Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In Ketchum, smokers lose last haunt

Casino Club opts to clear the air after 90 years

Express Staff Writer

On the last night of smoking at the Casino, bar patron Joe Berends enjoys a cigarette while he plays pool. Photo by David N. Seelig

Joe Oropeza sits at a table against the wall and draws a cigarette from his pack of Camels, perching it between his pursed lips. He pulls a Zippo lighter from his pants pocket. In one quick twitch, he simultaneously flicks open the Zippo lid and ignites the wick, already placed directly in front of the cigarette tip. The action is swift but smooth, intentional but without thought, like that of a gunfighter drawing his gun from its holster.

He inhales a deep drag, burning back the paper in a bright glow. His exhale is equally drawn out, savoring the smoke that is no different than that of the countless cigarettes preceding it in Oropeza's 30 years at the bar. Just an ordinary Camel, but he takes note nonetheless.

A song from classic-rock band Journey streams through the speakers overhead and grabs Oropeza's attention. He listens to lyrics that would've just blended into the background on any other night: "A singer in a smoky room. A smell of wine and cheap perfume. For a smile they can share the night. It goes on and on and on and on."

"That's perfect for tonight," Oropeza says as he cocks his head to the side, turning his ears to the source of the sound.

The log walls are normally bare, but signs are plastered above the bar, at the entrance and on posts throughout the room, reading, "It's not a rumor. 19 November 2010. No smoking." To the left of the letters is Arnold Schwarzenegger's stern face, half cast in shadow. An iconic face that often included a cigar during his many movie roles, but this isn't the case.

It's Nov. 18 at the Casino Club. The Ketchum bar's owner, Shannon Beall, has decided to prohibit smoking in the business because it turns away some potential customers, according to a bartender.

"When you come in here, you have to throw your clothes in the laundry the next day," said Oropeza. "Even if you don't smoke."

The 2004 Idaho Indoor Clean Air Act prohibits smoking in almost every public place except bars. Despite bars not falling under the law, every other one in Ketchum has already banned smoking. Another bar doing the same shouldn't be a big deal.

The difference is the log walls that these "No smoking" signs cover, that this is the Casino, a working man's bar since Main Street was dust and dirt, where the patrons are free to gamble, smoke and let go. Before Union Pacific built the country's first ski resort at Sun Valley in 1936, before nearby Lane's Mercantile turned into Starbucks, before the mining town of Ketchum turned into a tourist mecca, there was the Casino.

While the resort town replaced just about everything around it, the Casino—originally the first floor of the Ketchum Kamp Hotel, built in 1920—has remained almost entirely unchanged in both appearance and authority-resistant attitude. Men on horseback and on Harleys have been known to ride through the front door for an evening appearance.

The staircase to what was once the hotel rooms is now sealed off, but the first-floor bar retains its low log ceiling and wall, no windows. A large, simple sign reading "Casino" stands atop the building, same as the generic signs seen in Western movies for the town "Mercantile," "Blacksmith" or "Saloon." This was the town casino and watering hole, a saloon more than a bar.

Back in the early 1930s, Idaho allowed gambling but Sun Valley Resort didn't. Many resort guests were known to make the one-mile trek to Ketchum for a roll of the dice and a chance to mingle with the local working class. Though Idaho outlawed table gambling in 1949 and slot machines in 1953, the Casino continued Friday evening poker games up to the mid-1980s.

The gambling's gone, but the Casino remains the working men's refuge, where a Hamm's beer and lime wedge costs a buck, and Oropeza can smoke freely after a day of work. He made sure to come here tonight after a shift, still wearing his embroidered work shirt. He and the other regulars heard rumors of the change a month ago.

"A few people were very upset, saying they won't come in," Oropeza says. "But they will—in a few days. It's where they come every day."

For those in the bar tonight, it's a chance to do the unusual: celebrate smoking. The mood's high, and wisps of smoke spiral upward from just about everyone's hand.

"Is it true?" asks a man sitting at the bar, pointing to the sign over the bartender's head.

"Smoke 'em while you got 'em," the bartender replies.

Most of the bar-goers are obviously well aware of the change, according to one regular who wants to remain unnamed.

"Look at all those cigars," he says. "Another sign that we're going out in style. Chain smoking till 2 a.m."

Minutes earlier, a woman took a picture of four guys sporting stogies, showing they were there for the Casino's last smoky night after 90 years. Over at the bar, a woman sitting on one of the stools takes out a longer-than-usual cigarette. The bartender and another man stumble to be the first with a flame.

Oropeza recalls 10 people arriving early in the night and standing at the end of the bar.

"One guy passed cigarettes around to everyone," he said. "They lit up together."

Oropeza is also at the Casino to celebrate, but is more reserved, not making a big deal out of it.

"Seeing them, I figured I might as well get a cocktail and a cigarette," he said, later adding, "Winter's coming on. I might just quit."

Another regular, who wishes to remain anonymous, said he also might quit.

"I only smoke here," he said.

Oropeza said some regulars ironically aren't smokers and are ecstatic with the change, having put up with the smoke for the jovial atmosphere and talented bartenders.

"I look forward to coming in tomorrow," Oropeza said, adding that he knows the cleaner hired to scrub down the interior, ceiling to floor, before the first smokeless night. "Not seeing any ashtrays at the bar, it's going to take time to get used to."

But Oropeza said it will still be his usual spot, where Hamm's is a buck a can.

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