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The good old days of Virginia City are still good
by Harry Spencer
Jan 16, 2009 | 1398 views | 1 1 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A news story that came out midweek noted that the National Trust for Historic Preservation had named Virginia City, Nev., to its list of 12 “Distinctive Destinations” across the country.

The news came as a blessing to the many old-time marketing pros in this area who have long felt that northern Nevada has been sold short by the fact that the “Liveliest Ghost Town in the West” has never been properly featured when it comes to the promotion of this area.

The venerable old mining site, which is literally a stone’s throw from the “Biggest Little City,” contains more well-preserved history about the Old West than possibly any spot in the country.

From its mining heydays, when it literally gave the town of Reno a reason for being (railport for supplies going to V.C.), to the present, Virginia City has been able to keep intact many of its most historic buildings and mining sites.

Noted primarily today for its wooden sidewalks, St. Mary’s Church, many saloons and antique and gift shops, the town is still a wonder to behold for the first-time visitor. With “Boot Hill” at its northern entrance the mood is quickly set for the robust and lively remnants of the mining town that once boasted more than 30,000 inhabitants.

After slumbering along for many decades as a minor attraction in northern Nevada, Virginia City got a double shot of fame in 1959 and again in 1960. In ’59 the TV show “Bonanza” saw its world premiere held in Reno and the famous intro to the show each week positioned V.C. and its proximity to both Reno and Lake Tahoe.

As “Bonanza” went into syndication (even today) all over the world and its characters’ dialogue was dubbed in many languages, most notably German and Japanese, the allure of the American Wild West was rekindled in many parts of the globe. Tourism officials in Virginia City will tell you of the large proportion of foreign visitors who come to the “Queen of the Comstock” on an annual basis and many attribute it to the widespread “Bonanza” popularity.

In 1960 the town got another publicity “bonanza” when the first Camel Race was held. The inaugural race attracted fans in the tens of thousands for many reasons, mainly because of the notoriety of the two riders in the contest: movie director John Huston and professional horse racing jockey Billy Pearson. The fact that the entire cast of “The Misfits” movie (which Huston was directing and which starred Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter) were to be on hand was as big a draw as the contest itself.

The publicity generated by the race was mainly attributal to the humorous full column that the San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen penned about the affair. Traditionally an “item” in a Caen column consisted of about two dozen words. He seldom, if ever, devoted his 1,000 words-plus to a single event. Entitled “One hump, or Two?” the Caen piece referred to the fact that one camel in the race was a Bactrian (two humps) and the other was a Dromedary (one hump). What made the physical disparity of the two beasts of burden most interesting was that the camels arrived without any saddles included. Huston quickly grabbed the two-humper (for stability) and we finally secured Pearson atop his mount by borrowing a tennis net from a nearby school playground and wrapping it around the Dromedary. The rumor still persists that Pearson took a “dive” and let his good friend Huston win.

As “Bonanza” continuted to grow in popularity, our promotion committee in Reno scheduled numerous events in Virginia City to which the cast, producer and director of the show were invited and always showed up.

Another great publicity vehicle for Virginia City was born when he started taking the many famous entertainers that appeared here in those days “up the hill” to visit with famed writer Lucius Beebe, who was the then publisher of The Territorial Enterprise, official newspaper of Virginia City.

Good to see the old “Queen” get its rightful due as one of the top American destinations to visit. Now others will learn what many of us have known for a number of years: “The way it is, is the way it was.”

Celebrity Corner

Every now and then Charter Cable comes up with a film that features several actors that have had strong northern Nevada connections. A movie that screened recently on the tube has three of those famous personalities in its cast. The title of the flick was “Space Cowboys” and it was directed by one of its stars, Clint Eastwood. Also featured in “Cowboys” were James Garner, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland. Of the quartet, Sutherland was the only one that I have never heard of having a Silver State connection.

Eastwood is still best remembered here for staging his Eastwood Celebrity Tennis Tournament for several years at the Tahoe Racquet Club at Incline Village. He is also familiar to Renoites for the location shoot during the filming of “The Pink Cadillac.” Prior to either of these appearances he was a frequent visitor to the North Shore of Tahoe as a guest of a good friend, realtor Rod Campbell. In fact, the first time I made the famous star’s acquaintance was at Harrah’s Reno, when he was accompanied to a floor show by the Campbells.

During his tennis tournaments he invited many other famous celebrities to participate, many of whom were visiting Tahoe for the first time.

As for Tommy Lee Jones, he was here not too long ago as the lead in the film, “Cobb” (a story about the famous baseball player’s days when he lived at nearby Zephyr Cove). While filming in Reno, Jones was a frequent visitor to the D Bar M Western store on Fourth Street — a tribute to his lingering Texas roots.

As for Garner, he was a regular invitee to the Harrah’s golf tournaments that were held in Tahoe. In person he was as friendly and relaxed as his famous character on the TV series “Maverick.”

“Space Cowboys,” which was an unrealistic flick about a bunch of over-the-hill astronauts sent aloft once more to repair an equally old satellite that only they could understand, was also sort of a reunion for Garner and Eastwood since many years prior, when Eastwood was first starting out, he had a bit part on a “Maverick” episode.

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: Harry Spencer’s column is sometimes a mix of reporting and opinion. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.
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December 01, 2010
Thanks for keeping the "Liveliest Ghost Town" in the news. Is Donald Sutherland a relative of the Territorial's printer, William Sutherland? Sutherland's have a famous Old West history. One descendant married the daughter of Ben Leon, architect or Reno's schools and is noted on an historicl plaque for his work on the Spark's Courthouse. Leon, aka Harry Benford, was a famous NY architect and changed his name to Ben Leon when he left Penn. with his wife's sister. Want to know more? Call me. Vonne Joyce
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