Elko, Nevada is a long way from the Arctic Circle, which makes the presence of a 10-foot-4-inch-tall polar bear a rather disconcerting sight. Put that giant white bear in the middle of a classic casino, though, and magic is bound to follow — even if that magic is occasionally of the black variety.
Such was the case when Hunter S. Thompson rolled through the Commercial Hotel and Casino in 1992, on assignment for Rolling Stone. Somehow, in a move only he could pull off, while covering the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill case, Thompson became aligned with an unnamed city official called “Judge” — who himself sought a way out of perpetual gambling debt via friends in the adult film industry. Together, the two would come face-to-face with White King himself, in a run-in that has become immortal thanks to the enduring power of literature and an (absurd) story well told.
At a crucial moment in the increasingly absurd, true tale, right when Judge is supposed to be playing it cool in order to rendezvous with these porn kingpins staying at the Commercial, the man becomes unhinged after unexpectedly running into the gigantic polar bear in the hotel’s lobby. According to Thompson’s (surely pristine) memory, the encounter transpired as follows:
“We entered the hotel through the Casino entrance. The Judge seemed calm and focused until we rounded the corner and came face to face with an eleven-foot polar bear standing on its hind legs, ready to pounce. The Judge turned to jelly at the sight of it. “I’ve had enough of this goddamn beast,” he shouted. ‘It doesn’t belong here. We should blow its head off.’
“I took him by the arm. ‘Calm down, Judge,’ I told him. ‘That’s White King. He’s been dead for thirty-three years.’
“The Judge had no use for animals. He composed himself and we swung into the lobby, approaching the desk from behind. I hung back — it was getting late and the lobby was full of suspicious-looking stragglers from the Adult Film crowd. Private cowboy cops wearing six-shooters in open holsters were standing around. Our entrance did not go unnoticed.”
According to the bear’s lore, Thompson misspoke by at least a bit. It is understood that White King was killed in Alaska by an Inuit hunter at an unknown date. During his lifetime, White King was thought to weigh more than 2,000 pounds. After his death, the Jonas Brothers (no not those ones) of Denver prepared the bear in the stuffed and mounted position seen today, which is reported to be the largest dead polar bear in the world.
In 1958, the Commercial’s previous owners purchased White King from the Denver taxidermists for their hotel and casino’s pièce de résistance, going so far as to alter the marquee of the casino to include a giant plaster polar bear in the likeness of White King alongside the classic neon, thereby making the Commercial’s branding synonymous with the bear once and for all. Encased in glass and displayed prominently in the casino lobby’s entrance off Queer Street, the White King has lorded over the mere mortals in the Casino for 33 years, though he’d been killed, stuffed, and displaced from his home long before Hunter S. Thompson and his mischievous band were scared straight by the bear.
As of this writing, no one has blown the bear’s head off.