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The Liberty Bell and the Liberty Belle: An Interview with Marshall Fey - Part I

5 August 2006

In 1885 a Bavarian immigrant by the name of Charles Fey arrived in San Francisco. In Bavaria, at age 14, Fey had operated a lathe at the farm tool factory of the Munich Plow Company. He later added to his mechanical skills when he worked at a ship yard in England so that when he arrived in San Francisco he had saleable skills. Fey went to work for the California Electric Works as an instrument maker. Another employee by the name of Theodore Holtz was a foreman at the California Electric Works. In 1894 Fey and Holtz quit their jobs and formed a company called Holtz and Fey Electric Works; their intention was to compete with their former employer.

San Francisco in the late 1800s was a wide open town. There were saloons, bordellos, cigar shops, honky tonks, and so on. Not surprisingly there was also gambling. One form of gambling involved coin-operated gambling machines. Some of these machines were manufactured in the east and sent to San Francisco; however some of them were also manufactured right in San Francisco. Fey saw an opportunity to use his skills in this arena. Working in the basement of his Berkeley apartment building Fey created his first gambling machine in 1894, called the Horseshoe, and a year later created a machine called the 4-11-44. This second machine was very successful and by 1896 Fey relinquished his partnership with Holtz to form Charles Fey and Company and concentrate his talents on slot machines; Holtz renamed the original business T.F. Holtz and Company. Holtz also became interested in slot machines and later changed the name of his company to the Novelty Machine Works. Though they were competitors in the slot machine business, Holtz and Fey remained friends.

In 1898 Fey built a machine that forever changed the face of slot machines; it was called the Card Bell. It was a three-reel, staggered stop, with an automatic payout design; a design that dominated the slot industry until the age of electronics and is still prevalent even now. Because of the dominance of his design, Charles Fey is universally regarded as the inventor of the slot machine. The Card Bell was so named because it had playing card symbols on its reels, however, a year later Fey changed the symbols to include stars and bells and renamed the machine the Liberty Bell. The machine was a huge success and for many, many years the phrase "bell-type machine" became the industry's standard lingo to describe the three-reel, staggered stop, automatic payout design.

Charles Fey was married and had four children; three daughters and a son Edmund. Edmund continued in his father's footsteps as far as designing and selling coin-operated machines but was never involved with gambling machines. Edmund Fey had three sons, Edmund Jr., Franklin, and Marshall. The sons, besides helping their father with his business, operated a 1890s-style beer parlor called the Swinging Door in a San Francisco suburb. In 1958, however, Franklin and Marshall decided to move to Reno, Nevada and open their own business; Edmund Jr. took over the Swinging Door. Since 1958 until it closed this year, Frank and Marshall operated the Liberty Belle Saloon and Restaurant at 4250 South Virginia Street in Reno, Nevada. It was an establishment that was decorated to look like a turn of the century San Francisco business and displayed many of the old gambling machines of that period including, of course, their grandfather's Liberty Bell.

There was another unique feature to the Liberty Belle. The brothers, Marshall in particular, started buying up old slot machines that they thought had historical value, restored them, and housed them in the restaurant as well as an attic above; a museum if you will. I had the pleasure of seeing this collection when I visited the restaurant in 1997 and it was impressive. Moreover, during this collecting period, Marshall wrote and published a beautiful book entitled Slot Machines: A Pictorial History of the First 100 Years. The book has evolved into a 6th edition entitled Slot Machines: America's Favorite Gaming Device. It is a book anyone interested in gaming history should own and at the end of this article I'll tell you how you can order one.

Near the end of May of this year I attended the 13th International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking, which this year was held at Harrah's in Stateline, Nevada at Lake Tahoe. This is a conference held every three years and is organized by Professor Bill Eadington of the University of Nevada, Reno.

The closest commercial airport to Lake Tahoe is Reno so that was where I flew, both into and out of. Instead of leaving Reno on May 26th, the day the conference ended, I had arranged to stay in Reno overnight, and had set up an interview with Marshall Fey; we were to meet late that Friday afternoon. Marshall was very busy attending to chores that were created because of the closing of the Liberty Belle but had graciously agreed to meet with me. Marshall and I met in a cocktail lounge in Harrah's in downtown Reno and I recorded the following interview. Because of its length, the interview will be presented in two parts, the second part to be presented next month. Here is the interview, the parenthetical remarks are mine:

DC - I'd like to ask you some things about your grandfather a little later but first of all I'd like to ask you why you and Frank decided to close the Liberty Belle.

MF - I really hate to tell you, it's kind of family, but I'll tell you anyway. My brother wanted to get out of the business for five years. He wasn't as interested in antiques and things as I was. In fact he retired and had his son take over his job. His son didn't like the work the restaurant business required. He stayed there five years but when he realized that the antiques were worth so much money he figured that he might as well retire at age 45.

DC - Oh my. I was so sorry to hear that it had closed.

MF - Oh, it was terrible.

DC - I was looking forward to coming down to the Liberty Belle and interviewing you there.

MF - Of everybody in Reno nobody worked in a better place. Most of our employees loved the Liberty Belle and hated to see it closed. Some people have been working there for over 30 years. It was a fun place to work. We were successful and got a lot of publicity.

DC - Well, you had a nice restaurant and a nice lounge.

MF - We had a good atmosphere.

DC - Yes you did and that museum upstairs, if I can call it that, was spectacular.

MF - Well, thanks. We also had 28 antique wagons, over 200 antique slots, we had historical advertising posters, we had chandeliers, and the beautiful back bar that came from local bars.

DC - What do you estimate the value of your collection to be?

MF - If you include everything close to two million.

DC - That would be my guess. What is going to happen to that beautiful big old brass cash register that you had behind the bar?

MF - Well actually we have four of those large National cash registers. We also have two smaller ones. We have one that is actually manually operated. It uses ledger paper and has a cash drawer.

DC - Who services those?

MF - I do all the repairs. Actually though, they're quite dependable. One broke down maybe five times, one broke down once.

DC - I have a copy of your book of course; it is a beautiful book.

MF - The book has been really good for me and good for the place. I sold over 33,000 copies. It has been printed in two foreign languages. I got a national history award for it and I got letters from two governors.

DC - That is amazing. Now I'd like to ask you some questions about your grandfather. Your grandfather was in business with a man named Theodore Holtz. Did you know him?

MF - No, he died in the twenties. My grandfather outlived most of the people who worked with him.

DC - He had a good friend who was one of his competitors named Tom Watling.

MF - Yes, but Watling really wasn't a competitor. I don't feel he (Charles Fey) felt he was really a competitor. The man he really didn't think well of was (Herbert) Mills cause Mills stole his Liberty Bell and several other of his machines. (Because of these thefts) when my grandfather came out with his On the Square machine (a poker dice machine marketed in 1907) he offered $1000 to anyone who could prove that Fey and Company were not the inventors of this type of machine.

DC - When I talked to your brother Franklin in 1997 I asked him about the relationship between your grandfather and Mills and he indicated to me that as time went on the relationship between your grandfather and the Mills improved and that in later days they were friends with the family.

MF - Yes, there was no animosity because it was (and is) a different generation.

DC - I noticed in your book that in 1936 there was a meeting of the National Association of Coin Operated Machine Manufacturers in Chicago and your grandfather was honored at that meeting. In particular, one of the accolades was a note from Gordon Mills to your grandfather entitled "You bought a kid a dog..."

MF - He was not in the immediate family. Gordon Mills was a cousin. He was out west and ran the sales in Oakland, California. My grandfather and Gordon were very good friends.

DC - He sure seemed to like your grandfather.

MF - Well, he was a likeable guy. He liked people.

DC - Yes, I got that impression from your book. Somewhere I heard that the phrase Good Time Charlie referred to your grandfather.

MF - (Laughs) Well, he enjoyed life. He drank a little bit. He caroused a little bit. He had a full life.

DC - Now I know there was a fellow that your grandfather really disliked: Mathias Larkin.

MF - Yes. He was a Mills distributor in San Francisco at the time my grandfather was making machines there. Every time my grandfather came out with a successful machine, he stole it or got it somehow and it was shipped back to Chicago to be copied.

DC - I can see why your grandfather didn't like him.

MF - Well, it's not a nice thing to do. Mills was tremendously competitive in the early days.

DC - Your father, Edmund, was in the coin machine business and did work for your grandfather for a while but when he was on his own he was never involved with gambling.

MF - Well, he didn't like the gambling element. My mother didn't like it either. He was more like his mother than like his father. Mechanically he was like his father but morally he was like his mother.

DC - That brings up another matter. How did your grandfather feel about essentially being at odds with the law most of the time?

MF - You know we never discussed it and I have to tell you something very interesting. My mother didn't like the idea of my grandfather manufacturing slot machines. It was during the thirties when all of the gangs were involved and she wouldn't let any of our friends know that our grandfather was in the slot machine business. I was only in the factory once or twice. I never got further than the office. When he visited with our family no one ever mentioned slots. Of course we were just kids, I was 16 when he died, and I didn't care about slots. We didn't even know they were around. When I was growing up in the 30s and 40s slots were illegal in California and were not visible to the general public. They had to be in the San Francisco Bay area since my grandfather maintained his slot machine business until 1944, the year of his passing. There were some in rural areas and private clubs. There may have been some in bars but I was too young to imbibe. The first time I saw a slot machine was in Idaho, probably in 1945 or 46. Later, in 1950, there was a $500 possession law passed in California. You were fined $500 for each machine in your possession and as a consequence you didn't see them anywhere. You know I wish I had asked my grandfather a lot of these questions (about the law). My dad would mention our grandfather's involvement once in awhile when my mother wasn't around.

DC - His impact on the business was tremendous.

MF - Well, we didn't realize that until later. When I wrote the book and we collected numerous machines for the Liberty Belle we kept running into machines that we had no idea he had built. He didn't keep records.

DC - How many Liberty Bells are around?

MF - About seven. We have two of them. At first we thought we had the only one. Then John Watling called my father in the early sixties and said "Would you like to buy one of your father's machines?" My dad said "No, but my boys probably would." My grandfather had given it to Tom Watling for free but we had to pay $500 to get it back from John Watling, his son.

DC - By the way, as we were walking in here you mentioned that the Liberty Belle closed recently. What was the exact date?

MF - It closed on March 17th, this year. I wanted to keep going as did most of Reno, but my brother, his son, and my daughter-in-law wanted out.

DC - That would be St. Patrick's Day!

MF - Yeah, terrible.

DC - What do you think your grandfather would think about the current status of slot machines?

MF - Nobody could imagine. You know we started operating with the old mechanical machines. Everybody figured that was the machine forever. In fact it wasn't until Bally came out with the electro-mechanical machines that the mechanical machines became obsolete. And then the stepper slot machines made tremendous changes. The reason Bally fell behind is that they thought the gaming commission would never allow it.

DC - You're referring to the virtual reel machines.

MF - Yes, the virtual reels. It's hard to believe they allowed it. It certainly made a change in slot machines.

DC - It certainly did. Well, Marshall, I am out of questions for the moment. Let's get another round of drinks and when we resume I'd like you to tell me anything you wish about your grandfather.

As I said earlier, the second part of this interview will appear next month. If you would like to obtain a copy of Marshall's book you can write to him at Liberty Belle Books, 2925 West Moana Lane, Reno, NV 89509, call him at (775) 826-2607, or email him at 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