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A Short History of Vice: Bakersfield's Hidden Gambling Halls

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Bakersfield, CA is a City in the Central Valley

Bakersfield, CA is a City in the Central Valley

. . . the Internet Has Brought New Opportunities

Imagine the streets of early Bakersfield, the dusty thoroughfares, the clapping of hooves as the horses moved through the dry town. Piano music and laughter slipping through the warm, night air. Between the town’s only hotel and the general store, as it is often portrayed in Hollywood films, is the active center of this small town—the saloon. This is where the miner and the town’s businessmen could acquire a beverage and engage in a friendly game of cards, often for a small admission fee.

Perhaps it was the fact that this area was located between San Francisco and Los Angeles, two of the state’s major ports that attracted people to this region. Maybe it was the proximity to the Kern River, a channel of commerce, and Oildale, a petroleum-rich settlement that inspired early denizens. In a region where the summers are scathing and the winters often harsh, damp, and choked with fog, early Bakersfield seemed an unlikely locale to be chosen by your average model citizen.

Gambling Halls sprung up in early Bakersfield as they did in most western towns. Portrayed in films, these salons often seem to have a romantic air about them and a seething element of underlying danger. People sat around card tables, guns on their sides, playing poker. Although considered immoral and illegal, the town’s sheriff was often one of the hall’s major beneficiaries.

CA State Laws Forbade Gambling

Many of the early laws of the state, however, had prohibitions against established gambling. According to the Bakersfield Californian, Sheriff J. W. Kelly in 1902 announced that he will “vigorously enforce the laws of the state against gambling houses." (Bakersfield Californian, December 6, 1952) The parlors were considered a public nuisance and many young men—and some women—fell into unfortunate situations in their quest for the acquisition of wealth. Much of the community intolerance for these vice houses stemmed from the religious community.

The public perception of gambling wasn’t limited to the gaming halls. Ironically, it was observed by early reporters that even though “church and church members are unanimous in the opinion that gambling is sinful. At the same time, a majority of those who are engaged in the most desperate and furious gambling of all in the city grain and stock boards are church members.” (Bakersfield Californian, September 23, 1891) It seems that investing and business was perceived as a game of chance and the public perception was that the market itself was a form of gambling from which many congregational members profited from.

The double standard of illegal gambling and legitimate wagering is a theme that continued throughout the city’s history. One can still bet on the horses during state fairs. Locally grocery stores sell lottery tickets and even though there are Federal Laws that prohibit bookmaking, there are many arenas where family men and women can still call out their favorite sports teams.

Slot Machines and the Card Ordinance

Slot machines could be found in many places throughout the Bakersfield area in the 1940s. A Taft establishment was raided because it allowed its patrons to play with one-armed bandits. A Bakersfield Californian article from 1941 wrote about Sheriff John E. Loustalot’s efforts to crack down on these machines who said “ ‘any reappearance of the gambling devices in the West side city would bring prompt action.’ ” (Bakersfield Californian November 15, 1941) “The number of machines, estimated to number more than 100, disappeared from cafes, barrooms, pool halls and other establishments in Taft,” the article continued. (Bakersfield Californian November 15, 1941)

Of course, by today’s standards, a Las Vegas Like ambiance doesn’t seem to be particularly exotic. Casinos with machines that could at one time only be accessed legitimately in Nevada, are ubiquitous throughout the state of California. Most are within an hour’s driving distance.

Eventually, the popularity of available city gaming machines gave way to card halls and poker tables. Many of the cities around Bakersfield capitalized on this. Chris “Buster” Chroman was a card room owner in Delano and in 1966 he was told by the city council that “he could still move his establishment since existing ordinance contained no prohibition against downtown card rooms” (Bakersfield Californian January 21, 1966) when he tried to find a place in the city to relocate his business. Not all officials were satisfied with this venture. The city manager at the time, Louis Shephard indicated that “most cities of Kern and Tulare counties have stricter ordinances than Delano’s.” (Bakersfield Californian January 21, 1966)

In December of 1974, the California City council passed The Card Room Ordinance which gave way to some of the establishments that operate today. In Bakersfield, on Union Avenue (the old Highway 99) a card house operates 24 hours a day. Most of the smaller communities around the city have their own similar establishments. They provide gambling aficionados a place to relax and ply their trade.

Federal Law and the 1970s

Bingo nights are an example of a past time enjoyed by community service organizations and church groups alike. Throughout the ’70s there were many conflicts between parishioners who were enjoying a leisurely activity and city statutes that prohibiting gaming. California City became famous for its Las Vegas Nights during this decade. In the early part of the 1970s people questioned the morality of “lady card dealers”. Finally, in 1977, it was determined that the Veteran’s Hall in the city could promote bingo nights in order to generate revenue.

Much of the hoopla stemmed from the Federal Gambling Law which was part of the Organized Crime Act of 1970. This rule attempted to put a stop to some of the racketeering and other acts that were practiced by those who were involved in underground business enterprises. It is highly unlikely that there were men in expensive business suits who extracted a toll from small church groups and community centers who offered bingo nights, however, these fundraisers were without doubt profitable endeavors

The Organized Crime Act also made it a “federal offense to conduct a gambling business in violation of state law if it involves five or more persons or has gross wages in excess of $2,000 in any single day” (Bakersfield Californian January 2, 1975) according to the Bakersfield Californian.

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While the efforts of law enforcement to control gambling focused on saloons at the turn of the century and moved to bingo parlors almost a century later, there were other opportunities for the high or medium-sized roller to have his or her money absconded. (Bakersfield Californian June 27, 1976) Bookies reached popularity in the 1940s and gained prominence in the 1960s. One could place bets on football, horse racing in other cities, basketball, and sports on a daily basis.

An organized Bakersfield bookmaking operation with ties to Fresno netted an estimated $70,000 a week in profits. Thirty special Federal Agents armed with 15 search warrants helped bring down one profitable ring. This demonstration of law enforcement efforts to eradicate an activity enjoyed by numerous citizens—many of whom were prominent and model members of the community—represents one of the larger blemishes in the city’s history of the trade.

A Modern Day Card House

A Modern Day Card House

Profiteering and the British Influence

One of the reasons why there seems to be opposition to gambling is that it is very profitable, usually for the house, agency, or the person who is offering the wager. The gambler himself, more often than not, ends up with light pockets. Anti-gambling laws seem to favor the potential loser in the arrangement rather than to dissuade the proprietor.

One of the early British court Laws did address the profiteering reaped by those who operated gambling houses. Passed near 1845, it was stated “money lost by gambling cannot be legally collected by the one to whom it is owing” (Bakersfield Californian August 19, 1891) which seems to mean that if someone loses a bet, there is no legal way it can be collected. This certainly seems to protector the consumer from potentially unscrupulous practices but gives little consideration to the house.

The Bakersfield Californian also writes about a local judge, inspired by the English law who “would have all betting debts made uncollectable by law.” (Bakersfield Californian August 19, 1891) These sentiments if put into practice would make gambling an unprofitable activity for both the provider and participant. There would be no point in engaging in these illicit pursuits had the judge’s insights been followed. Ponies, dancing with one-armed bandits, or the throwing of dice would be all for naught.

The Face of Gambling Today

Bakersfield is quite the average, modern American city. The streets are lined with fast-food restaurants and other active businesses. The downtown section is vibrant and comes alive with bright lights and

laughter on weekend evenings. There are a series of intelligent museums and sports arenas; a selection of libraries and peaceful parks.

Tucked away though, between the abundance of cannabis shops and neon-lit massage salons, if you know where to look, you can find them. Often these new gambling hot spots operate right in the open, hidden behind a nondescript doorway. You wouldn’t know they were there unless you knew they were there. You have to be in the know.

Many of these places can be found along the stretch of Chester Avenue that is Oildale’s major corridor. One such locale has a locked glass door that you can look through and have to ring a doorbell to gain entry. Most of the owners are young people who look like they’d be more comfortable behind the counter of a convenience store. Others appear to be folks with tired eyes, who although they resemble the patrons who frequent the establishment, appear as if they wish they were someplace else.

In one location, the business operates as an internet café with computer terminals you would expect to find in your local library. The stations offer internet access as well as the sweepstakes option which is what most people who come here are seeking. The sweepstakes option will give you access to the types of games you find at your local casino: slots, video poker, blackjack, and even Keno. Your average computer user seems to be couples in their 20’s or mostly young women. A video game terminal in the back allows multi-players and today all three are filled with six to eight occupants.

A man suddenly walks out of the backroom and stands in the doorway. “Honey, we have to go,” he says. Desperation filled his voice.

“No. One more. I got it this time” is the reply from a woman in the back, her voice full of certainty.

He stands at the doorway firmly but sways slightly as if drawn to the backroom by an invisible wind. She finally catches up to him and they both start to head for the exit and then pause and look back for a moment before walking out. I could see wages trailing behind them like a trail of breadcrumbs soon to be devoured by hungry birds. I thought about apartment houses and trailer parks disappearing, a famished baby in a crib. I saw these two at work the following Monday, their eyes downcast, shame, and regret seeping from their tired pores.

Too many people in this community—mostly poor, young whites with little futures—these places offer promises of quick wealth. There are often few other pleasures or distractions available for some and the internet cafes are guilty pleasures readily enjoyed.

Outside the evening has already darkened and a coolness envelopes the avenue. There is little laughter and the slight noise of muffled traffic is the only music in the air. The streetlights are dim and the stark buildings have no signage. Someone on the sidewalk up ahead lights a cigarette and turns the corner.

A siren’s wail crawls up the empty street from across the river in Bakersfield.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Where are the Hidden Gambling Halls located?

Answer: Well it depends on which one you are asking about. The one in the article where I talk about the couple is just off Chester, south of Norris I is no longer there.

© 2017 Finn

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