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Last Chance Joe in 1958 was one of the taller things in the city of Sparks.
Last Chance Joe in 1958 was one of the taller things in the city of Sparks.

Last Chance Joe

Field review by the editors.

Sparks, Nevada

In 1952 Dick Graves needed a mascot for his Last Chance Cafe in Garden City, Idaho. He hired local artist Roscoe "Duke" Reading, and Duke drew a cartoon figure named Last Chance Joe: a bow-legged, white-bearded prospector with a ragged hat, a tiny tuft of head hair, and a single tooth. Joe held a gold pan in his right hand and a nugget in his left in front of his awestruck face, open-mouthed with joy, suggesting the possible riches awaiting those who gambled until their last chance at the Last Chance Cafe.

The original Joe held a nugget to advertise the Nugget.
The original Joe held a nugget to advertise the Nugget.

A year later gambling was outlawed in Idaho, and Graves took his slot machines and Last Chance Joe across the state line to Nevada. He opened casinos in several cities, naming all of them the Nugget. They had restaurants, movie theaters for children, and Last Chance Joe in various forms: ceramic figurines, ash trays, mugs, squeeze toys. The Reno Nugget had a Joe in neon atop its entrance sign. The Carson City Nugget had a billboard of Joe on its roof with motorized, rolling eyes.

Joe is given his final coat of new paint in 2018.
Joe is given his final coat of new paint in 2018.

It wasn't enough for Dick Graves, described in an Idaho State Journal feature as "a human whirlwind." When he opened a new Nugget in Sparks in 1958, Graves saw an opportunity that had been denied him by zoning laws in larger cities: a giant Last Chance Joe -- a worthy equal of Nevada's other casino titans: Vegas Vic and Wendover Will. "He wanted people to enter the Nugget by walking between Joe's legs," said Dick Dreiling, a Sparks historian.

To design Joe, Graves hired a Hollywood company that built movie sets. They told Graves that an entrance-straddling statue would be too big, the gold pan and nugget too destabilizing for a giant sculpture. Instead, they built a hands-on-hips Joe 35 feet tall, with a steel frame and full-color skin made of a space-age material named Celastic. When Joe was assembled he was too large to fit through the Sierra Nevada tunnels, so he had to be shipped to Sparks in three pieces via Oregon.

Last Chance Joe no longer held a nugget at the Nugget, and he was now gleeful for no apparent reason, but those potential problems proved to be no problem at all. The townspeople of Sparks loved Last Chance Joe (identified as a "jolly old miner" on his accompanying plaque) even when chunks of his face occasionally fell off and a tree grew up in front of him, blocking his view from the street. When the Nugget announced plans to bulldoze Joe in 2014, locals rallied to relocate and restore him. One self-identified "tech geek" pledged $30,000.

By the early 2000s Last Chance Joe needed extensive repair - and eventually received it.
By the early 2000s Last Chance Joe needed extensive repair - and eventually received it.

Dick Dreiling recalled his surprise when Joe was lifted off of his 56-year-old platform, turned slowly in the wind, and revealed that his front had been repainted in different colors from his hidden back. Restoration costs began rising. The tech geek vanished without paying the $30k. Sparks had planned to put Joe outside a city parking garage, but Dick said, "That's dumb," and suggested instead standing him outside of the Sparks Heritage Museum, three blocks away. Joe was hauled there, a 35-foot-tall showpiece of patched Celastic and mismatched paint.

Vintage ceramic souvenir Joe from the Nugget.
Vintage ceramic souvenir Joe from the Nugget.

To raise money for Joe's repairs Nevada issued special Last Chance Joe license plates, but not enough were sold and the design was retired after a year (Visitors can buy them as souvenirs at the museum). "His original construction material was really weird: paper mache and crap not an eighth of an inch thick," said Dick. "He was really fragile." Fortunately for Joe he'd had no bullets or arrows shot into him (unlike some other giant statues) and his spot outside of the Nugget faced away from the sun, which helped to preserve his exterior in the dry climate.

Over the next four years Last Chance Joe stood in public as he was gingerly stripped clean, given new fiberglass skin, a protective resin shell, and a coat of correctly-colored marine-grade paint. He was judged to be fully restored in July 2018. Joe may not look exactly as he did in 1958, but the resemblance is pretty close. "He's become the mascot of the city," said Dick, noting that Joe's new location makes him one of the first things that people see when exiting the interstate -- not a bad last chance for a former casino cartoon. Now as old in years as the character he portrays, giant Joe and his too-tough-to-quit prospector permanence has become a point of local pride. "He will stand in front of the museum," said Dick, "until hell freezes over."

Last Chance Joe

Sparks Heritage Museum

814 Victorian Ave., Sparks, NV
Sparks Heritage Museum. I-80 exit 18. Turn north onto Pyramid Way. Drive one block. Turn left onto Victorian Ave. You'll see Last Chance Joe on the right, in front of the museum.
RA Rates:
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