John Ascuaga's Nugget Records

Identifier: 2014-13

Scope and Contents

John Ascuaga's Nugget Records are a representation of the work of John Ascuaga as the owner and operator of the Nugget as well as the operations and expansion of the casino-resort beginning in the late 1950s. Much of the material in this collection highlights the Nugget's physical expansion from the 1960s through the early 2000s. However, there is also a great deal of material, mostly in the form of scrapbooks, regarding the events, promotions, and entertainment put on by the Nugget over the decades.

Materials consist of a variety of documents, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, promotional materials, correspondence, internal memoranda, internal and external newsletters, memorabilia, and scrapbooks. The correspondence and memoranda primarily consist of materials between Ascuaga, his officers, and lawyers. The Nugget's chief financial officer, Parley Johnson, and Peter D. "Mickey" Laxalt, the Nugget's primary legal counsel, handled the majority of business dealings and property transactions that appear within these records.

Series 1: Operations, consists of materials that relate to the inner workings and administrative aspects of the Nugget. It includes items such as restaurant menus and literature; pamphlets regarding room rates; music and entertainment licensing information beginning in 1960; John Ascuaga’s expense journals and ledgers from 1959-1979; a brief discussion regarding betting limits for table games; the 50th anniversary employee yearbook; and several years of the internal employee magazine Nugget Scene. Also included in this series is a scrapbook dedicated to John Ascuaga’s Golden Plate Award nomination that gives an overview of the Nugget’s restaurants and foodservice operations.

Series 2: Events, Promotions, and Publicity is one of the two largest series in this collection. The materials in this series relate to publicity concerning the Nugget, the Ascuagas, events, and entertainment that appeared in regional news and media sources. This includes the contents of many of the scrapbooks that accompanied this collection. The subject matter in many of the scrapbooks consists primarily of news clips highlighting entertainment and entertainers that appeared in the Nugget's showroom over the decades. Other scrapbooks are devoted solely to the Annual Nugget Golf Classic tournament, which occurred every year beginning in 1963. Additional recurring events are the annual Hereford Bull Sale, the Miss Sparks Pageant, scholarship recipient announcements, and Bertha's various appearances. It should be noted that there is some overlap in the newspaper clippings and magazine articles located in this series and some of those located in Series 3) Real Estate, Expansion, and Promotion, and Series 5) Elephants.

Series 3: Real Estate, Expansion, and Development is the other largest series in this collection due to the Nugget's sustained growth, improvement, and expansion, which began in the 1960s and continued through the mid-1990s. The materials pertain to John Ascuaga's acquisition of real estate in Reno and Sparks, especially properties close to and surrounding the Nugget. Throughout the Nugget's history, Ascuaga was able to purchase or lease nearly all of the surrounding real estate, most of which became additional parking spaces, or areas for future construction projects. All of Ascuaga’s activity in the area supported and reinforced redevelopment efforts in that portion of Sparks. Ascuaga also purchased offsite properties to increase office space and to establish the Nugget Meat Plant, which supplied meats to the Nugget and other area casinos and resorts. As a result, there is a large amount of material and information about leases held by the Nugget and property leased by other individuals and businesses from the Nugget. Please note that there is some overlap in the newspaper clippings and magazine articles located in this series and Series 2) Events, Promotions, and Publicity, and those in Series 5) Elephants.

Series 4: Bar and Culinary Union Labor Dispute, consists of materials related to the Nugget's legal dispute spanning nearly a decade (1975-1983) with the Bar and Culinary Union. This includes a suit filed on behalf of the Union, and the Nugget's subsequent appeals and petitions in regards to court-ordered bargaining. Documents in this series include internal materials from the Nugget regarding their response to the Union and materials distributed by the Union to its members and potential members.

Series 5: Elephants, includes materials relating to the Nugget's performing elephants. Beginning in 1961, a deal was made to buy Bertha the elephant from a circus museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin for $8,000. Bertha arrived in Sparks the following year in 1962 just in time for the opening of the Nugget's Circus Room. Although the Circus Room featured many top performers including Jimmy Durante, Red Skelton, Dinah Shore, and Liberace, Bertha became a staple of entertainment at the Nugget, and before too long she was the de facto mascot for both the Nugget and Sparks. Bertha was the longest-running casino act in Nevada history beginning with her 1962 debut and ending with her retirement and subsequent death in 1999 at the age of 48. There is some overlap in the newspaper clippings and magazine articles located in Series 2) Events, Promotions, and Publicity, in Series 3) Real Estate, Expansion, and Promotion, and this one.

Series 6: Awards, Plaques, Memorabilia, and Miscellaneous, is the final and smallest series in this collection. Some materials in this series did not fit with the others so were placed here. Included in this series is an issue of The Billboard Magazine from 1917, a plaque and belt buckle dedicated to "Happy" Bill Howard for breaking the flagpole-sitting record, a chef's hat with Ascuaga's name embroidered on the front, various certificates recognizing Ascuaga and his family, license plates from the Ascuaga's Jeep Cherokee, and a small souvenir shovel commemorating the groundbreaking for the east hotel tower construction in 1995. Also present are several VHS cassettes including Senator Paul Laxalt's 1984 nomination speech of President Reagan, and several copies of a film that highlights the history and accomplishments of the Basque throughout history.


  • 1917-2014
  • Majority of material found within 1960-1990


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Materials must be used on-site; advance notice suggested. Access to parts of this collection may be restricted under provisions of state or federal law.

Historical Note

John Ascuaga was born in Caldwell, Idaho in January 1925 and attended elementary and high school in the nearby town of Notus. Ascuaga's parents, who immigrated to the United States from the Basque country in Spain in the early 1900s, imparted the importance of a strong work ethic and the value of education on their children. Ascuaga's father, Jose, originally made his living in the sheep business, but eventually sold his shares and instead purchased land, which became the Ascuaga family farm. After high school, Ascuaga attended the University of Idaho at Moscow where he earned a degree in accounting. Following his graduation in 1951, he entered Washington State University at Pullman and, one year later in 1952, received a Bachelor of Arts degree in hotel and restaurant management.

It was during summer vacations away from college while working as a bellman at the Shore Lodge on Payette Lake in McCall, Idaho that a young Ascuaga received his first taste of the resort industry. Soon after graduation, Ascuaga met restaurateur, Richard "Dick" Graves who owned several restaurants and resorts around Idaho that operated slot machines when it was still legal to do so in certain parts of the state. Graves hired Ascuaga as food manager for his Coeur d'Alene operations. In 1954, when Idaho declared slot machines illegal statewide, Graves relocated his operations to Nevada and Ascuaga followed.

Graves opened his first casino in Yerington and named it the Nugget. Three additional locations followed: the Carson City Nugget, the Reno Nugget, and finally the Sparks Nugget. By this time, the business partnership between Dick Graves and his associate, Jim Kelly had dissolved. In the split, Kelly kept the Reno Nugget and Graves moved on to Sparks without him. Graves named Ascuaga general manager of the Sparks Nugget, which opened in March 1955 as a small 60-seat coffee shop with handful of slot machines.

By all accounts Graves was an astute businessman, many people considered him a marketing genius for the ways in which he promoted his casino. One of the earliest and most outrageous promotions involved "Happy" Bill Howard, who Graves hired to sit on a six-foot-wide platform, 60 feet above the Nugget parking lot. Two years earlier in 1953, Howard set the previous world pole-sitting record of 196 days. This time he remained on his perch for 204 days before coming down and pocketing $5,000 from Graves.

In May 1958, the Nugget moved from the north to the south side of B Street and into a new 36,000 square foot property complete with a large casino floor, five restaurants, two bars, and banquet rooms. Aside from other attractions, the new location proudly featured a 15-pound solid gold rooster statue that Graves put on display to publicize his fried chicken restaurant, the Golden Rooster Room. Not long after its unveiling, two U. S. Treasury agents seized the rooster, citing the 1934 Gold Reserve Act which stated that no private citizen could possess more than 50 ounces of gold. This event set off a challenging legal battle (in which Paul Laxalt acted as Graves' lawyer) that would last for nearly four years before the rooster returned to its "home" in the Nugget.

Wishing to retire, Graves offered to sell his interests in the Nugget to his general manager, John Ascuaga, in October 1960. Unable to purchase the company outright, Ascuaga instead agreed to pay off the sum of $3.75 million over a period of twelve years. He managed to pay off the note in just seven years to become the sole owner and operator of the Nugget. Since that time, Ascuaga has been recognized as a leader in the gaming-tourism industry in the area for his dedication to excellence, his innovations in marketing and promotion, and his never-stand-still business philosophy.

Following Ascuaga's acquisition of the Nugget, he set to work almost immediately to increase the Nugget's size and property holdings. The first of the expansion projects included the completion of the Nugget Motor Lodge next door to the casino, followed by the opening of the famous Circus Room featuring "The International Follies" show. Famous headliners soon arrived including Jimmy Durante, Dinah Shore, and Liberace. Perhaps the most notable act to regularly appear in the Circus Room was Bertha the elephant. Bertha arrived in Sparks in 1962 after Ascuaga purchased her from a circus museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin for $8,000. She became an instant success and served as one of the most recognizable and beloved icons of northern Nevada.

Other improvements and expansion projects continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s including completion of the Roof Garden Hotel, the opening of the original convention center, acquisition of real estate up and down B Street and near the railroad tracks immediately behind the casino, as well as construction of the "pachyderm palace" to house the elephants, and purchase of the Nugget Meat Plant to provide meat for the Nugget and other area casinos and restaurants. During this era of expansion, the State of Nevada Department of Highways (later Nevada Department of Transportation) began planning, and eventually in 1970, completed work on the I-80 freeway project, which runs east to west through the center of both Reno and Sparks. Following the completion of the freeway, the Nugget expanded underneath the newly constructed roadway.

Beginning in 1983, dramatic large-scale expansion began when the Nugget broke ground on the first of two large hotel towers. Improvements and additions continued through the 1980s and 1990s. In 1992, the Nugget acquired the former Gold Club casino building and property next door to the Nugget. Ascuaga had long sought to purchase this property from its owner, Murray Dolan, but unfortunately, the two men were never able to agree on a price. Over the years, as the two businesses operated side-by-side, the two owners entered into several rounds of unsuccessful negotiations. In the early 1990s, Dolan sold to another buyer and the building stood vacant. Ascuaga purchased the property, held an event, and had the old Gold Club building demolished.

The latter half of the 1990s saw the construction of a $70 million, 29-story hotel tower, expanded convention center space, a parking garage, and a large neon sign planted next to the freeway. These final projects under Ascuaga's ownership marked nearly four decades of expansion for the Nugget from its humble beginnings as a 60-seat coffee shop to a 1,600-room casino-resort covering more than 75,000 square feet of property. In addition to the physical expansion of the Nugget and its holdings, Ascuaga encouraged his family to become involved in the business. Beginning in the early 2000s, Ascuaga's daughter, Michonne, was named chief executive officer, and youngest son, Stephen, became the senior executive vice president of administration. Both Michonne and Stephen began working at the Nugget as teens in various departments, learning the business from the ground up. Despite ceding control of operations to his children, Ascuaga continued to make the 40-plus mile trip to work every day from his ranch in Jack's Valley in northern Douglas County.

Over the decades, the Nugget provided guests with many dining options from the Pancake Parlor, to Trader Dick's, to later additions such as the Rotisserie and Orozko (named in honor of Ascuaga's father's hometown in the Pyrenees region of Spain). In addition to dining, the Nugget was widely known for bringing in notable headliners from around the country to perform in the Circus Room and then after 1977, the Celebrity Showroom. The Nugget is credited with helping country music make inroads into casino entertainment with acts such as Roy Clark, Mel Tillis, and the Oak Ridge Boys. The Nugget was also notable for its recurring events including the Nugget Golf Classic (first held in 1963), the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off, and the annual Hereford Bull Sale, which took place in the Celebrity Showroom.

The northern Nevada community benefitted from Ascuaga's upbringing and success. Ascuaga and his family were involved in a number of outreach programs and charitable causes. Since 1956, the Nugget contributed nearly a half-million dollars in scholarships to almost 500 high school and community college students from Reno, Sparks, and Carson City. Ascuaga always encouraged his employees to donate time during Thanksgiving and Christmas to serve holiday meals at the St. Vincent's Dining Room. Beginning in 1955, the Nugget provided meals for the homeless and needy. The Ascuaga family also contributed to the Sierra Arts Foundation, Nevada Museum of Art, Youth Art, and Artown events.

Late 2013 marked the end of era when the Ascuaga family sold the Nugget to affiliates of the Las Vegas-based Global Gaming & Hospitality and Husky Finance. The Nugget was the last family run casino-resort in the industry—an institution without sister properties or outside backing. The sale closed in December 2013, but the Ascuagas remained on the board in advisory roles during the transition period and after the sale concluded. Seven months later, in July 2014, the Nugget Courtyard building was sold to the Siegel Group and renamed Siegal Suites. The Nugget changed hands again in May 2016 when it was sold to Marnell Gaming, which plans to invest multiple millions of dollars for renovation and improvement of the property. Regardless of the current proprietors, the Nugget will long be synonymous with John Ascuaga and the Ascuaga family. The famous casino-resort helped put Sparks on the map and solidified a spot in the hearts and minds of many Northern Nevadans.


19.188 Linear Feet (33 boxes, 1 oversize folder)

Language of Materials



John Ascuaga's Nugget (originally called Dick Graves' Nugget), located in Sparks, Nevada, opened March 1955, starting as a small coffee shop with a handful of slot machines. John Ascuaga became the sole owner and operator of the Nugget until its sale (1960-2013). Over the next five decades, the Nugget experienced unprecedented growth and expansion into a 1,600-room casino-resort with more than 75,000 square feet of casino and convention space. Known for its hospitality, dining options, gaming promotions, and big-name entertainment, the Nugget quickly became a well-entrenched institution in Northern Nevada, helping to put Sparks on the map. The collection consists of business records of John Ascuaga's Nugget in Sparks, Nevada, from 1955-2013. Materials include real estate information about the site and its development, work with employees and their union, celebrities contracted for shows, Bertha the elephant, nespaper clippings, scrapbooks, photographs, and memorabilia.


Arranged into the following series: 1) Operations; 2) Events, Promotions, and Publicity; 3) Real Estate, Expansion, and Development; 4) Bar and Culinary Union Labor Dispute; 5) Elephants; 6) Awards, Plaques, Memorabilia, and Miscellaneous; 7) Photographs

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated by John Ascuaga in 2014.

Related Materials

More information on John Ascuaga's Nugget can be found in the book 50 Years of Memories: John Ascuaga's Nugget, 1955-2005 (Vancouver, Washington: Pediment Publishing, 2005).

Processing Information

Photographs previously transferred to the Special Collections Department photo archive as collection number UNRS-P2016-10. Photographs maintain original identifiers.

  • Two ledgers regarding operations at the Jack's Valley Ranch, and one catalog regarding catalog inventory are to be returned to the family.
Guide to the John Ascuaga's Nugget Records
Edan Strekal and Monica Texeira
September 2016
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Nevada, Reno. Special Collections Department Repository

Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center
1664 N. Virginia St.
Reno Nevada 89557-0322 USA
775-682-5724 (Fax)