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A Night at the Casino

November 20, 2009

The Casino then

The Casino now

I end the night at the Casino, probably the only bar in town Hemingway would still recognize. The Tram is a vacant lot now. The Alpine recently burned down. The Sawtooth Club has been remodeled in rustic Ketchum chic. The Ram and the Dudgen Room at Sun Valley have gone decidely upscale. The Casino is still a dimly-lit working man’s bar, with a cloud of cigarette smoke hanging over the pool tables.

Of course, it isn’t a casino anymore. Back in Hemingway’s day, gambling wasn’t exactly legal, but state authorities looked the other way. Gambling has been replaced by pinball and safari video games, which I figure Hemingway might still have enjoyed.

I take a seat at the bar and order gin and tonics.

“There’s no women,” the man on my left says.

He’s pretty much right. It’s mostly a male crowd. Even the dour-faced person in the black-and-white photo hanging beside the bar is a guy.

“That’s Dead Ted,” says the bartender. Ted Waring was the former owner in Hemingway’s day, and despite the inconvenience of death, the bartender says, “he still hangs around.”

This is the most eclectic bunch of characters I’ve seen in Ketchum. Construction grunts and young professionals both lean against the bar.

“We’re dying here,” the man on my right tells me. Chase Dawson moved here in 1989 to work and ski. He doesn’t ski much anymore, and for a while, he wasn’t working much either. After a wild ride in the boom times of the 1990s and the early 21st century, Ketchum’s real estate avalanche settled out. The millionaires and billionaires stopped buying. The builders stopped building.

“True story,” Dawson tells me. “We’re one of the richest counties in America. But the valley’s mainstay is workers: Anyone from building houses to mowing lawns.”

Dawson lost his job as an electrician. He went on unemployment briefly, then signed on as a construction worker remodeling a home for one of Ketchum’s wealthiest residents, Las Vegas hotel and casino tycoon Steve Wynn. He found himself working long hours ripping out perfectly good granite countertops, but who’s complaining? Dawson doesn’t join the chorus of locals complaining about the changes brought on little Ketchum by the real estate boom. It’s the bust he’s worried about.

Earl Holding, the Sinclair oil baron who owns Sun Valley, is an easy target for critics, who say he’s as much a dinosaur as the brontosaurus on the signs of his gas stations scattered across the West, and his resort – and their town – suffers as a result. “He’s our savior,” Dawson says. “If it wasn’t for Earl Holding, this town wouldn’t be here.”

“What would Hemingway say if he came back?” I ask.

“Where is my sleepy little town?” Dawson says, without a pause.

“Would he like it?”

The bartender hands me another gin and tonic – I’ve lost count – and nods. Neil Jessen manages to carry off wearing a Betty Boop Hawaiian print shirt. He’s an enthusiastic skier, a Sun Valley booster and the thwarted co-owner of the latest incarnation of the Alpine building before it caught fire. “It’s a great little town,” Jessen says. “Things change. Places change. It’s still a great little place.”

I walk back to my hotel room and savor the taste of winter on the night air. Crystal stars shine overhead. No one has taken those away from Hemingway’s Ketchum.