Thursday, June 16, 2016

Charles Dreyer, Louvre Saloon, & “The Fight of the Century”

Sometimes an individual walks out of the mists of history, has a role in a major event of his times, and then fades again into obscurity.   So it is with Charles Dreyer, a saloon owner in who has been credited with helping bring to Reno, Nevada, the 1910 heavyweight boxing championship bout between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries — an event that drew intense national attention and was ballyhooed as “The Fight of the Century.”   Subsequently Dreyer seems to have faded into the obscurity from whence he came.
Dreyer surfaced initially in the public record as the owner of the “Oberon,” a saloon and gambling hall located on Reno’s Commercial Row, strategically placed across from the train station.  Reno was a prominent junction of the Nevada & Oregon Railway Company, where it joined the Central Pacific and Virginia & Truckee lines.  Passengers alighting from the trains would find themselves facing a row of saloons, gambling casinos, and hotels.  The prominent sign for the Oberon can be seen on Commercial Row in photos above and below.
As one observer put it:  “For many Americans Reno was a moral as well as a physical desert.”  Gambling was wide open.  Visitors could see a swinging door, push through it, and inside find the roulette wheels spinning and faro being dealt.  Strong drink was readily available as well.  In a four or five block area were more than fifty saloons, most with board floors and bare wooden walls.  A few, like the Oberon, were “upscale,” combining drinking and gambling in more elaborate surrounding.   Another fancier establishment was “The Louvre,”  represented here by bar tokens.

A door or so down from the Oberon, the Louvre was run by partners named Robinson & Madsen.  In addition to their gambling and drinking activities, the proprietors also were rectifying (blending) and bottling their own brand of whiskey called “Belle of Nevada.”   They issued a good luck piece to favored customers featuring a metal collar around a 1901 Indian head penny.   They advertised it in the local newspaper, the Reno Gazette-Journal, urging customers to:  “Come to the Louvre and get acquainted with the jolly proprietor.

In April 1905 Dreyer bought the Louvre, apparently in an effort to expand his operations and rid himself of a competitor.  Robinson & Madsen, it seems, only had been leasing the property.  According to the press account, Dreyer paid the owner $18,000 (equiv. today $450,000) for the property.  A local newspaper account of the sale commented that the Louvre “has a splendid location on Commercial Row.”  The saloon issued at least two bar tokens shown here.

Running two saloons and gambling halls was not without its pitfalls for Dreyer.   In March 1905 a stranger entered the Oberon early one morning, called for a drink, complained of feeling ill, and almost immediately dropped dead, causing a considerable stir in Reno.  A few months later, the Oberon was the object of a complaint by the regents of Nevada State University to the mayor and city council of Reno.  In a letter the regents claimed that the “so-called” Oberon Saloon & Gambling House had permitted a minor — likely a Nevada State student — on its premises.  Said minor had loitered and gambled there, the regents complained, and demanded the city officials take appropriate action.
The Louvre, meanwhile, was generating its own excitement.   A local named Tom Riley had been robbed by two hold-up men who took money, valuables and a check drawn to his name.  One of them then forged Riley’s signature and cashed the check at the Louvre with an obliging bartender.   When Dreyer’s manager took the check to the bank the next day he found Riley there to stop payment.  The next day the police arrested the alleged gunmen.

A more notable “deadbeat” was the former heavyweight champion of the world,  Jim Jeffreys.   He came to Reno, not to box, but to be the celebrity referee for a heavyweight fight, paid $1,000 for his trouble.   “Renoites turned out in a cheering throng to welcome the retiring champion….,” noted one writer.  After the fight, apparently feeling in an ebullient mood, Jeffries entered the Louvre with $2,500 in cash and joined a group at one of the gambling hall roulette tables, as shown above.  He soon was parted from his money.

Unwilling to stop playing at that point, Jeffries wrote two checks for $2,500 each and then proceeded to blow the proceeds.  In today’s dollar his total losses would be equivalent to $187,000.  Before he left the Louvre, Jeffries’ checks were torn up in exchange for his note for $5,000 to be paid to the owner.  Jeffries never paid off the note, nor did he ever returned to Nevada.

That was the situation until 1910 — and the 20th Century had barely begun — when the “Fight of the Century” was being touted for a Reno venue.  It was to pit Jeffries against a black man widely considered as the reigning heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson.  As one observer has put it: “The upcoming fight would be relentless hyped as a titanic clash of races, leaving little room for objectivity…Most Americans believed that Johnson was mentally and physically inferior and conversely believed in Jeffries’ invincibility.”

For Dreyer it was a chance to recoup on Jeffries debt. He sued him.  Although the case got little attention outside Nevada, the Nevada State Journal featured a front page cartoon of the boxer with a caption that read:  “Jeffries the Welcher.”  The boxer through his attorney claimed that the Louvre roulette wheel was crooked and that, anyway, gambling debts were not enforceable.  At the least, his attorney pleaded, the trial should be postponed until after the fight.  Recognizing that Jeffries was never likely to re-enter Nevada once he left, a local Reno judge set a trial date in advance of the fight and ruled Jeffries would have to appear.  Faced with that harsh alternative, Jeffries settled with the Louvre.  It is widely believed that Tex Rickard, the fight promoter, an acquaintance of Dreyer’s, and a man with a lot to lose if the bout failed to come off, paid off Jeffries’ $5,000.

The heavyweight championship bout drew thousands of spectators to Reno from all parts of America, as shown in the photo above, taken at Commercial Row a day before the fight.  The Louvre was mobbed with customers.  Dreyer’s establishment also might have been the site of the photo below in which Johnson was captured having a drink of whiskey with a group of his fans.
Given all the hype, the so-called “Fight of the Century” turned out to be a ho-hum affair.  In truth, Jeffries was several years away from his prime as a boxer, overweight and rusty from being on a vaudeville circuit rather than in the ring.  By contrast,  Johnson for all his boozing and racy lifestyle was at the peak of his form.  In reality it was a mismatch and after 14 rounds of desultory boxing, Johnson dispatched his opponent.  

In late 1910 most forms of gambling were outlawed in Nevada (re-legalized in 1931), shutting down the casino element of the Louvre.  Apparently, however, slot machines were still allowed since the State of Nevada in 1913 recorded Dreyer paying $20 for a license to operate slot machines.  A liquor license cost him an additional $30.

Although some sources have credited the Louvre Saloon as one of the local businesses that helped bring the Jackson-Jeffries bout to Reno, Dreyer’s precise role in facilitating the so-called “Fight of the Century” is unclear.   Dropping the lawsuit against Jim Jeffries certainly facilitated the fight going forward, but that was achieved by Tex Rickard paying up.  After 1913 Charles Dreyer faded again into the mists of history.  He seemed always to have avoided the U.S. census and my research into his burial site so far has gone unrewarded.

Note:  The information on Jeffries’ debt to the Louvre was gleaned from a book entitled “The Last Great Prizefight:  Johnson vs. Jeffries,” by Steven Frederick.  Frederick was a licensed Nevada bookmaker, not a historian or writer, but he has mastered the art of the narrative and his book is well-written, interesting and informative, well worth the read.

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