How the California Hotel Made Las Vegas Hawaii’s “Ninth Island”

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When Harriet Shobu first set foot in the California Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in 1983, she noticed that she didn’t need to worry about her luggage, that she was able to get the room. exact that she wanted and that she met friendly employees throughout her stay.

“It’s like everything has been created for me,” said Shobu, reflecting on that first visit.

This first trip was with her husband, and Shobu estimates that she has stayed at Cal up to six times a year for the past 25 years. Even after her husband stopped wanting to go to Cal, she took solo trips, spending four days playing on the casino floor, sometimes for up to 10 hours a day.

When her husband suggested a trip to Japan a year ago, she remembered shaking her head and said, “I don’t want to go to Japan. I prefer to go to Vegas.

Shobu, 66, is among 1 in 10 Hawaiians who visit Las Vegas each year, and is also among Japanese-American visitors who end up at Cal, a hotel with restaurants and service designed for visitors to Hawaii feel right at home.

“The [Las Vegas] Strip feels cold to me, ”she said. “At Cal, everyone looks like your neighbor, walking around in slippers. It is the house.

Samuel “Sam” Boyd in front of the California Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Boyd opened the hotel in 1975.Boyd Games Company

Samuel “Sam” Boyd, developer and manager of casinos, opened the California Hotel and Casino in 1975 to attract visitors from Southern California. But after a rough first year that saw little business, Boyd turned his attention to a different audience – one from whom he first learned the game as a business: the people of Hawaii.

In his youth, Boyd lived with his family in Honolulu, where he worked for a Japanese man named Hisakichi Hisanaga in his entertainment company, Palace Amusements. Through his connections with the locals and organizing bingo games at his job, Boyd learned that they loved to gamble.

When the Cal was built, residents of Hawaii were traveling to Reno to gamble (to date Hawaii and Utah are the only states in the country where gambling is illegal) because it was cheaper to travel to Reno than in Vegas. Boyd wanted to change that and bring the players from Hawaii to Cal.

“They weren’t gambling their homes or their family heirloom,” said Dr. Dennis Ogawa, co-author of “California Hotel and Casino: Hawai’i’s Home Away From Home” and professor in the university’s department of American studies. . from Hawaii. “The Hawaii player is all about fun, and they know when to walk. You’ll have better memories of a place where you just had fun than if you had lost everything, and Cal recognized that in the Hawaii player.

Boyd and his team began making frequent flights to Hawaii, establishing relationships with various local airlines and hotels. They quickly learned the practice of omiyage, or Japanese gift culture, and brought matchbooks from the Hotel California to their meetings and, occasionally, cases of Coors beer – a rarity on the islands in the ‘era.

Sam Boyd center, wearing a hat, on the casino floor of the California Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.Boyd Games Company

By listening to people’s wishes, Boyd’s team began to create effective systems to attract customers. They created airline packages with Western Airlines that included free rooms and three meals a day at Cal with flight fare (similar packages still exist today thanks to Boyd Gaming Corporation, which owns travel agencies such as Vacations Hawaii. ). He also flew rice cookers in Hawaii and asked locals to teach cooks at Cal how to prepare it so that guests can have sticky rice while staying at the hotel. He eventually hired a chef from Honolulu to create a menu with dishes such as kalua pork, chicken long rice, and passion fruit and guava orange juice.

“Everyone at the California Hotel honored their Hawaii guests; they didn’t treat them like country chicks in slippers, ”Ogawa said. “Sam Boyd understood that in order to generate good business for their hotel, they didn’t need high profile customers – they just needed loyal customers. And he knew Hawaii’s customers were all about loyalty.

Boyd encouraged the waiters and hotel staff to build relationships with their customers, and it was not uncommon for Hawaiian guests to bring island omiyages for their favorite bellboy on their next visit.

In no time, Boyd had created a strong Hawaiian market in Cal that surpassed those of combined properties on the Las Vegas Strip. People began to refer to Las Vegas as Hawaii’s ‘ninth island’ – not only because it was a desirable vacation spot, but also because of something else Cal had to offer: a space to see family. and old friends.

“The California was never really built for cabaret entertainment,” John Blink wrote in “California Hotel and Casino”. “With the convention space, we started to organize big parties. We were doing the Hawaii high school reunions. We thought it was in our best long term interest.

Maui resident Sue Nakashima flew to Cal in 2016 for the 1954 Baldwin High School class reunion, when she and all of her classmates were in their 80s. There she reunited with old friends she hadn’t seen since graduation.

In 2016, the class of 1954 from Baldwin High School gathered at the California Hotel in Las Vegas for a reunion.Courtesy of Lynne Schildmeyer

“For the people of Hawaii, high school reunions are important because we all love to ‘talk about history’,” said Lynne Schildmeyer, Nakashima’s daughter who attended the reunion with her mother.

For others, Cal is the backdrop for many important family trips and memories. Megan Nagasaki, a fifth-generation Japanese American from Los Angeles, recalled that her grandparents typically vacationed at Cal four to five times a year, and her grandmother stationed herself at a particular poker machine – its lucky place.

Since his grandmother passed away in 2016, his grandfather has been playing his wife’s lucky machine in her honor every time he returns to Cal and recently even won a jackpot on it.

“My mom and aunt also played it, and we all just call it ‘Nana’s machine’,” Nagasaki said.

Ogawa also recounted an interview with a family who made a pilgrimage to Cal after their father passed away. As the family walked through the hotel, they said they marveled at how so many of its guests, complete strangers, resembled their father in some way and felt comforted by their grief.

“Hawaii is a very spiritual place, and Japanese immigrants have noticed this resemblance to Japan, with its shrines, rocks and spooky myths,” Ogawa said. “Likewise, the California Hotel also has spiritual significance. “

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