Under pressure from Monaco, Billings casino changes name

During the 60-some years that the Monte Carlo Casino has operated in Billings, it’s hard to imagine that anyone ever confused it with the Monte Carlo Casino in the Principality of Monaco.

But the powers that be in Monaco, which owns the trademark on the name, apparently thought it was worth the trouble to avoid the possibility of such confusion. And so, after more than three years of negotiations and legal wrangling, the Billings casino dropped the second part of its name last week.

Welcome to the Monte.

“It’s kind of sad,” Cori LaFever said. “It’s the end of an era.”

Cori is the 28-year-old daughter of Neal LaFever, the longtime owner of the Monte Carlo who died on Feb. 22 at the age of 70. She had been working with her father for the past four years, trying to learn the ropes of the casino and his other business interests.

After his unexpected death, she said, there’s “no more easing into it.”

Most people assume it’s the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino in Las Vegas that is forcing the name change, LaFever said, but it’s definitely Monaco, a city-state on the French Riviera. She said the Vegas business evidently has worked out some kind of arrangement with the principality.

She said her father and his lawyer, Rod Hartman, had worked out the details of the name change in long negotiations with an American lawyer representing Monaco.

Neal LaFever thought the whole thing was a joke at first, Cori said, but in time he realized there was nothing he could do but change the name of the bar at 2824 First Ave. N.

A prime consideration was that they didn’t want to lose the old Monte Carlo sign on the west side of the building. When Neal LaFever and his wife Dianne bought the Monte Carlo in 1985, it was in the much smaller space that now houses the Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant.

They expanded into the space just north of what would become the Guadalajara in 1991, but the old Monte Carlo sign still hangs over the restaurant. By changing the name to the Monte, Cori LaFever said, all they had to do was cover up “Carlo” with a piece of sheet metal.

“That’s a historic sign,” she said. “They don’t make signs like that anymore.”

She and her father had been planning to do a makeover of the bar’s interior to coincide with the name change, hoping to make an unpleasant necessity a cause for celebration, but his sudden death delayed the remodeling. She still plans some upgrades but decided to go ahead with the name change.

The old sign was altered and last Wednesday a new sign reading “The Monte Bar & Casino” was mounted on the roof. Under the name, in temporary type, it reads, “New look, same ownership, Neal approved.”

A sign in the front windows still says Monte Carlo Casino, but only because when the windows were tinted years ago the tint was applied over the sign paint. LaFever said she is looking into what it will take to replace the sign and have the three large windows retinted.

Museum

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Cori LaFever said her late father’s office at the Monte, now hers, stuffed with artwork, memorabilia and newspaper clippings, feels like a museum.

She can’t believe they had to change the name at all.

“It was one of those things—we’ve been here forever, so why now?” she said.

LaFever suspects that someone representing Monaco stumbled across the Billings version of the Monte Carlo online.

“They saw the sign on the internet, probably on Google Earth,” she said. “The internet is ruining our world.”

Hartman, the LaFevers’ lawyer, declined to comment on the name change, saying he was still a couple of weeks away from wrapping up the final agreement with the Principality of Monaco.

Cori LaFever said that, according to her mother, the bar, originally the Monte Carlo Club, dates back to the late 1940s or early ’50s. A lot of people still think of it as a sketchy, dangerous place, she said, but she wants to get the word out that it’s a fun, clean hangout.

“I just want people not to think like that anymore,” she said, adding that the Monte has “a very diverse cast of characters in here.”

She said the Monte is also taking steps to be part of the downtown solution to problems caused by public drunkeness. She said her bartenders card everybody buying package liquor, since many transients don’t have ID, and they have a policy of not selling to people who are known to drink on the street, even if they’re sober when they come in.

“We are trying as best we can to not contribute to this problem, but there is only so much we can do on our own without crossing a line into discrimination,” LaFever said. “We definitely don’t want to be doing that either, so we are trying to find the balance.”

As part of the remodel, she said, she wants to expand the seating area into what are now the dart rooms, upgrade the sound system and replace the bar stools. One thing she won’t change is the brightly colored wool carpet, which was salvaged from the Stardust Casino in Las Vegas.

Neal

Photo courtesy of Cori LaFever

Neal LaFever, who liked to say he came to Montana from Wisconsin in the 1970s with $10 in his pocket, died on Feb. 22. He was 70.

In addition to the Monte, Neal LaFever owned the Pioneer Bar in Virginia City, where Cori has worked the past several summers. He also owned some rental property in Billings and several years ago purchased the Westwood building on the southwest corner of Montana Avenue and North Broadway.

Plans to convert the 98-year-old building into retail on the ground floor with apartments on the top two floors were postponed by higher-than-expected cost estimates, Cori LaFever said, but a feasibility study on the building was begun last spring and she still hopes to move forward with that project.

Her sister Alison also hopes to be involved in that project. She has a master’s degree in historic preservation from Columbia University and works for an architect in New York, having previously worked for High Plains Architects in Billings, which has been involved in many historic preservation projects downtown.

“We still have big plans for it,” Cori said of the Westwood building.

Meanwhile, back at the Monte, LaFever said a surprising number of customers have asked her if she had considered changing the bar’s name to the Full Monte. The answer is no.

“I don’t really know if I want that connotation,” she said.

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