Stories of the Ages: Hard Six

Iconic steakhouse changed hands with a roll of the dice on Christmas Eve 1945.

Listen to "A Hard Six" read by author Ron J. Jackson, Jr

By Ron J. Jackson, Jr. for The Oklahoman

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The Oklahoma Biltmore Hotel's chief engineer once envisioned the distinct types of upscale clientele who would flock to the new luxurious, 600-room hotel in 1928: Commercial travelers, convention guests, tourists and political dignitaries with business at the state capitol.

No one ever imagined that an entirely different type of guest would be attracted to the plush hotel within 11 years of its celebrated grand opening in 1932.

This sort emerged from the raucous haunts of Packingtown on Oklahoma City's south side, where whiskey bootleggers peddled their spirits, soiled doves pleasured the cowboys and gambling kingpins held court with high-stakes dice games. One of the most notorious of these seedy characters in those days was Percy Clyde Wade Sr., a stringy, street-tough operator who routinely defied the law with his illegal games of craps.

Oklahoma City gambler Percy Wade Sr.
Oklahoma City gambler Percy Wade Sr.

Archive Photo

Records show Wade Sr. engaged in the underground operation as early as 1943 at an undisclosed “gambling house.” News of his participation publicly came to light that year in an article published by The Oklahoman, which detailed a legal dispute over the endorsement of a $5,000 cashier's check.

As the story goes, a drilling contractor lost $1,500 to Wade Sr. in a craps game, only to learn the man didn't have sufficient cash to cover the debt. When Wade Sr. forcefully and persuasively demanded his money, the man signed a $5,000 cashier's check in his possession over to Wade Sr. The winner then handed the man the balance of the check, $3,500 in cash – money the man promptly squandered “under the fire of the bouncing ivories.”

A legal dispute later arose over the authenticity of the endorsement, and the secret was out. Wade Sr. likely didn't care. If he did, it certainly didn't slow his thirst for gambling.

By December 1945, Wade Sr.'s popular dice games were a regular occurrence behind the closed doors of smoke-filled Biltmore Hotel suites. There, on an icy Christmas Eve, an Oklahoma legend was born in the state's most famous game of chance. The equally notorious bootlegger Hank Frey wagered the now-iconic Oklahoma City restaurant - Cattlemen's Steakhouse – on one roll of the dice.

Yet, the outcome of Frey's wager is but a hollow story without a richer understanding of the colorful characters behind the legend. For that story, one must go back to the beginning of this sinful and surreal tale, back to the Roaring '20s and an old railroad town in Okfuskee County …

Weleetka

Wade Sr. hailed from Weleetka, a town where the Fort Smith and Western Railway once stopped for service along a 217-mile route between Fort Smith, Ark., and Guthrie. What little is known about Wade Sr.'s earlier years isn't pleasant.

A local gal named Hester entered his life in Weleetka, became his sweetheart, and together they had four children – Lahoma, Gene, Kathleen and Percy Clyde Wade Jr. The youngest of the Wade children – Percy Jr. – was born Dec. 7, 1927, and it was at that time Percy Sr. hankered for a new life.

“Percy left his wife nine months after Percy Jr. was born,” recalled Norma Wade, Percy Jr.'s wife of 63 years. “Nobody out here in Weleetka even liked him. He was not a good man.”

Percy Wade Jr. struggles now to talk about the father he loved.

“Oh,” he said in a cracking voice, “he was a stinker.”

Still, when asked about their relationship, Percy Jr. just sobs.

Wade Sr.'s wanderlust carried him west to Oklahoma City where he quickly found his footing in illegal gaming circles. In the city and now alone, he enjoyed a different social standing in the gambling underworld.

A natty dresser at all times, Wade Sr. proved to be an ambitious man in everything illegal. He bootlegged whiskey, and in time, established himself as one of the city's gambling kingpins with his popular dice games.

“When we lived in Oklahoma City, I worked around a lot of oilmen,” Norma Wade recalled. “Whenever someone found out my father-in-law was Percy Wade, they always asked how they could get involved in his gambling. Of course, I knew very little because we didn't run in those circles.”

The City's Underworld

Oklahoma City's gambling fraternity offered a motley collection of leading players. Aside from Wade Sr., there were men like Jack Ritter, a known gambler and operator of the Big Six billiard parlor, which fielded bets on horse races and baseball parlays. There was also Hank Frey, the known gambler, bootlegger and Packingtown politician who owned Cattlemen's Cafe.

Packingtown gambler Hank Frey
Packingtown gambler Hank Frey in May 1941

Archive Photo

One of Wade Sr.'s more notorious contemporaries was friend and rival gambling kingpin Tony Marneres, who operated the glitzy Kentucky Club in a building that would later house the popular County Line Barbeque. Marneres emigrated from Greece in 1914, and spent many years in Louisville, Ky., before moving to Oklahoma City in 1934. Like his pal, Marneres established himself locally by bootlegging whiskey, working as a bookie, and running slot machines and dice games. Then, in 1938, he made his biggest splash by opening the Kentucky Club.

The swank club offered patrons a top-rate dining and entertainment experience on a hillside now nestled against Interstate 44. Live music regularly flowed from its doors as guests enjoyed dancing, steak dinners, and several varieties of beer in one of the city's few air-conditioned establishments. Several small dining rooms surrounded the dance floor. The rooms were designed to emulate horse stables with the name of a Kentucky Derby winner emblazoned on the entryway above each room. The back room of the club was reserved for the bar where patrons mingled by a large fireplace and gazed out windows that provided a magnificent view of the city skyline to the south.

This was the public Kentucky Club.

The private Kentucky Club served a far different clientele. A select few were allowed to engage in high-stakes dice and card games in the club's “private” rooms. Tens of thousands of dollars reportedly changed hands each night behind those doors, which were carefully guarded by tuxedoed bouncers. A buzzer system was also used when police raided the club, prompting operators to dispose of chips and all other gaming paraphernalia through trapdoors.

This was the world of Percy Wade Sr. and his associates.

Wade Sr. preferred to run his high-stakes dice games in downtown hotels, his favorite seemingly being the Biltmore Hotel. Records show he hosted illegal games in the hotel as early as December 1943. Police Capt. Walter Acord and his vice bureau squad raided a room at the hotel that month, arresting Wade Sr. for operating a gambling operation.

Police conducted three other raids simultaneously throughout the city, netting 36 arrests. Still, Wade Sr.'s arrest received special notice the next day in The Oklahoman:

“At a room in the Biltmore hotel Acord and Lieut. L.D. Arnold walked in on six alleged gamblers, one of them Percy Wade, a 48-year-old man whose record shows six arrests on gambling charges, who was released after posting $20 bond for operating a dice game.”

Along with Wade Sr., police also arrested Marion Andrew Sheffer, a former Oklahoma City police officer. Amazingly, the nervy Sheffer told officers his name was Jack Andrews when he arrived at police headquarters and he was initially booked under that alias. Only the ruse didn't last long. Nor did Wade Sr.'s time behind bars. The gambling operator posted his bond, waltzed out of the police station, and promptly returned to the only business he truly knew.

Wade Sr. melted back into Oklahoma City's gambling underworld – a dark world where the line between law enforcement and criminal behavior seemed murky at times. Jack Jones, an inquisitive reporter with The Oklahoman, shed some light on this world in 1950 when a copy of a $220 loan note fell into his hands. The loan was for Jack Osborne – a “veteran gambling raider with the police vice squad” – from Charles E. McGuire, a bartender with strong ties to the gambling circuit. A co-signer on the note was Ivan Roy Miller, McGuire's friend and a known gambler with a criminal record.

This photo of L.J.
This photo of L.J. "Smokey" Hilbert was taken in 1939 before he became Oklahoma City police chief.

OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVE PHOTO - C.J. KAHO

Jones confronted Oklahoma City Police Chief L.J. “Smokey” Hilbert about the questionable loan, only to have the chief snap, “There's nothing wrong with the transaction.”

Jones pressed the issue, and Hilbert became more agitated.

“I don't think there were any strings attached to the loan,” Hilbert continued. “My investigation of it is closed right now. Osborne needed the money at that time. He borrowed it and paid it back. I see nothing wrong with that.”

Three weeks earlier Hilbert fired his chief of detectives for accepting a $5,000 loan from Frey, the Packingtown gambler. As for McGuire, the chief admitted he was aware he had “loaned money to lots of policemen and to lots of firemen. When they're hard up he helps them out.”

Frustrated, Hilbert sternly stated, “I don't appreciate this kind of stuff being made public information.”

Hilbert was clearly angry.

The reporter's investigation also inadvertently uncovered some details about Wade Sr.'s secretive gambling operations. Those details were provided by McGuire, who surprisingly volunteered the information during an interview with Jones. He told Jones he worked for Wade Sr. as a “door man” during many of his high-stakes dice games.

“My job was to work the big hotel games,” McGuire revealed. “I met the boys in the lobby and told them which room to go to. If I saw an officer it was my job to notify the boys.”

By then, Wade Sr.'s dice games were legendary. For whatever privacy he might have enjoyed surely vanished on a Christmas Eve night in 1945.

The Legend

The neon lights of the 1980 Cattlemen's Cafe sign beckoned to customers.
The neon lights of the 1980 Cattlemen's Cafe sign beckoned to customers.

OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVE PHOTO - Roger Klock

The story is firmly embedded in Oklahoma lore, and rightfully so. Packingtown gambler Hank Frey is on a losing streak while rolling dice at Percy Wade Sr.'s operation at the Biltmore Hotel on Christmas Eve of 1945.

Finally, Frey runs out of money and wagers his restaurant – Cattlemen's Café. Frey bets Gene Edward Wade, Percy Sr.'s son, he can't roll “a hard six” – two 3s (10-to-1 odds).

Gambler Hank Frey in 1958
Gambler Hank Frey in 1958

OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVE PHOTO

Cattlemen's Cafe owner Gene Wade paused to read the morning newspaper in 1979 in his father's favorite chair.
Cattlemen's Cafe owner Gene Wade paused to read the morning newspaper in 1979 in his father's favorite chair.

OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVE PHOTO - Bob Grier

A glossy Cattlemen's Steakhouse brochure glorifies the moment.

“Wade put up his life savings in the bet,” the brochure proclaims. “With one roll of the dice Wade became a restaurateur!”

The legend doesn't stray too far from the truth.

Gene Wade, a 26-year-old fresh from his wartime stint with the U.S. Army, did roll the dice that night, although someone else actually made the famous wager.

“My brother didn't place the bet,” Percy Wade Jr. stated. “He didn't have the money. My father was the one who had the money.”

Gene Wade, as the story goes, insisted he felt lucky that night. His father apparently agreed, staking a $25,000 pot against Frey's Packingtown café.

“I've heard the dice game story many times from people who knew – Percy's sister (Lahoma), and some of the men who used to run with that crowd … They're all gone now,” Norma Wade said. “What kind of a man wagers $25,000 on a roll of the dice?”

Only a true gambler.

Percy Wade Sr. never changed his ways. A year later he was operating his illegal games at a new reputed gambling joint on Reno Avenue, The Big House. Police raided his establishment and arrested him almost one year to the day of the famed Biltmore Hotel game.

Then, in August 1948, a mysterious fire ravaged The Big House. Gamblers Howard McCormick, Frey, and Wade Sr. were all linked to the building.

As for Gene Wade, he became an iconic figure at Cattlemen's Steakhouse where he often sat in a rocker by the front door and greeted guests. He died in 1994 at the age of 85, and was buried with his father at Roselawn Cemetery in Oklahoma City.

Cattlemen's Steakhouse has long since changed ownership, but Gene Wade's good fortune is still celebrated there today with a “33” brand on the wall in the restaurant's Hereford Room. The brand is also a symbol of a wilder time in Oklahoma City when gambling kingpins skirted the law, police engaged in shady deals, and a single roll of the dice could change a man's destiny.

The Wades were living proof.

Charles Barkley at Cattlemen's Steakhouse
Charles Barkley at Cattlemen's Steakhouse

PHOTO BY NATE BILLINGS, THE OKLAHOMAN

Stories of the Ages: A Hard Six Photo Gallery

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