On Thursday March 6, it was announced that the Denver-based McWhinney real estate firm had purchased the Cal Neva Resort on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. The sale price was not included in the announcement, but it’s estimated to be about $58 million. This is the fourth time the property has sold in the 21st century and it changed hands dozens of times in the 20th. Most buyers failed to strike it rich, many went broke, and sometimes they simply could not get or lost their gaming license. In its long history, the Cal Neva has had its share of drama and publicity.
The Cal Neva sits, as its name implies, right on the border between California and Nevada. Even before Nevada legalized gambling in 1931, it was known for its gambling. In the early years, James McKay and William Graham, Reno gamblers and reputed mobsters, ran the gambling at the Ca Neva Lodge. Graham and McKay were experienced, if not always honest, casino operators; they also operated the Bank Club in Reno. The casinos were known for being hard on those who did not pay their gambling debts, threatening lives and breaking fingers. Clara Bow was one of Cal Neva’s first high-profile and drama-generating customers. Bow was said to have written $13,900 in bad checks to cover gambling losses. Clara did not pay with her life or her fingers, but she did manage to dig up the cash to get out of her jam.
When gambling became legal in Nevada, sitting on the state line was more than symbolic. On the Nevada side of property, legal gambling could and did flourish, at least in the summer. On the other side of the border, players were dined and entertained. But with Prohibition-era tunnels running underground between buildings and from side to side, who knows what might have happened. From the time of Graham and McKay, the Cal Neva had a reputation for sitting on the line between the two states, the acceptable and unacceptable. It all added to the mystic.
No one brought that reputation more into national media focus than Frank Sinatra. Sinatra bought the property in 1960. He ushered in an era of high-profile entertainment, celebrity guests, and mob associations. Frank and his friends entertained a constant stream of Hollywood stars and national entertainers. Some of those friends and rumored financial backers eventually brought an end to his career as a casino owner. Sinatra’s relationship with the boss of the Chicago Outfit, Sam Giancana, caught the eye of the Nevada Gaming Control Board and the FBI. In 1963, Frank was forced to give up his gaming license. He closed the Cal Neva on Labor Day of that year. According to local resident Bethel Holmes Van Tassel, “Thus brought the end of an era that will never be surpassed or ever seen again on the shore of Lake Tahoe. Frank Sinatra’s reign at Cal Neva Lodge was as colorful as the man himself and will not be forgotten.”
The colorful history has inspired subsequent buyers to attempt to restore that glory. In 2013, Criswell-Radovan LLC purchased the Cal Neva. The firm closed the property and set about remodeling, promising to bring back the romance of the Frank Sinatra era. In fact, they planned their reopening for Frank’s 100th birthday on December 12, 2015. Robert Radovan said, “With the reopening, there will be a rebirth. … it will be a totally different creature.” Sadly, Frank’s birthday passed with no Lake Tahoe celebration and no Cal Neva Resort.
Larry Ellison, co-founder and chairman of tech giant Oracle, bought the property for $35.8 million in 2018. Ellison planned to remodel the Cal Neva into a luxury property, but he too failed to deliver the bacon. After years of planning, Ellison threw in the towel.
Who, after all, could bring the excitement of Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack, Sam Giancana, Marilyn Monroe, and the Kennedys to the north shore of Lake Tahoe? Not Ellison, Criswell, or Radovan. However, once again, someone is willing to give it a shot. McWhinney CEO Chad McWhinney put up his cash and is going back to the drawing board. If he takes his place on the long line of developers who tried to resurrect the Cal Neva of old, it will not be an easy chore.
McWhinney said, “Our vision is to reimagine and revitalize this iconic resort with deep historic roots into an exceptional experience for guests and the local community to enjoy for years to come.”
The firm plans to have the recreated property ready to open for its 100th anniversary in 2026, a noble goal, reminiscent of Criswell-Radovan’s attempt to celebrate Frank’s birthday with a grand opening. Luckily, McWhinney is not pinned down to one day; the company has the whole year.
The reality is that they do not need to recreate Frank Sinatra or reimagine the 1930s. All they need to do is design a business suited to the 21st century. With the gorgeous lakefront property, that is a more achievable goal than trying to sing “My Way.”