by Dick Dreiling
The original image of Last Chance Joe was designed in 1952 by Roscoe E. “Duke” Reading of Boise Idaho for Dick Graves.
At that time, Richard L. “Dick” Graves owned the Last Chance Café in Garden City, ID, an independent city in the NW part Boise. This image was used for several years in local advertising.
In Idaho, Graves had been involved in restaurants in the Idaho locations of Boise, Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, Kimberly, Mountain Home and Caldwell. He also sold and operated pin ball machines and slot machines for years. When Idaho made gambling illegal in 1953, Graves decided to sell out all of his enterprises in Idaho and made the move to Nevada where gambling had been legal since 1931. Many of his associates moved to Nevada with him including Jim Kelly, John Ascuaga, Bill Raymond, Gene Carr and several others.
His first Nevada casino was established when he bought the Eagle Club and Café in Yerington which he renamed the Nugget.
In early 1953, the Nugget in Reno was opened by a group of local investors headed by realtor John Hickok. The location at 233 N. Virginia Street was the original location of the Piccadilly Club. In late 1953, the Reno Nugget was purchased by Dick Graves and Jim Kelly.
In February 1954, Dick Graves leased Broderick’s Bar and the Mint Café in Carson City. He combined the two and opened the Carson Nugget on March 1, 1954. Graves was also considering attempting to acquire facilities in Fallon for another Nugget, but that project was shelved.
The gold miner version of Last Chance Joe was utilized in advertising at all of the renamed Nugget casinos.
Dick Graves’ practice was to open a casino, get it well-established, then sell it and move on to another town. When he decided he wanted to open a casino in Sparks, Jim Kelly wanted to stay in Reno, so on January 1, 1955, Graves sold his share of the Reno Nugget to Jim Kelly.
On December 14, 1954 it was announced that Dick Graves was to open the fourth Nugget Casino in Sparks. The location was to be 1144 B Street (now Victorian Avenue), the previous site of Western Mercantile. The new casino was to be basically patterned after its big brother in Carson City. After remodeling, the club opened on March 17, 1955 with 50 slot machines and a 60-stool café.
In January, 1955 Graves placed an ad in the papers stating “FOR SALE the Nugget in Yerington. This completely equipped bar, restaurant and casino is a terrific opportunity for someone. I just don’t have the time to take care of this place, so I will let it go at a sacrifice. It will only take about $30,000 to handle and about half of that is prepaid rent on a very good lease. See Dick Graves the Carson City Nugget.”
Desiring to make the Last Chance Joe character more than just a printed advertisement inclusion, Graves sent sketches of Last Chance Joe designed by Roscoe “Duke” Reading.to the Rempel Manufacturing Company to check on the feasibility of manufacture and price each for a few thousand squeeze toys available for sale.
When told he would have to order a minimum of 100,000, he gave up on the idea. Later, however, the folks at Rempel decided the figure would fit in with their “Little Folks from Sunnyslope” collection. They contacted Dick Graves with a proposition — if he and Roscoe “Duke” Reading would relinquish their royalty rights to allow Rempel to make the figures, Rempel would produce a limited number with the “Nugget” emblazoned on the hat.
The figure had to be slightly redesigned to remove the outstretched hand holding the nugget and the other hand with the gold pan. Graves agreed and received the dolls he needed for his gift shop.
As he recalled in a UNR oral history, “The creation of Last Chance Joe was actually done while we were still in Idaho, and had a place in Garden City called the Last Chance Cafe. We wanted to create an idea of an old miner or something like that, and I had a very good friend, Duke Reading, who was an artist and had a silk screen business.
“I commissioned Duke to come up with some kind of a character we could use, and he created Last Chance Joe. We eventually had rubber dolls made that were about twelve, fourteen inches high and we sold tens of thousands of these dolls. It was a good character, sold for one dollar.”
Rempel went on to sell many thousands of the figures nationwide with a blank hat and Graves sold his with the “Nugget” emblazoned hat. Last Chance Joe became one of the best-selling toys produced by Rempel.
Back in Sparks, by June 1955, Graves had acquired and remodeled the site of Peterson’s Drug Store into an expansion of the original Sparks Nugget adding another 2500 square feet of floor space.
Meanwhile at the Carson Nugget, Graves had a four-foot high wooden figure made of Last Chance Joe. The figure was used in many publicity events. In 2008, the figure was sold at an auction of Nugget memorabilia for $700.
In September 1957 in a newspaper announcement regarding the building of a new casino across the street from the original Nugget, Dick Graves reported there would be a 35 foot figure of Last Chance Joe on the front of the new building.
Construction of the figure was assigned to R. L. Grosh & Sons Scenic Studio in Hollywood, CA. Since the design and construction would entail many different disciplines, Tru-Roll Corporation and Pacific Promotions Company were enlisted to assist. The figure was built with a structural steel internal frame which was then covered in chicken wire and papier-mache to build out the various features. It was then covered in a glass cloth called Celastic, painted, then sealed with a plastic spray.
Celastic is a generic name for a plastic impregnated fabric which becomes moldable and adhesive when activated by immersion in solvent or with heat. When dry or cool, it is tranformed into a light-weight, high-impact, weatherproof ‘shell’, having excellent shape memory and bonding power. Celastic can be drilled and will accept many finishing techniques.
The completed figure was 32 feet tall. Since that would be an unwieldy item to transport, it was decided to construct the figure in three sections which were then loaded onto a flat-bed railcar. The total height of the railcar and the three figure pieces were approximately 19 feet. Routing of the railcar from Southern California to Sparks, Nevada required sending the car through Oregon to avoid tunnels and snowsheds that were not of sufficient height to provide clear passage. There are some reports that rerouting was not necessary. This writer has not been able to confirm either story.
The figure was off-loaded and reassembled by Reno Iron Works. There had been many stories that the main entrance to the casino was to be between his legs, however, that was not to be as his legs were not nearly far enough apart to permit that. Instead, he was mounted to the left of the main entrance of the new casino building. There was a mosaic rooster mounted on the opposite side of the entrance to advertise that the Nugget featured “Kentucky Fried Chicken” in its Golden Rooster Room restaurant.
Little did we realize what Dick Graves did for Sparks (Tongue firmly in cheek). A September 29, 1959 article in the Idaho State Journal, Pocatello, ID reported: “An Idaho Restauranteur Brought a Nevada Ghost Town to Life – Three years ago Sparks, Nevada was a dead burg. An old Southern Pacific railroad junction, it died with Dieselization. But by last week Sparks was one of the liveliest ex-ghost towns in the West. Reason: A human whirlwind named Dick Graves had blown into town, taken over, and turned Sparks into Nevada’s Restaurant Row.”
Joe’s 56 years outside the front of the Sparks Nugget were not without incident. On December 4, 1969, the Reno Evening Gazette reported, “LAST CHANCE JOE, John Ascuaga’s 36 foot tall trademark at the Sparks Nugget, got himself outfitted in a brand new Santa Claus suit this week. The outfit, which was tailored by Herb’s Awnings of Sparks, contains 80 yards of red canvas, 40 yards of white shag, 12 yards of black vinyl and two mop heads. The mop heads were used for the tassel on the hat.”
In January 1993, Young Electric Sign Co. was tasked with the job of repairing the face of Joe when a section of the left side of his face fell off due to severe winter storms. In February 1994 during plans for a major redevelopment of downtown Sparks, the Nugget was going to expand and redesign the north, east and west sides of the Nugget to fit in with the planned Victorian theme for B Street (which was to be renamed Victorian Avenue), the Nugget Architect Peter Wilday said the Nugget was going to move Last Chance Joe. He had no idea where Joe would end up, but reassured all that the Nugget would find a suitable spot for him. That move did not happen.
Roscoe “Duke” Reading, Last Chance Joe’s designer passed away on March 28, 1990.
In May 2014, Global Gaming & Hospitality LLC, the new owners of the Nugget, decided Last Chance Joe did not fit in with their remodeling plans and he had to go. City Councilwoman, Julia Ratti got a bid of about $61,000 to remove him and relocate him to the west wall of the C Street parking garage. The City Council decided it would not spend that kind of money on the project. She approached the Sparks Heritage Museum Board of Trustees to see if we could help.
The Board suggested that if Joe was to be moved, a better location would be in front of the Museum as that would provide better visibility for him. Councilwoman Ratti got another bid of about $36,000 to remove him and install him in front of the Museum. She also received a pledge from a not-to-be-named donor to cover all of the costs of the move. The Museum began raising funds for the restoration of the figure. The initial estimates of the restoration was to be around $20,000 to $25,000. Unfortunately, the anonymous donor gave only a $6,000 check then departed the area.
In October, 2014, Last Chance Joe was removed from the front of the Nugget, laid on his back on a flat-bed trailer, covered with a tarp and hauled to the east end of the Nugget parking lot to await the construction of a foundation with steel uprights in front of the Museum to mount him securely.
By December 2, 2014, Joe was reinstalled in front of the Museum. During a subsequent inspection of Joe conducted by Will Durham, the designated restorer, revealed that the cost of the restoration would be much higher than originally estimated. This was primarily due to the fact that the 56 year-old figure had never been built with the idea of ever being moved. In addition, Joe had been poorly patched and partially repainted several times. His original green trousers and vest had been changed in color to a shade of blue. His skin tones had been subtly changed to almost match the color of his shirt.
Since the move and reinstallation had already occurred and the anonymous donor had departed, the restoration funds had to be raided to pay off the total moving cost. The figure was sealed to be able to survive the winter storms expected and no other work was done. The following June, Will Durham began the task of restoring Last Chance Joe. Unfortunately the Museum had to use Operating Funds to pay for the restoration. The restoration went slower than anticipated due to several of the resins being used were restricted to a temperature range of 60° to 80° F. The high summer temperatures of 2016 were the prime problem. The upper two-thirds of the front Joe were fiber-glassed and primed to ensure he would be able to withstand the upcoming winter. He looked terrible!
Problems arose over permits, bonding, insurance, etc. that delayed the finishing of the restoration work so ably accomplished by Crown Painting. Last Chance Joe’s dedication and Homecoming Celebration is scheduled for June 22.