“Hey, what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair.”
-From Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”
Bill Wood has removed the Sound Wave Print of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” and a framed autographed black-and-white poster of a young Gregg Allman that adorned the walls of his upstairs office.
The man responsible for bringing so many live shows to Lake Tahoe retires this week from his job as general manager of the Crystal Bay Casino. His legacy is the Crown Room.
Wood, 68, stands 6-feet, 3-inches, but he seems taller with his full head of hair. Amiable and polite, he smiles when he listens to, or talks about, music. “It’s always on my mind,” he said.
Brent Harding, the man who has booked all the music at the CBC, is bittersweet.
“I’m very happy for him,” he said. “I think now was the time because you want to retire when there is still enough gas left in the tank to go and do the stuff you want to do.
“I’ve never had a boss who has understood everything as well as he does and was so all in on it. That’s very rare. I will miss that. He’s almost the perfect person. He’s taught me a lot about life and how to live it because he sure lives his.”
“I’ve almost never seen the guy not smile, said Robbie “Gade” Polomsky, who worked with Wood in his early years at Tahoe at the Hyatt Regency. “I see him wearing his suit and casino clothes, but then he goes out on the road to follow the Allman Brothers. I thought that was pretty cool.”
Wood built the Crown Room to a level of national renown. And, when numerous venues failed to survive a pandemic and business lockdown, the Crystal Bay Club endured. Shows have resumed, and on July 2, The Brothers Comatose will play the first concert that will allow full 700-spectator capacity. The only casualty is the smaller venue, the Red Room, which, for now will not be used for after-party shows.
In summer 2019, legendary country artist Steve Earle told a Crown Room audience, “You guys should support this place because it’s super cool. This place is about the music. Most casinos are not like this.”
“That’s all on Bill’s shoulders. He’s the one who built that mentality here,” said Eric Roe, who has been with the casino since 2008 and is the new general manager.
“I wanted to break the casino stereotype and make it a Fillmore type of space,” Wood said.
A Dallas native, Wood hardly expected to be dealt a career at Lake Tahoe in the casino industry. He figured he’d be a doctor or an architect. But the sight of blood eliminated the former and math aptitude prevented the latter. Political science or foreign service became the plan until a candid, cynical Southern Methodist University professor confided: “You will need to pick a side and then you will have to sell your soul.”
“I said, ‘That really sucks. What am I going to do now?’ ”
Upon graduation, Wood’s parents gave him a month’s rent and said he was on his own. Driving down Greenville Avenue, he saw a help wanted sign in the window of a bar called the General Store. Inside, the owner was speaking with a musician Wood recognized as the songwriter Steven Fromholz, Texas’ future poet laureate. Eavesdropping, Wood heard the owner ask for a copy of Fromholz’s out-of-print debut album, “From Here To There.”
The artist had no extra copies or where to find one.
Wood admitted to the owner he had no experience for the bar-back job, but turned the conversation to Fromholz. Years earlier, the music aficionado had purchased several copies of the record.
“I will give you the album if you hire me,” Wood said.
Within months, Wood advanced to bartender and started booking bands. He later worked at Willie Nelson’s Whiskey River before returning to the General Store, where circumstances forced Wood’s hand. He had a disagreement with the manager. Integrity is a vital characteristic for Wood.
“I introduced his face to the foosball table,” said Wood, who subsequently drove his Volkswagen bus out to West, where during a summer break from college he ran change at the Sahara Tahoe in Nevada, at the time the only state with legal gambling.
“It was the worst job I ever had,” Wood said.
Upon his return to Tahoe, a casino manager inquired, “What do you want to do with your life, kid?”
Wood started his casino career as a craps dealer in 1976 at the Sahara, now the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, when the venue had its most famous musical residency.
During a break, Wood ran down a hallway, skipping three stairs with each bound. He turned a corner and he was abruptly harnessed and shoved against a wall.
“It was the Memphis Mafia,” Wood said.
A deep, familiar voice bellowed: “Leave the kid alone! He works here.”
Thanks, Elvis Presley. Thank you very much.
He briefly moved back to Texas, learned more lessons about business and integrity, and in 1980 located for good in Tahoe. He worked at the Hyatt Regency in Incline Village for 23 years.
Wood talked his way into booking music, but it wasn’t easy during the disco era.
Polomsky helped him out.
“Before the internet, you had to know people to be able to book bands,” Polomsky said. “I saw his enthusiasm for music. He’s a music lover and an expert. One year I was at Jazz Fest in New Orleans and there was Bill, bopping away on a blanket. One of the first shows we did was Robben Ford and Derek Trucks. We called it ‘Ford Trucks.’ ”
Roger and Elise Norman saved the bankrupt Crystal Bay Casino from becoming a bottled water manufacturing site. They purchased, renovated and opened it on Aug. 1, 2003. The Normans also hired Wood.
Harding, who started his career as a talent buyer at B.B. King’s in Nashville, had moved West and worked at the Sierra Vista in Tahoe City.
“Bill’s a huge Allman Brothers fan and one of the first shows I did in Tahoe was Derek Trucks. He was impressed by that and called me in to meet with him” Harding said. “We just hit it off and saw eye to eye about the programing and what we wanted to do.
“At the time he was assistant general manager and the general manager really didn’t want to do music. He thought it was a waste of time. Bill pushed and pushed, and we started doing shows in the (smaller) Red Room and sold everything out immediately.
“Fast forward about six months from that and the G.M. was out and Bill was the G.M. That pretty much secured him as the guy who knew more about running this business than the one that was previously there.”
Harding brought along soundman Blake Beeman, who had worked at Sierra Vista and before that Humpty’s in Tahoe City.
After sold-out shows for artists such as Leon Russell, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Justin Townes Earle, Pinetop Perkins and Todd Snider, it was obvious a larger venue was needed.
Beach Boys member and Incline Village resident Mike Love suggested taking out the cafeteria’s booths and making it a venue. (Before it was a cafeteria, it was a bowling alley.) Wood and all were happily surprised when the 10-foot-high drywall ceiling was removed, revealing high-lofted wooden beams, ideal for acoustics and circulation.
Edgar Winter and Coco Montoya played the first New Year’s Eve shows in the new Crown Room.
But the venue wasn’t always a success, nor was it drama free.
A couple of big-money acts failed to draw. The Ike Turner Revue appeared the week after Tina Turner’s tell-all book was released. And the Stone Family Experience didn’t do well without Sly.
Then Harding suggested the CBC host three nights of the String Cheese Incident or in Wood’s words, “an unbelievable occurrence.”
“Brent told me the price and I almost had a heart attack,” Wood said. “It was three times more then we’d ever paid a band. I said, ‘If this thing crashes, both of us are done.’ ”
“It was a gamble,” Harding said, “because we’d never spent that much money before, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t going to work. All three shows sold out in 15 minutes. After that, I didn’t get questioned anymore about spending money.”
Wood is even more self-deprecating than he is cautious.
“I have a bad record of making suggestions for Brent,” he said. “I wanted Steven Bruton and nobody showed up. … I learned that I can’t book what I like. My taste is a little too eclectic. I suppose I am two years behind.”
Harding added, “The hardest part about being in the music business is trying not to let things that you like personally cloud your judgment. It’s all about what the fans want to see and historically what has worked in the past.”
Harding said Crystal Bay, South Lake Tahoe and Reno have different types of concertgoers.
“It’s really strange,” he said. “In Memphis, if you go two hours down the road to Muscle Shoals, it’s pretty much going to be the same music taste. But in Tahoe, you’ve got the different places all within 30 minutes of each other and they’re completely different. Reno and Tahoe might as well be separated by three or four hours.”
Beeman is another Crown Room hero. He never missed a show at the venue, totaling more than 1,000 before he died in 2014 of stomach cancer at the age of 54. Blake’s Tree is planted at the former location of Beeman’s soundboard.
Beeman and Wood were part of an infamous occurrence during an acoustic duo show featuring David Knopfler, founding member of the British band Dire Straits. Wood nearly became a victim of a “Sultan of Swing.”
The show’s featured instruments were just a guitar and keyboard and an inebriated woman at the bar talked over the music. She sat next to a South Lake Tahoe man who was trying to get better acquainted. After some time, Wood requested she take her conversation over to the Red Room bar where she would receive complimentary drinks.
However, she preferred to lower her voice and remain in the Crown Room. She wasn’t quite for very long. She agreed to go when Wood approached her a second time. Unhappy to have his potential new friend leave, the man at the bar took a roundhouse swing. Wood leaned back and avoided a direct blow, but the man’s ring cut his neck.
“An off-duty security guard moved like an NFL defensive tackle and had the guy on the floor in a half-second,” Wood said.
On the bandstand, Knopfler remarked, “I think there’s a terrorist in the back of the room.”
After a break, Knopfler gave the crowd his version of what happened.
“It was the killer B’s. Bill and Blake tackling some bloke to the ground.”
Wood has worked to make his transition as smooth as possible.
“We’ve been working hand in hand for quite some time and obviously we knew this day would come,” Roe, the new G.M., said. “He spent countless hours with me showing me the ropes.”
Wood and his wife, Patti, who also has retired from the Hyatt, plan to stay in Tahoe, but also will travel to visit their daughters and see shows.
“I will still be around, but I am going to give Eric a lot of air to get me out of the system,” Wood said. “I will be here (Aug. 28) for Asleep at the Wheel. I’ll be the one they have to kick out.”
Harding said, “There will be no change as far as what we do. It just won’t be quite as fun anymore. I used to thrive on Bill’s excitement about getting new acts.”
Upstairs in his office, Wood considered his boxes of work and the art on the wall that needed to be packed away. He was circumspect.
“It was time,” he said. “Eric’s ready and the joint’s in good shape. Like I’ve told my family: Always trust you Jiminy even if it might be a bad thing. Even with the fooseball table thing. It’s aways worked out for the best. I am going to spend summer in Tahoe and not work and not race back home to go to work. We will have freedom to do stuff and definitely to see some music.”