EAST GRAND FORKS, MINN. — It isn’t like in the old days when the machines had to be hidden and lookouts watched for cops, but the one-armed bandits are back at the venerable Whitey’s Café in East Grand Forks.
So is the lobster dinner for $3, if you’re lucky enough to pull three bells on one of the two antique slot machines that harken to the Prohibition era. Dozens of speakeasies and gambling halls lined the border city’s downtown then, and gangsters came from the Twin Cities and Chicago for a special “up north” getaway.
But playing the slots at Whitey’s isn’t gambling, despite an effort by state gambling control agents last year to shut it down. They confiscated the old mechanical slots and asked the Polk County attorney to consider criminal charges.
“They were up in this area looking for football pools,” said Greg Stennes, the café manager and part-owner. “They came in here and saw our slots. ‘They look like gambling devices,’ they said. ‘They work like gambling devices,’ they said.
“But it isn’t a game of chance. Everybody wins. Nobody loses.”
After mulling the situation for months, the county attorney decided last summer against prosecuting. State authorities still could have brought administrative sanctions, stripping the bar of its liquor license, but they threw in their hand and returned the slots.
Lobster dinner for $3
In Whitey’s annual February “Good Ol’ Days” promotion, dinner patrons get a token good for one pull at a slot machine. Line up three bells and you order off Whitey’s 1950s menu, which featured the lobster dinner at $3 (it’s $26 now) or a t-bone steak with all the fixin’s for $4.25. A cheeseburger? 50 cents. Add fries for a quarter.
Three plums gets you the 1960s menu, and that lobster dinner comes for $4.35. It jumps to $11.95 in the ’70s menu (three oranges) and $17.75 if you order off the menu from the 1980s (two cherries).
For 20 years or more, the slots — and dice rolls against bartenders — have been part of a dinner promotion that tied into Whitey’s storied history, which includes tales of police raids, escape tunnels beneath the bar and visits by celebrated mobsters, though the reputed appearance of Al Capone is difficult to confirm.
Legitimate celebrities also came to Whitey’s, holding court around the art deco Wonderbar, a horseshoe-shaped centerpiece of stainless steel and mahogany once featured in the Saturday Evening Post. In the new Whitey’s, rebuilt (with the horseshoe bar) after the 1997 Red River flood, there’s a picture of the original exterior. The picture bears the signature of Clark Gable, who visited in 1937.
Hot dogs and moonshine
Whitey was Edwin “Whitey” Larson, who was 19 when he started his Coney Island Lunchroom in 1925. He sold hot dogs up front and moonshine under the counter, with slot machines in the back. When Prohibition ended, he opened Whitey’s Wonderbar and sold liquor legally. The illegal gambling continued there and in other East Side hotspots until Gov. Luther Youngdahl’s reform campaign in the late 1940s.Larson died in 1992 and was mourned as an East Grand Forks icon.
“Whitey had about 40 old slot machines in a warehouse when we bought the place from him,” Stennes said.
They were lost in a burglary, he said, but there were other antique slots available that dated from the old days and may have been used in the old Whitey’s. Stennes bought two from a local woman.
“There are lots of East Grand Forks families that have slot machines at home,” Stennes said, smiling.
But call them antiques, or historical artifacts, or something to set a nicely framed picture of your mother on.
Honest, officer. They are not gambling devices.