They were “Mean” Joe Greene, the lynchpin of the famed “Steel Curtain” of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, and Sonny Liston, a previous former heavyweight champion. Greene came to northern Nevada when he was cast as the “heavy,” or bad guy, in the movie “Pop Goes the Weasel,” which was filmed at King’s Castle (now the Hyatt Regency) at Incline Village, Lake Tahoe. The movie featured clean-cut Gene Washington, a wide receiver for the San Francisco Forty Niners, as the hero of the movie, and singer Lola Falana as his love interest.
I was given the task of publicizing the movie locally, and I spent a great deal of time with Joe. On all of the occasions he was friendly, low key and just the opposite of the image he had created on the playing field. At one of these meetings he mentioned the fact that he would be gone for a few days to do the “color” on the telecast of the Super Bowl. I asked him if he would mind mentioning the fact that he was filming at King’s Castle at Lake Tahoe. He agreed, and we eventually got a “mention” to a worldwide audience.
On another occasion we decided to get a photograph of “Mean” Joe holding a youngster in his arms to help dispel his tough image. The first child we got to pose broke down in tears at the sight of Joe. After doing some more casting, we decided to try and use my youngest son Luke for the assignment. The two struck up an immediate friendship, and the picture made the wire services with a vehicle labeled King’s Castle conveniently placed in the background. At the shoot, “Mean” Joe was affable and smiling for several takes.
Several years later Joe made a television spot for Coca-Cola in which he traded his football jersey to a youngster who proffered him a soft drink. Recently, he reprised his role in a new TV spot. When the grey-haired Joe tossed his jersey, the youngster tossed it back.
As for Liston, it was several years after he lost the title to Cassius Clay that he appeared in Reno. He was booked for a minor boxing match in Reno and decided that his training camp would be the Skyroom of the Mapes Hotel where he was staying. For some reason, every morning when I checked into my office at the hotel, I would find Sonny sitting there. Then we would go downstairs to the coffee shop for our morning cup of joe. I was amazed that the man who had such a bad reputation was actually a friendly gentleman. He told me he had honed his devastating boxing style while he was in prison.
During the two weeks leading up to the fight, the Skyroom was a busy place during Liston’s training sessions. The delighted owner of the hotel, Charles W. Mapes, Jr., enjoyed counting the receipts at those times because the bar was located adjacent to the training camp. The receipts the first week were very good but tapered off a bit at the start of the second week. I got a call from Mapes, who asked me what we could do to pump up the cash register. I jokingly said to him, “If you will put on a pair of sweats and go a few rounds with Sonny Liston, I think we could double the action at the bar.” Fortunately, he did not take me up on that suggestion.
Liston easily won his Reno fight and returned to his homestead in Las Vegas.
Many years later, I happened to be in Vegas while Liston was scheduled to fight there. I went to the match, which he won, but I didn’t have a chance to visit with him on this occasion.
Several years later he died mysteriously of a purported drug overdose. The questions surrounding his death still exist to this day. Knowing Vegas and its seedy characters as I do, it is no wonder to me that the cause of his death is still in question.
Another squash story
My recent articles about squash sparked a story that happened to one of our Reno players. His name was Willard Elder. At one point in time, according to his wife, Joan, he entered a squash tournament in Salt Lake City. When he checked into his hotel room, his name was listed as Elder Willard. Since “elder” means a high-ranking official of the Mormon Church, he was escorted to a spacious room equipped with a basket of fruit and a scenic view of the Angel Moroni. He was also told that he was given a bye in the first round of the tournament and had plenty of time to make his match. Eventually, the front desk discovered that “elder” was a name not a title. He was immediately moved to a much smaller room, sans fruit, and told that he had a half hour to get to his first match. He reciprocated by winning the tournament.
(The preceding info was forwarded to me by Emeritus A.D. of the University of Nevada, Reno, Dick Trachok, also a fellow squash player.)
Harry Spencer is a Reno freelance writer.