‘He was larger than life’: Reno Sands pioneer Pete Cladianos Jr. dies at 91

Jason Hidalgo

| Reno Gazette Journal

Pete Cladianos Jr., the driving force behind the Sands Regency Hotel Casino and one of the key personalities during downtown Reno’s rise as a gaming destination, died on Wednesday evening. He was 91 years old.

Described by friends and family as someone with a colorful personality and an imposing presence to boot, Cladianos built up the Reno Sands as a major downtown property during the city’s gaming heyday.

“He was one of those people who worked 20 hours a day,” said son Pete Cladianos III. “He’d get up in the morning and be on the phone with everybody.”

The son of Greek immigrants from Zakynthos, Cladianos Jr. was born in Reno in 1929. It was a key time for gambling Nevada’s history. When Cladianos was two years old, the state legislature passed the Casino Gaming Act, which made gambling legal in Nevada. Cladianos Jr.’s father, who owned a grocery store, saw it as an opportunity.

“My grandfather was one of the gaming pioneers and he had a slot route as soon as gaming became legal,” Pete Cladianos III said. “He had that in Reno, Winnemucca and all over the state.”

By the 1940s, the Cladianos patriarch decided to get into the motel business. World War II made it a great time to be in the lodging industry as many people were moving around, according to Cladianos III.

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Once Cladianos Jr. was old enough, he started working in the family business. In addition to the El Rancho Motel, the Cladianos family also built the Rancho 777 motel in the 1950s.

“As the town prospered, so did they,” Cladianos III said. “Most of Reno in those days was the downtown gaming core in the red line district and the motels would feed it.”

What the elder Cladianos really wanted, however, was to build a hotel-casino within the prized red line district, where unlimited gambling was allowed. This proved to be a challenge due to the politics of the time, which was largely driven by the existing casinos. The established gaming properties downtown such as Harrah’s, for example, would buy up parcels within the district to make it difficult for new entries to come in.

By 1965 when the Sands Motor Inn was built, Cladianos Jr. was a full-fledged member of the family business. He would also be integral to the Sands evolution into a gaming property, while also building a reputation for butting heads with the Reno City Council while staunchly advocating for the family’s projects.

Cladianos Jr.’s dealings with the council would become the stuff of old Reno lore as the executive would push against the limits of what he was allowed, sometimes pushing past those limits altogether, according to people who knew him.

Cladianos III recounted the time when his father came up with a cheeky solution to meet the 100-room requirement in order to obtain an unlimited gaming license for the Sands. Back in 1970, the Cladianos family built a 24-room building behind its 80-room hotel in order to meet the room requirement but was still rejected because the buildings were not “contiguous” or connected. Cladianos Jr. came up with the idea to link both by using four sheet metal hollow tubes.

“They just put this connection on the second floor by laying some beams across the alley,” Cladianos III said while chuckling. “The city council looked at my father and said, ‘What’s this?’”

The Sands gaming license would eventually be approved.

Ferenc Szony, CEO of Truckee Gaming and former CEO and owner of the Sands Regency, said such antics were par for the course for Cladianos Jr. Szony described him as part of a rare breed of old gaming executives who didn’t hesitate to tell you what’s on their mind.

“They’re a not-very-corporate kind of rebel, very much in the model of a John Farahi,” Szony said, alluding to the CEO of Atlantis parent company Monarch Casino and Resort. “Pete was always that guy who would tell it to you right to your face and you knew exactly where he’s going.”

More often than not, where Cladianos went proved to be the right place. In the 1980s, he started efforts to take the company public, allowing it to raise $12 million. The funding allowed the company to pay off its debt and build another tower, according to Cladianos III.

Szony also credited Cladianos Jr.’s ability to think outside the box, including his success in making deals with Canadian wholesalers to bring over tourists to play slot machines at the Sands. The hotel-casino enjoyed a successful stretch in the 1990s from that move, with five different charter planes coming in twice per week from places like Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary.

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“You go to the airport and you just see this Air Canada widebody DC-10 and you wonder, ‘Why is Air Canada flying in and out of Reno twice a week?’” Szony said. “It’s because they were all going to the Sands as a package deal.”

In the 1990s, with tribal gaming threatening the industry in Reno, Cladianos Jr. made a push to diversify the business. The company decided to invest in a gaming venture in Mississippi, which ended up “not being as successful as we hoped,” Cladianos III said. Cladianos retired as president of the Sands in 2004. In 2006, the Sands was sold to Las Vegas-based Herbst Gaming. Szony would buy the property back several years later before selling it to current owner Jacobs Entertainment.

“We couldn’t afford to not sell it to them,” Szony said. “They offered me a price I could not say no to.”

Cladianos Jr. died on Wednesday evening while surrounded by loved ones.

“We had the family together last night. We somehow knew because his health had been declining that we needed to be there with him,” Cladianos III said. “Everybody talked to him and said goodbye.”

Cladianos Jr., who was active in the local Greek community, was visited by a priest who gave him communion and administered his last rights. He died sometime around 11:30 p.m.

The Atlantis’ Farahi lauded Cladianos’ efforts in helping build the local gaming industry.

“Pete Cladianos, Jr. was one of the pioneers of the gaming industry in northern Nevada,” Farahi said. “He contributed to the growth of our industry and was an activist in our community who made a positive impact.”

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Pete Cladianos III remembers his father as an amazing man who raised a wonderful family and worked hard to accomplish the kind of dreams that people strive for. He was also a man with a wicked sense of humor and would not take guff from anybody, whether it be city hall or a cook at a Greek festival.

“He was such a character,” Cladianos III said. “He really was larger than life.”

After being ranked the third-worst casino executive in a 1997 ranking, Cladianos Jr. responded sarcastically, “What the hell did these other two guys do that made them worse than me?”

According to Cladianos III, his father mirrored his grandfather’s pugnaciousness. The elder Cladianos, who came to Reno in 1912, had a fight with city hall back when he was still a fruit and vegetable vendor. The city had a rule that businesses can’t stay open past 6 p.m.

“He sued the city and won so he got to keep his business open,” Cladianos III said. “Fighting against authority comes naturally to us.”

Pete Cladianos Jr. is survived by three children, three grandchildren and his sister.

Jason Hidalgo covers business and technology for the Reno Gazette Journal, and also reviews the latest video games. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhidalgo. Like this content? Support local journalism with an RGJ digital subscription.

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