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.
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.
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 his 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 ended up in 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.
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.
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.
Below is a sampling of famous people who have crossed the Cattlemen's Steakhouse