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The Making Of A Legend
by Jill Lufrano
Mar 17, 2012 | 2042 views | 1 1 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune/John Byrne
John Ascuaga and Daughter Michonne hold a picture of the original Nugget restaurant that opened in 1955 that was located across the street.
Tribune/John Byrne John Ascuaga and Daughter Michonne hold a picture of the original Nugget restaurant that opened in 1955 that was located across the street.

SPARKS — John Ascuaga sits behind his large desk, overlooking the darkened, moody sky. He remembers the first day the small operation opened on the north side of B street.

“It was a sunny day. Not like this,” he said.

Many memories flowed from the legendary man’s mind. Behind him, statuettes of elephants — small reminders of his beloved Bertha who died in 1999.

“Who’d ever thought,” he said.

Who’d ever? Fifty-seven years after a neon sign pointed party-goers to a 60-seat coffee shop that held 50 slot machines in the small town of Sparks, the son of a Basque immigrant sits inside the executive offices of a small empire he built from the ground floor.

Today, Ascuaga will celebrate the John Ascuaga Nugget’s 57th Anniversary along with everyone else at the 1,500-room casino and entertainment venue. At 6 p.m., the Nugget will present a Cake Cutting ceremony with a Champagne Toast, along with beer pouring for those who want to partake in a more Irish tradition.

Restaurants wills serve Guiness-braised short ribs and corned-beef cabbage. Last year, the casino sold 1,000 plates of the Irish meal when St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Thursday.

“It’s a tradition,” said his daughter Michonne Ascuaga, now the Nugget’s Chief Executive Officer.

John Ascuaga remembers several anniversaries. His favorites nights out were with the stars of the time. Those included Red Skelton.

“He considered this his home,” Ascuaga said. “He was just a real American.”

He also talked about how the Oak Ridge Boys (“Still my favorite,” he said.) played a big role at the Nugget. Liberace, Louis Armstrong. The list was long and he had photos to prove it hanging around the office he still visits most every day.

“A dinner show at that time was really a special night out. It really shows how our society has changed,” Ascuaga said.

When he first arrived on scene, he chose to buy the casino because Sparks was a growing community. He and his wife had a small house in town. They watched as I-80 was built around the resort and neighborhoods rose up. He has also given a lot back to the community, starting a scholarship fund in 1956. The Nugget Scholarship Committee awards 24 local student scholarships every year. Ascuaga reads the submitted essays each year himself.

Most proudly, Ascuaga said what is best about today, 57 years after the opening, is that grandchildren of those party-goers who first walked through the doors, are now coming to share in the fun.

“You see, that’s it. Our grandchildren are coming into the Nugget,” Ascuaga said.

John Ascuaga’s Nugget Timeline:

•    March 17, 1955: The Nugget opens a 60-seat coffee shop with 50 slot machines in Sparks on the north side of B Street.

•    Aug. 4, 1955: “Happy” Bill Howard, takes his perch on a 6-foot-wide platform 60 feet above the Nugget parking lot. A long-bearded Howard retreats comes down 204 days later, pocketing $6,800.

•    1956: The Nugget Scholarship program begin

•    Dec. 13, 1958: Trader Dick’s Restaurant opened at the northeast corner of b and 12th streets. Trader Dick’s moved to the present Nugget building Feb. 9, 1973.

•     May 1960: The Pancake Parlor (now the Oyster Bar) opened.

• Oct. 1, 1960: Graves sells the Nugget’s operating company to his 34-year-old manager, John Ascuaga, for $3,775 million and nothing down. Ascuaga managed to pay it off in seven years.

•    Oct. 1960: Nugget Motor Lodge opened.

• June 21, 1962: Circus Room opens with “The International Follies.” Debuting is an 11-year-old elephant bought in Baraboo, Wis. named Bertha.

•    July 1962: The Roof Garden Hotel opened.

• 1964: The Nugget Inn opened.

•    June 13, 1974: The Casino Cabaret opened.

•    1976: The Nugget Meat Plant opened.

• April 28, 1978: The General Store Restaurant and additional casino space opened.

•    Sept. 19, 1983: Groundbreaking for the first hotel tower (East Tower) occurred.

•    June 19, 1984: The Rotisserie Buffet opened.

•    June-July 1985: The lower-level Pavilion with the Bingo Parlor, Poker Room, Race & Sports Book, Pub & Pantry and Gift Shop opened.

•     Sept. 12, 1988: The $20 million construction begins on a three-floor addition with a pool and spa,  hotel lobby and the Rose Ballroom/convention center.

•    Sept. 1989: The Sports Book opened.

•    Aug. 1990: Newly remodeled Motor Lodge opened as the Courtyard with wedding chapel.

•    Dec. 17, 1990: Chonne’s Beauty Salon and Spa opened.

•    Aug. 1991: Poolside Terrace on fifth floor opened.

• Sept. 2, 1994: The $9 million, five-story parking garage with 1,252 vehicle spaces opened.

•    Dec. 1994: The Skywalk Video Arcade opened.

•    Nov. 29, 1995: Groundbreaking for the West Tower.

•    Oct. 1997: Michonne Ascuaga is named Chief Executive Officer.

• Aug. 4, 1998: Basque sheepherder statue unveiled.

•    Aug. 11, 1998: Restaurante Orozko named for the Basque village in northern Spain from which John Ascuaga’s father emigrated, opens.

•    Nov. 9, 1999: Bertha the elephant dies at age 48.

• Jan. 2001: New neon sign over west parking lot unveiled.

•    Feb. 25, 2003: The Nugget Meat Packers closes.

• Aug. 4, 2011: Nugget Avenue roundabout completed after 30 years of being “in-the-works.”
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March 17, 2012
I didn't know they had a scholarship program. How cool.

The Making Of A Legend by Jill Lufrano

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