Last Chance Joe

In May 2014, Global Gaming & Hospitality LLC, the new owners of the Nugget, decided Last Chance Joe did not fit in with their remodeling plans. Sparks City Councilwoman Julia Ratti got a bid of about to remove him and relocate him to the west wall of the C Street parking garage, but the City Council decided it could not take on the project. Ratti approached the Sparks Museum Board of Trustees to see if we could help. The board suggested a better location would be in front of the museum to provide better visibility for the statue. Councilwoman Ratti got another bid of about $36,000 to remove him and install him in front of the museum. She received a pledge from a donor to cover the costs of the move. The museum began fundraising for the anticipated restoration costs. The initial estimates of the restoration was to be around $20,000.
In October, 2014, Last Chance Joe was removed from the front of the Nugget, laid on his back on a flat-bed trailer, covered with a tarp and hauled to the east end of the Nugget parking lot to await the construction of a foundation with steel uprights in front of the museum to mount him securely. By December 2, 2014, Joe was reinstalled in front of the museum. The anonymous donor gave only $6,000 toward the moving costs, then left the area.
The community rallied in support of the project, with contributions coming from Silverwing Development, Governor Brian Sandoval, Nevada State Senator Julia Ratti, Landcap Investments, Baldini’s Casino, the Nugget, Sparks Mayor Geno Martini, and community members like you.
A subsequent inspection of Joe conducted by preservationist Will Durham revealed that the cost of the restoration would be much higher than originally estimated. This was primarily due to the fact that the 56 year-old figure had never been built to move locations. In addition, Joe had been poorly patched and partially repainted several times. His original green trousers and vest had been changed in color to a shade of blue. His skin tones had been subtly changed to almost match the color of his shirt. Since the move and reinstallation had already occurred and the anonymous donor had departed, the restoration funds were used to pay for the moving cost. The figure was sealed to survive the winter and no other work was done.
The following June, Will Durham began work restoring Last Chance Joe. Due to the unforeseen increase in restoration cost and the moving expenses, the museum had to use operating funds to pay for the first phase of restoration. The restoration went slower than anticipated because several of the resins were restricted to a temperature range of 60o to 80o F. The high summer temperatures of 2016 prevented work in the middle of the day. The upper two-thirds of the front Joe were fiber-glassed and primed to ensure he would be able to withstand the upcoming winter.
As of June 2017, the museum is facing new problems regarding permits and insurance which have delayed finishing the project. Donations have helped offset the growing cost of Last Chance Joe’s relocation and restoration, but have not completely covered the cost thus far. Donations made in support of this project are greatly appreciated. The museum board is working to get Joe completed so he can, once again, become an icon of Sparks.
Last Chance Joe History

By Dick Dreiling
The original image of Last Chance Joe was designed in 1952 by Roscoe E. “Duke” Reading of Boise, ID for Dick Graves. At that time, Richard L. “Dick” Graves owned the Last Chance Café in Garden City, ID, an independent city in the northwest part Boise. This image was used for several years in local advertising.
In Idaho, Graves was involved with restaurants in Boise, Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, Kimberly, Mountain Home, and Caldwell. He also sold and operated pinball machines and slot machines. When Idaho made gambling illegal in 1953, Graves decided to sell out all of his enterprises in Idaho and made the move to Nevada where gambling had been legal since 1931. Many of his associates moved to Nevada as well, including Jim Kelly, John Ascuaga, Bill Raymond, Gene Carr and several others.
Graves’ first Nevada casino was established when he bought the Eagle Club and Café in Yerington, which he renamed the Nugget.
In early 1953, the Nugget in Reno was opened by a group of local investors headed by realtor John Hickok. The location at 233 N. Virginia Street was originally the Piccadilly Club. In late 1953, the Reno Nugget was purchased by Dick Graves and Jim Kelly.
In February 1954, Dick Graves leased Broderick’s Bar and the Mint Café in Carson City. He combined the two and opened the Carson Nugget on March 1, 1954. Graves was also considering attempting to acquire facilities in Fallon for another Nugget, but that project was shelved.
The gold miner version of Last Chance Joe was utilized in advertising at all of the renamed Nugget casinos.
Dick Graves practice was to open a casino, get it well-established, then sell it and move on to another town. When he decided he wanted to open a casino in Sparks, Jim Kelly wanted to stay in Reno, so on January 1, 1955, Graves sold his share of the Reno Nugget to Jim Kelly.
On December 14, 1954 it was announced that Dick Graves was to open the fourth Nugget Casino in Sparks. The location was to be 1144 B Street (now Victorian Avenue), the previous site of Western Mercantile. The new casino was to be patterned after its big brother in Carson City. After remodeling, the club opened on March 17, 1955 with 50 slot machines and a sixty-stool café.
In January, 1955 Graves placed an ad in the papers stating “FOR SALE the Nugget in Yerington. This completely equipped bar, restaurant and casino is a terrific opportunity for someone. I just don’t have the time to take care of this place, so I will let it go at a sacrifice. It will only take about $30,000 to handle and about half of that is prepaid rent on a very good lease. See Dick Graves the Carson City Nugget.”
Graves wanted to make the Last Chance Joe character more than just a printed advertisement, and he sent Reading’s sketches of Last Chance Joe to Rempel Manufacturing Company to determine the feasibility and price to manufacture a few thousand squeeze toys. When faced with a minimum order of 100,000, he gave up on the idea. Later, however, the folks at Rempel decided the figure would fit in with their “Little Folks from Sunnyslope” collection. They contacted Dick Graves with a proposition — if he and Reading would relinquish their royalty rights to allow Rempel to make the figures, Rempel would produce a limited number with “Nugget” emblazoned on the hat. The figure had to be slightly redesigned to remove the outstretched hand holding the nugget and the other hand with the gold pan. Graves agreed, and received the dolls he needed for his gift shop. Rempel went on to sell thousands of the figures nationwide with a blank hat and Graves sold his with the “Nugget” emblazoned hat. They were initially priced at $1.98. Last Chance Joe became one of the best-selling toys produced by Rempel.
In Sparks in June 1955, Graves acquired and remodeled the site of Peterson’s Drug Store into an expansion of the original Sparks Nugget, adding another 2500 square feet of floor space.
Meanwhile at the Carson Nugget, Graves had a four-foot high wooden figure made of Last Chance Joe. The figure was used in many publicity events. In 2008, the figure was sold at an auction of Nugget memorabilia for $700.
In September 1957, in a newspaper announcement regarding the building of a new casino across the street from the original Nugget, Dick Graves reported there would be a 35 foot figure of Last Chance Joe on the front of the new building.
Construction of the figure was assigned to R. L. Grosh & Sons Scenic Studio in Hollywood, CA. Since the design and construction would entail many different disciplines, Tru-Roll Corporation and Pacific Promotions Company were enlisted to assist. The figure was built with a structural steel internal frame, which was then covered in chicken wire and paper mache to build out the various features. It was then covered in a glass cloth called Celastic, painted then sealed with a plastic spray. Celastic is a generic name for a plastic impregnated fabric which becomes moldable and adhesive when activated by immersion in solvent or with heat. When dry or cool, it is transformed into a lightweight, high-impact, weatherproof ‘shell,’ having excellent shape memory and bonding power. Celastic can be drilled and will accept many finishing techniques.
The completed figure was 32 feet tall. Since that would be an unwieldy item to transport, the figure was constructed in three sections which were loaded onto a flat-bed railcar. The total height of the railcar and the three figure pieces were approximately 19 feet high. Routing of the railcar from Southern California to Sparks required the car to travel through Oregon to avoid tunnels and snowsheds that were reported to not have sufficient height to provide clear passage.
The figure was off-loaded and reassembled by Reno Iron Works. There were many stories that the main entrance to the casino was to be between his legs, however, his legs were not nearly far enough apart. Instead, the was mounted to the left of the main entrance of the new casino building. There was a mosaic rooster mounted on the opposite side of the entrance to advertise that the Nugget featured “Kentucky Fried Chicken” in its Golden Rooster Room restaurant.
A September 29, 1959 article in the Idaho State Journal, Pocatello, ID reported: “An Idaho Restauranteur Brought a Nevada Ghost Town to Life: Three years ago Sparks, Nevada was a dead berg. An old Southern Pacific railroad junction, it died with Dieselization. But by last week Sparks was one of the liveliest ex-ghost towns in the West. Reason: A human whirlwind named Dick Graves had blown into town, taken over, and turned Sparks into Nevada’s Restaurant Row.”
Joe’s 56 years of gracing the front of the Sparks Nugget were not without incident. On December 4, 1969, the Reno Evening Gazette reported, “LAST CHANCE JOE, John Ascuaga’s 36 foot tall trademark at the Sparks Nugget, got himself outfitted in a brand new Santa Claus suit this week. The outfit, which was tailored by Herb’s Awnings of Sparks, contains 80 yards of red canvas, 40 yards of white shag, 12 yards of black vinyl and two mop heads. The mop heads were used for the tassel on the hat.”
In January 1993, Young Electric Sign Co. was tasked with the job of repairing the face of Joe when a section of the left side of his face fell off due to severe winter storms. In February 1994, during plans for a major redevelopment of downtown Sparks, the Nugget was going to expand and redesign the north, east and west sides of the Nugget to fit in with the planned Victorian theme for B Street (which was to be renamed Victorian Avenue), the Nugget Architect Peter Wilday said the Nugget was going to move Last Chance Joe. He had no idea where Joe would end up, but reassured all that the Nugget would find a suitable spot for him. That move did not happen.
Last Chance Joe’s designer Roscoe “Duke” Reading passed away on March 28, 1990.
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