Mr. Ascuaga, the Nugget and how they impacted their lives
Many mourn his recent passing, yet his time on Earth was well lived. I can’t think of anyone who has had a bigger role in the history of Sparks. Love to see a school named for him and his statue erected at City 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 years before retiring in 2016. He continues to work part-time for Nevada Newsmakers and has worked with Sam Shad on Newsmakers since 2003.