The most recent was Frank Menante, a clothier non pareil in the Biggest Little City, and shortly before him were lawyer Frank Petersen and entrepreneur Bill Walker. A couple of months ago it was time for longtime lawyer and businessman Bob McDonald and Sparks activist and public relations man Fred Davis’s to slip off this mortal coil.
McDonald’s funeral drew a standing-room-only crowd at Our Lady of Sorrows church and even U.S. Sen. Harry Reid was in attendance. McDonald, who was known for his feisty temper and charming Irish wit, had a long and checkered career. As a lawyer he first teamed with Alan Bible, who went on to the U.S. Senate, and then he expanded his law work into the large and successful McDonald/Carano firm. As a politically active Democrat he was one of the leaders in the successful campaigns of former Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, so much so that he had a special desk in the capital building for the eight years that Mike was in office. He later teamed with state printer Pat Brady to buy and expand the Bonanza casino on North Virginia Street. He had no peer at story telling, particularly on St. Patrick’s Day.
I most remember Fred Davis, who served a long stint as John Ascuaga’s PR man, when he represented the Sparks property at the Reno Promotion Committee of the Reno Chamber of Commerce. The promotion group consisted of the PR/ad men of the major properties and was the brain child of chamber manager Jud Allen. We would meet once a week in the now-gone A-frame building in downtown Reno and hatch promotional schemes to help the tourism business in the area. Once agreed upon, we would take the most worthy ideas back to our principals for their approval. One of the highlight promotions that came from that group was the Reno Fun Train, which is still running in the wintertime, more than four decades later.
Frank Menante was one of the early clothing store owners in downtown Reno when the city boasted some fine Haberdasheries, including Hattons, Herd and Short, Jacobs & Jacobs and Patterson’s. In those days, the trip to San Francisco’s trendy men’s establishments was at least a seven-hour drive over Highway 40, so most of the professional men in the area opted to do their shopping downtown. I first met Menante at Hatton’s, which was located in the building on the northwest corner of Second and Virginia streets. Later, he opened what for many years was the premiere men’s store in Reno, Menard’s, on the southwest corner of First and Virginia streets. He was especially helpful in the Mapes golf tournaments by supplying a score of official sports jackets for the Mapes committee members.
Frank Petersen was one of the more dynamic members of the cadre of lawyers that populated Reno in the latter half of the 20th Century. Known for his aggressive demeanor and hearty chuckle, he embodied the build and spirit of a talented student and athlete. In fact, he was the first Reno High football player to be sought after by a number of major colleges. He settled on Santa Clara where he had a spectacular career prior to attending law school and setting up practice in Reno. I best remember him for his active part in the taping of the Bill Raggio/Joe Conforte meeting that resulted in Conforte being convicted of extortion and going to prison for five years. In addition, Frank was one of the four of us on hand in Gov. Paul Laxalt’s office at the time Raggio was soliciting Laxalt’s support in running for governor, a post that Laxalt was giving up after one term. Unfortunately, Laxalt opted to back his lieutenant governor, Ed Fike, who subsequently lost to O’Callaghan. In the meeting at the governor’s office, Petersen was his usual vociferous self.
Bill Walker moved onto the Reno scene when he married Gloria Mapes. During those early years he was a highly successful rancher in the Smith Valley area and then relocated as a businessman to Reno. He was well regarded not only in cattlemen’s circles but in many phases of law enforcement. He had gotten his early training in toughness when he was a member of General George S. Patton’s famous “strike force” in World War II action in Europe. Quiet and softspoken, when he did make a statement it was well for you to pay attention.
Charter Cable aired a motion picture the other evening that included many celebrities that were familiar in the Reno area. The 1968 flick was entitled “Divorce, American Style” and it was produced by Norman Lear, who became one of the early giants in American television. The leads in the film were played by Debbie Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke and the supporting cast was equally strong in the persons of Van Johnson, Jean Simmons and Jason Robards, Jr. A cameo role featured stand-up comic Shelly Berman, who for many years was a stalwart on San Francisco’s North Beach area and counted many Renoites among his most loyal fans.
Debbie, of course, has the greatest local connection due to the fact that she cut the ribbon for the Olympic Press Club opening on the top floor of the Mapes, where she was appearing, during the 1960 Winter Olympic Games. She still appears here regularly as a star at John Ascuaga’s Nugget. Van Dyke was an occasional visitor to Reno and Tahoe when his brother, comic Jerry Van Dyke, was appearing in the Harrah’s showrooms. Lanky and outgoing, Dick was one of the most accessible stars to interview.
One of Van Johnson’s earliest trips to Reno was as a leading man to Loretta Young in a movie called “Mother was a Freshman” that was partially shot on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. Many years later I ran into him at Kings Castle in Incline Village and he noted that the “Mother” pic was one of his favorite outings.
“Divorce, American Style” was a lightweight story but the strong cast of talented performers managed to carry it to a pretty good success.
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.