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Best of Donald Catlin

Gaming Guru

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The Liberty Bell and the Liberty Belle: An Interview with Marshall Fey (Part 2)

2 September 2006

On May 26th of this year I interviewed Marshall Fey at Harrah's in Reno, Nevada. Last month the first part of the interview appeared along with some background material. Before you read this second part I encourage you to go back and read Part 1 if you haven't already done so; it will help put what follows in context.

Marshall and I had finished the first part of the interview along with some drinks. We got refills on the drinks and continued with the interview. Here it is:

MF - You want me to tell you more about my grandfather?

DC – Yes indeed.

MF – Well he had good times and bad times. He was born in Bavaria. He was the 21st child. His mother had 21 pregnancies in as many years. If she had a headache that night my grandfather wouldn't have been here and I wouldn't be here. But he didn't get along with his father. His father was very old. My grandfather was born in a school house where his father was school master. He was very strict and was also an officer in a very conservative church. Both of these environments were not compatible with my grandfather's way of life. At the age of fifteen my grandfather left home and worked his way across Europe by himself. I believe his father, being active in the church, was able to locate a job in a nunnery installing telephones. While there he tried to talk one of the nuns there into eloping with him and going to America. Unsuccessful, he continued on his way to England where he secured employment in a ship yard. That gave him a further opportunity to improve his mechanical skills.

DC – I think the story about the nun is in your book.

MF – Yes it is. Anyway, he stayed in England until he saved enough money to obtain passage to Hoboken, New Jersey. He had a relative there, an aunt or an uncle. I don't know how he got to San Francisco but that was the ideal place for him because it was wide open.

DC – I know he didn't die in poverty but he should have done better than he did considering the genius of his invention.

MF – He never had a large amount of money. I'm sure he did have some good periods, but he was not an entrepreneur. I don't think he cared about money as much as he did creating and building machines.

My dad said his office was a bar. If he wanted to do business with somebody, sell or repair a machine, he went with them to a bar, had a few drinks, made the deal, and then went back to his shop. (Pause) He lived alone a lot later in life. He never got divorced; they were just separated. I believe the most important aspect in his life was his business, as he stayed working until the month before his 82nd birthday.

DC – I see. Well, he certainly was a colorful character.

MF – He was very colorful. He lived the way he wanted to live. And when he went into the slot machine business it was legal. He liked the business. It was lucrative and was a good outlet for his mechanical ability.

DC – Let me see if I have the dates correct. He made the Card Bell in 1898, is that right?

MF – Well the dates aren't positive. From the research I've done I had to estimate the dates. There's no absolute proof of the dates. Some of the early articles used 1889 and 1895 as the date of the invention of the Liberty Bell. There was little truth in advertising at that time. Watling and Mills advertised they began business in 1889. They weren't in business until almost a decade later. My grandfather advertised that he started in 1889. I don't know how they figured the dates. I think they all wanted to say they were in business before the other.

DC – Am I right that the Liberty Bell was made the year after the Card Bell?

MF – Well I'll try to explain that the way I think. I have no positive proof of that. At the time Grandpa built the Liberty Bell, Poker machines were by far the most popular machines. However, at that time it was not mechanically feasible to build a five-reel Poker machine to pay out automatically. So he did the next best thing; he built a three-reel machine and he used card symbols. Every award card on the Liberty Bell had Liberty Bell symbols on one side and Card Bell symbols on the other side. Every one of these slots that has survived has that feature. This proves that they were operated both ways. The maximum 20 pay Liberty Bell had some difficulty competing with the card machines in which a player could win 100 cigars or drinks for a nickel. His only paid 20 coins. You couldn't get a real five-card flush with three reels. Three card symbols didn't represent a real life Poker game with its five-card hand. I think that is why he introduced the Liberty bell symbols. The Fey machine had the definite advantage of the automatic pay – the legality of which was often challenged in San Francisco.

DC – It certainly was serendipitous. People loved that three reel staggered stop configuration.

MF – The contemporary wheel machines were very popular. Their greatest disadvantage was that players could count the spaces and colors and easily figure out the odds. For example, you count how many red and how many black spaces that pay 2 to 1. It is obvious that half the spaces would have to be red and half black for an even bet. But there were three or four other colors on the wheel. The greatest advantage of the three reel slot is the suspense factor you mentioned earlier; the first reel stopped, then the second, then the third. No one could figure the odds with three reels. And it was impossible for the player to figure the magic of how it read the reels.

DC – This is a question about aesthetics. How do you feel about the modern machines versus the old mechanical machines?

MF - It's almost not a slot machine as we knew it. Some of the old machines were beautiful with their antique casting and colorful fruit symbols. The new machines compensate for this with their dazzling graphics and sounds. The Liberty Bell, though simple, was attractive. The Mills Liberty Bell was a beautiful machine. It had a Statue of Liberty and the New York harbor on the side of the machine. A lot of work went into the superb design of the castings.

DC – Is there anything else you'd like to tell me; perhaps about the restaurant?

MF – Well the restaurant was great in that it was a vehicle to pick up lots of antique slots and other memorabilia. In fact in the beginning years we used the early machines as a tax write off. We treated them as fixtures. Then we got an IRS audit. They came down and told those aren't fixtures. They are antiques and would appreciate in value, not depreciate. Anyway, it gave us an opportunity to collect machines. There were others collecting at the time. It was the same with the wagons; if someone had a wagon they would give us a call. I bought six of the Mills machines for $100. In 1964 England was having a rush on machines. One person in Idaho bought a bunch of them and then couldn't sell them. He sold me six for $100.

DC – What is going to happen to your collection?

MF – Well, there is going to be an auction on July 8th of this year. But we're going to save our grandfather's machines; they're going to the state museum in Carson City. I want a permanent home for my grandfather's machines. This will carry on his legacy and be a benefit for future slot historians. In a few years my brother and I will be gone. Our father's machines are to stay in the immediate family. He had 21 patents, some of them on arcade machines, were you aware of that?

DC – No I wasn't.

MF – He had a KO Fighters machine; two boxers, with a release pin on the jaw, who would hit each other until one of them hit the other's pin release and knocked him out. Also around 1926 he built an electro-mechanical duck range. In it the ducks would go around and you would shoot at them. When the duck was hit a solenoid would allow the duck to fall over and a klaxon horn would blow imitating the sound of a wounded bird. His initial game was a single row of ducks and later he built a double with two rows of ducks.

One of my best friends is Tony Mills. I moved to Reno in 1958. A year later Tony's father, Herbert Mills Jr., died. Because of this, of the four sons of Herbert S. Mills (the senior Mills), only Ralph was still living. He owned half the business and the other half was then owned by Tony and his brother John. Tony was sent to Reno to manage the business because Ralph wanted to stay in Chicago. Tony was only 23 when he took over the plant. Amazingly, Tony moved into a house four doors away from me. We became very good friends and raised our kids together.

In 1962 the Mills Company was purchased by American Machine and Science Corporation. AMS owned Jennings (a Las Vegas slot manufacturer) and Trainer Scales and together with the Mills purchase formed the TJM Corporation. In the mid 60s Tony moved to Las Vegas to become a distributor for the TJM Corporation. We have kept in touch and I last saw him in Las Vegas two months ago.

DC – Anything else?

MF – I love slot machine history. But I'm also very involved in Nevada history and especially in the emigrant wagon train trails that came through Nevada on their way to California. I belong to a group called E Clampus Vitus. You've probably never heard of it.

DC – Actually, I was going to ask you about that society.

MF – Well it is either a drinking historical society or a historical drinking society. (Laughter) And I'm a cofounder and second Noble Grand Humbug (president) of the Virginia City chapter. In 1975 another ex-Humbug and I formed a group composed only of Noble Grand Humbugs and past NGHs with the acronym TRASH. Translated it is the Trans Sierra Roisterous Alliance of Senor Humbugs. It is a very historical group as we do an annual trek pertaining to the emigrant trails or other important early western history. In fact, we're going to do one in July. I know you've heard of the Donner party; the folks who perished in the mountains.

DC – Is that the party the Donner Pass is named for?

MF – Yes, it is. In 1846 the trailing Donner party was unable to cross Donner Pass before heavy snow fell closing the pass. The emigrants were forced to spend the record-snowfall winter with makeshift shelter and insufficient provisions. By spring many had perished and some of the survivors had resorted to cannibalism. TRASH has explored portions of their route on three of its treks. The history of the emigrant trails and the struggle the pioneers endured is really interesting. I became so involved I coauthored a book about trails from central Nevada through the Sierra Mountains. I really enjoyed that.

I have six publications besides my slot machine book. Five of these refer to Bally and IGT machines. The book business has been a fun venture and I guess that is all I have left since the closing of the restaurant. After I finish restoring machines for the auction I will go back to working on another emigrant trail book.

DC – It must have taken a tremendous amount of work and research to get all of the information and pictures that you have in the slot machine book. That is a marvelous document.

MF - Well where we were lucky Don, is that we were just building our collection. I would buy machines I felt were really important to the history of the slot. It was a very busy time of my life. I was tending bar at the restaurant five days a week. This is while I wrote the text on a typewriter, restored the machines, and then photographed the slots. In 1975 I purchased a 35 mm camera and saved a lot of money by taking my own pictures. I initially co-published my book with an established firm and a year later purchased their rights for one dollar. In 1987 I purchased a computer and became an instant computer nut; I'm sure you are too. I do all of my book work on my MacIntosh and just hand the printer the disc. This saves me a lot of money and work and is a hobby that keeps me busy. Many days I start a little after nine in the morning and continue until about ten at night, in time for a little TV. Answering email and doing book orders are both time consuming.

DC – This E Clampus Vitus is mentioned in your book with regard to the historical marker that they placed in San Francisco identifying the place where the Liberty Bell was created.

MF – Yes that was a lot of fun.

DC – Were you in on that caper?

MF – Oh yeah, that's why they did it. There's a chapter in San Francisco called Yerba Buena, the original name of San Francisco. They were the original chapter when E Clampus Vitus was revived in 1931. Their members thought that a historical plaque about the Charles Fey and the Liberty Bell should be placed in San Francisco. So one of their members contacted me and took me around to meet with all of the various commissions necessary to accomplish this. The first departments contacted referred me to another one. Finally, the Art Department said, "Okay, we'll approve it." Two weeks later they called up and said that they had changed their minds. After the denial one of our members said let's just go ahead and do it. So on a Tuesday night in 1980 we arrived at the site on Market Street, the main artery in downtown San Francisco. The clampers arrived with hard hats, looking like municipal workers, and installed the marker. The police would drive by, look, and pass by. The tourists would ask what we were doing and we would tell them we were putting in a plaque. They wondered why municipal workers were working so late at night. Then one of our members worked for CalTrans and knew some influential people in the state's marking program. He was able to get it designated as an official California state marker. This necessitated getting a new monument made to replace the old marker, which was then moved to the Liberty Belle in Reno.

DC – So what is going to happen to the Liberty Belle?

MF – It is probably going to go to the convention center. We're the only place on the block that isn't owned by the convention center.

DC – As I said before, I was really disappointed to hear you had closed. I was looking forward to looking at your collection again.

MF – So you've been in before?

DC – Oh yes. I was there in 1997 and Franklin showed me around; you were out of the country at the time.

MF – Yes it's been a good ride, 47 years; we're in our 48th year. I was still tending bar – possibly the oldest bartender in town. I figured I'd quit at 80 but did make it to 78. My grandfather retired one month short of his 82nd birthday. It was a great experience historically and I like to build things. I constructed all of the display cabinets, I sheetrocked the walls, wallpapered, and put together most all the architectural pieces inside and out. I really liked working and revamping slot machines. I am restoring machines for the auction, many that were made in the era when my grandfather was in his seventies.

DC – It was a beautiful job. It looked just like turn of the century San Francisco.

MF – It had charisma. A multitude of folks were really disappointed in our closing. People would come to the Liberty Belle from all around the country to see it, see our collection, and enjoy our fine food.

DC – Yes, I was one of those multitudes of people. Well, Marshall, I want to thank you for a very interesting interview. I'm sure the Casino City readers will enjoy the two articles that I intend to write based on this interview. Again, thank you for your time.

MF – Hey, it was my pleasure!

I think you'll agree that the whole Fey family is an interesting bunch. In an email to me after the July 8th auction Marshall said that one of the machines that he originally purchased for $100 was auctioned off for $225,000. He also said that he sold 98 copies of his book and people took hundreds of photos of him. Marshall also said that besides keeping in touch with Tony Mills, as indicated in the interview, he also kept in touch with Art Caille, the grandson of one of the founders of the Caille Brothers slot machine company. Tony and Art came to the July 8th auction and this made only the third time that the grandsons of the three most important slot machine pioneers got together. Fascinating! See you next month.

Donald Catlin

Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers
Donald Catlin
Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers