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Death Knell for the State Fair?
by Harry Spencer
Mar 18, 2011 | 1375 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
With the recent announcement that the Nevada State Fair, by any other name, will not happen this year because of financial problems it brought to mind the many other special events in this area that have bit the dust in the past.

Leading off in importance would the unlimited hydroplane races that used to be held at Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake. That event brought an extremely wealthy clientele to the area and generated terrific press coverage all over the country. In one instance the local organizers, primarily Bill Stead, Charles Mapes and Pete Barengo, were able to scour up enough prize money to take the hydroplane gold cup race, the Superbowl of hydro racing, away from its traditional location in Seattle, Wash.

Since I represented Mapes in those days I worked with him on the original Tahoe races which were held in Tahoe City and subsequently on the Pyramid Gold Cup. On one occasion he said he had heard that I was a friend of one of the vice chieftains at Pyramid. I replied that I was well acquainted with Earl Dunn, the premiere athlete ever to come out of the reservation, when we played city league basketball for McCaughey Motors in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Mapes then asked that I contact Dunn and see if I could go to a tribal council meeting and negotiate for the rent of the lake for the three days of the races. I subsequently did and eventually found myself in a lodge with the tribal council and participating in the passage of some Indian pipe with strong tobacco in it.

I made my pitch after Dunn had enthusiastically endorsed the idea and got a signed contract prior to leaving. When I reported back to Mapes he said, “How much?” If I remember correctly the price was somewhere around $700. Mapes then asked, “Was that the best you could do?”

That race was a tremendous success and the cars were lined up from the heart of Sparks all the way to the lake entrance. Then only way DA Bill Raggio and I could reach the gate was to turn on his red light and siren and ride the right shoulder most of the way.

The final day of racing saw inclement weather and there was talk of cancelling the event. However the hydro drivers said they were willing to risk the pretty substantial waves. The race went on and eventually several of the boats went down and probably are still at the bottom of Pyramid. Fortunately the air rescue helicopters were able to rescue the drivers so there were no fatalities. However, the event marked the high point in sponsorship for Mapes and he got out of the sport. Bill Stead then went to Bill Harrah, who eventually sponsored hydro racing at South Shore, Lake Tahoe.

Interestingly enough, the drivers from the Pyramid race formed the nucleus for the first Reno Air Races that were held the next year at the Sky Ranch on Pyramid Highway. Those drivers, including Stead, were all gifted pilots.

Another series of special events that brought a lot of money to the area were the amateur golf tournaments that were sponsored by the Holiday Hotel (now the Siena), Harrah’s, the Mapes and John Ascuaga’s Nugget. All of those have now gone by the board as well as an event known as “Reno Day at the Races” which was held at Bay Meadows race track in nearby California. The entire day had each race sponsored by the Reno hotels and gaming clubs. After each race the roses and horse blankets, each blanket emblazoned with the logo of the sponsor, were presented in the winner’s circle. One of my tasks was to escort the presenters from the special owner’s box in the stands down to the track. On most occasions I got some good tips from the jockeys who were preparing for the next race.

Another type of special event that has all but disappeared from the local scene is that of movie and TV world premiers. In the past we hosted the first showing of “Bonanza” of TV fame, “The Misfits” motion picture as well as the flick “Downhill Racer” starring Robert Redford and Gene Hackman and “Let’s Make Love,” a Marilyn Monroe picture. Also in the past Reno was a hot spot for location filming, notably the summer-long shoot of “The Misfits,” “California Split,” “Johnny Dark” and several others. Today most of that business has segued to Las Vegas. Former Nevada state film office director Robin Holabird has the complete list of Nevada related films and does a fine presentation when asked to appear. In the late 1940s the UNR campus was a regular location site for films such as “Mother was a Freshman,” “Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble,” “Belvedere Goes to College” and “Apartment for Peggy.” All of the foregoing were major motion pictures with topflight stars.

Also related to Hollywood, but no longer in force, was a yearly event known as the “Silver Spurs” award. First conceived by the Reno Chamber of Commerce in 1950 it honored the top Western actor in Hollywood. Appropriately john Wayne, as well as director John Ford, got the first awards. It went on for several years and featured top actors such as Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart. When the movie “oaters” faded it then featured TV Western stars as determined by the polling Hollywood Press.

Celebrity tennis tournaments at Tahoe, such as the Clint Eastwood affair also no longer exist.

Fortunately we still have the long running Reno Rodeo, the National Championship Air Races, Virginia City Camel Races and newcomers Street Vibrations and RTO on the docket.

Here’s hoping the state fair can be reinvigorated and return as this area’s granddaddy special event.

Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.

Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in Harry Spencer’s column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.
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