Published Tuesday, June 29, 2021 | 4:07 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, June 29, 2021 | 6:25 p.m.
SPARKS — John Ascuaga, the son of Basque sheepherders who became a northern Nevada gambling icon after he bought a small coffee shop with a few slot machines in Sparks in 1960 and turned it into a major hotel-casino he operated for more than a half century, has died. He was 96.
Ascuaga was known for roaming the casino floor and greeting patrons personally at the Nugget that bore his name along U.S. Interstate 80 just east of Reno until it first was sold in 2013.
Anthony Marnell III, CEO of Marnell Gaming which acquired the property now called the Nugget Casino Resort in 2016, said Ascuaga’s family notified them of his death on Monday. The cause of death was not disclosed.
“John was not only an icon in northern Nevada and throughout the region, he was one of the true pioneers in Nevada gaming and helped shape the direction of the entire state,” Marnell said in a statement.
Ascuaga’s father moved to Idaho from Spain in the early 1900s. He was born in Caldwell, Idaho, in January 1925, served in the U.S. Army in his youth and earned degrees in accounting at the University of Idaho and restaurant management at Washington State University.
He got his start in the industry as a bellman at a lodge in Idaho where he met casino pioneer Dick Graves. Graves owned small Nugget casinos in Reno, Carson City and Yerington before opening one in Sparks in 1955 and hiring Ascuaga as a manager.
Ascuaga bought it in 1960 and soon began a variety of expansion projects that turned it into today’s 1,600-room property in two towers with a convention center and multiple restaurants.
One of the first additions was a 600-seat show room, dubbed “The Circus Room,” where Red Skelton, Liberace, Wayne Newton, Ella Fitzgerald, George Burns and Ray Charles preformed. The opening act typically starred Bertha, an elephant Ascuaga bought from a circus museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, for $8,000 in 1962.
Truckee Gaming CEO Ferenc Szony, the former Sands Regency CEO who was also an executive for the former Reno Hilton, said building a successful casino business outside the more established downtown Reno was quite an accomplishment.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said he “brought a boundless energy to work every day,” transforming “a small coffee shop in Sparks into a family-run gaming juggernaut of more than 50 years.”
“He was without a doubt one of Nevada’s most prominent and successful businessmen who truly helped shape our city,” added Sparks Mayor Ed Lawson.
Former Sparks Mayor Geno Martini said he was a 10-year-old eating an “Awful Awful” burger at the Nugget when he first met Ascuaga. He last saw him shortly after the initial sale of John Ascuaga's Nugget casino to Las Vegas-based Global Gaming and Hospitality in 2013.
“He was doing what he always did and was walking around and talking to everyone,” Martini told the Reno Gazette Journal.
Former Gov. Brian Sandoval, now president of the University of Nevada, Reno, said Ascuaga “was a legend.”
“He was larger than life — a big personality, with a big heart who cared deeply for the community, his friends and his family,” Sandoval said.