Las Vegas Sun

January 20, 2018

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Slot ‘o Gold

It is to slot machines what a Model-T is to a Ferrari.

What a bi-plane is to an F-18. What a Royal typewriter is to a personal computer.

It is a tuxedo-black, metal-and-wood, 10-cent slot machine manufactured by the Mills Slot Machine Company in 1955. It rests on a pedestal at C.J.'s Slot Connection, surrounded by its comparatively gaudy and flashy modern counterparts.

If ever a slot machine could be labeled "dignified," the 1955 Mills would be it. If it could speak, it would carry a British accent, like David Niven.

"Drop a dime in it," David Johnson, C.J.'s retail manager and self-described slot buff, says. "Give 'er a pull."

But this machine pulls back.

"You really have to crank," Johnson says after observing a first, futile attempt. "This is a big, strong machine."

A second, more intent jerk of the long nickel-plated handle sends the three reels whirling.

Clunk! Orange. Whump! Plumb. Thunk! Lemon.

The one-armed bandit is a dime richer.

Johnson then spins the machine around and removes the back, revealing Mr. Mills' innards. No chips or wires here. Rather, an uncluttered assemblage of metal springs, gears and levers.

"It's as clean as a whistle," Johnson says. "They don't make them like this anymore."

No, they don't. But at Las Vegas's two C.J.'s stores -- on the Strip across from the old El Rancho hotel near Sahara, and at the Stratosphere -- antique machines are proudly displayed for gawkers and collectors.

"It's a rare class of people that wants the really old machines," Johnson says. "We sell about two per week, but they attract a lot of attention from people who come in and are just browsing."

Bill Goldstein, the manager at C.J.'s Stratosphere shop, is typically kept busy entertaining curious tourists rather than avid collectors.

"I think what people like is the mystique," Goldstein, whose first job out of the Nevada Gaming School in 1975 was as a slot mechanic, says. "They saw them when they were younger, or maybe in an old movie or TV show, and then to see them in person, in perfect condition, is pretty exciting."

And rare.

"This is different than any other type of collecting," Goldstein says. "It's pretty much exclusive to this area. But like anything else, people want to own these machines, take them home and it makes a great conversation piece."

It's not a bad investment, either. Antique machines -- defined by Goldstein as any machine older than 45 years -- appreciate at a rate of 10 percent annually, and a quick inventory check at both of C.J.'s stores reveals that the machines cost anywhere between $1,500 and $5,000.

"It's not that expensive compared to other types of collecting, like antique cars or coins," Goldstein says. "We have a lot of people who stop in and say, 'We might see you later if we have a hot night at the tables.' It's something you can save up for over a short period of time, definitely."

The price list at C.J.'s Stratosphere store includes a 1937 dime machine for $2,695; a 1940 nickel machine once used in Harold's Club in Reno (with a jackpot of $15) for $1,895; a 1938 nickel machine for $2,695; a 1938 quarter machine used in the Golden Nugget for $2,695; a 1938 nickel Silver Chief machine at $3,695; and a 1938 nickel machine for $4,295.

The two antique machines on display at the Strip location are a 1951 Jennings Sun Chief quarter machine (the first lighted machine ever produced) for $3,495, and the 1955 Mills model, also for $3,495.

Most often, Goldstein and Johnson obtain antique machines through classified ads.

"We advertise as a business that will buy and sell," Johnson says. "We'll usually get a call from someone who has had a machine as a family heirloom and is wondering about its value. We'll have people who move here from back East or from the Midwest and have these machines and ask us what they can do with them."

Johnson recalls a woman who, on a whim, bought an old machine at a garage sale and lugged the new purchase into his store.

"She said, 'I bought this for $50. Is it worth anything?' " Johnson says. "I nearly flipped out when I saw what she had."

It was the slot industry's version of a '57 Chevy: a 1937 Watling Bird of Paradise dime machine, considered one of the most desirable collectables ever produced. After the ornate, wood-and-nickel plated machine was refurbished, it was worth more than $9,000.

"Every once in a while you get a story like that," Johnson says. "We've had people who have knocked out barn doors and found an old machine that's been sitting there for decades, and some of these old speakeasy places would hide them behind walls and when someone goes to remodel an old building, they'll find a bank of these antique slot machines and the market is suddenly flooded."

The largest collection of antique slot machines in the state belongs to Southern Nevada pioneer Robert Peccole and his wife of 20 years, Kelly. Robert Peccole developed Peccole Ranch and he and Kelly own A&P Slots, which specializes in buying and selling modern and antique gaming equipment.

Involved in either casino ownership or management since the 1930s, Robert Peccole began collecting slot machines in the mid-1960s, when the first electro-mechanical machines hit the market and sparked the trend to today's fully computerized models.

"I go back in this business a long, long time," says the 83-year-old Robert Peccole. "When I saw that the machines were going to electro-mechanical, I felt that the old machines would someday be obsolete, but they'd be worth a lot to collectors. It got to be one of my favorite hobbies."

The hobby soon became a passion.

"We got into it because we enjoyed restoring them and charting the various changes made by the manufacturers over the years," Kelly Peccole says. "It was a fun thing to do, treasure hunt for a really rare machine and find something no one else has."

The Peccoles own more than 200 machines. The most valuable include the first slot machines ever produced around the turn of the century, which look like what would happen if a roulette wheel mated with a grandfather clock.

Originally, slot players simply dropped a coin into a colored slot and hit a small lever, and the giant wheel would spin. If the wheel stopped on a corresponding color, the player won between a dime to $2.50.

"They don't even look like slot machines," Kelly Peccole says. "They're wonderful pieces of furniture."

Worth between $25,000 and $50,000, incidentally.

The Peccoles opened a slot business in Reno in the early '70s and ran it until 1989, when they opened the shop in Las Vegas. The business peaked in the mid-'70s, Kelly Peccole says, but the machines continue to rise in value.

"There is a finite number of the old machines in circulation," she says. "Through the years, especially in the '20s and '30s, people did everything they could to keep them out of circulation and many, many were destroyed."

True. Throughout its long history, the slot machine has suffered various methods of destruction.

"People would smash them with hammers, bury them, take them out to sea, anything to get rid of them," Johnson says. "There was a big moral stigma about them ruining lives, and there were thousands and thousands of machines destroyed."

The slot machine's tarnished reputation is vividly illustrated in the book, "Slot Machines: A Pictorial History of the First 100 Years," by Marshall Fey, whose family owned one of the nation's first slot companies.

The book includes photographs of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia happily swinging a sledgehammer and destroying dozens of slot machines to demonstrate a crackdown on gaming in the early '30s.

One photo, taken Oct. 13, 1934, shows a barge loaded with 1,155 Mills slot machines headed out for the Long Island Sound. LaGuardia, ever eager to display his might with flamboyant photo opportunities, instructed the craft to head toward the Connecticut coast, where he dumped the machines into 100 feet of water.

Today, those machines would be worth approximately $3,349,500. If the mayor only knew.