Many were established performers and others were newcomers on their way up. Of the latter category, I remember most the team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. I first encountered them at the Riverside Hotel when they were the third act on the bill that starred Kay Starr, who happened to be the number one songstress at that time. The second act on the bill was Rudy Cardenas, the world’s greatest juggler.
The most intriguing thing to me about Rowan and Martin was that they had started out as newspapermen. They would moonlight by writing jokes for comics and when they would perform them at auditions, they were complimented by others who said they did the jokes better than the comics did. Accordingly, they eventually teamed up and put together a night club act of their own. It was many years before they really hit the top in the TV show “Laugh In.”
Everyone who caught their act in the early days said that eventually they would be superstars. They proved to be right.
In those early days in Reno, the Entertainment Guide would feature photo stories of different acts. Rowan and Martin proved to be adept performers for these stories. The first one we did involved the two of them at the local newspaper re-enacting their early tabloid days. Since the paper was located on nearby Center Street, it was an easy task to run them over there with the late Don Dondero clicking the shutter on the duo between shows. As the two moved up in show business they were later booked at the Mapes Hotel Skyroom as the top act. Since I had returned to the Mapes from the Riverside, I never failed to catch their show. I can recall sitting with them in their tiny dressing room drinking the warm Pabst beer that was used in their signature act. When I asked them on one occasion why they didn’t close their dressing room door, I soon found out why as a half-naked chorus girl glided by. The last time I saw either one of them was when we staged the Clint Eastwood Tennis Tournament at Incline Village in 1975. Rowan was a participant in that event. They rank very high in my estimation of performers.
As for established performers with whom I worked, I would have to name Milton Berle as the tops. He appeared many times in the Mapes Skyroom. At one of those bookings we gave him a police escort from the airport to the hotel. He was in a convertible with several chorus girls and said he would never forget it.
Years later I was traveling on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles with a good friend, Peter Paxton, and we happened to drive past the Hotel Ambassador’s Coconut Grove. On the marquee Milton Berle’s name was featured. My friend said that he had always wanted to see Berle in person. We made arrangements that night to go to the hotel and catch Milton. We joined a long line of show goers and when we got to the maitre’d’s desk we were informed that the show was sold out. Undismayed, I grabbed the nearest house phone and called backstage to Milton’s dressing room and explained our predicament. He told me to go back to the maitre’d, and he would place a call to him. We did so and were rewarded with a waiter carrying a table for two up to ringside and the drinks were on “Uncle Miltie.”
Another favorite during my stint at the Riverside was the irrepressible Jimmy Durante. In addition to putting on two fabulous shows a night, he would have everyone in the tiny hotel coffee shop in stitches the following morning as he breakfasted with the Wertheimer brothers who ran the gambling and entertainment at the hotel. It was also at the Riverside that two famous names to be appeared in the hotel’s tiny lounge. Both were in their teens. One was Wayne Newton and the other was Ann Margaret. We had booked Ann Margaret when her agent called and said he would pay her salary if we would put her on stage. It was her very first appearance and she was billed as Margaret Swensen. Wayne Newton performed with his brother and he was the backup man at that time because his voice had not yet changed.
The record-setting entertainer at the Mapes Skyroom was Lili St. Cyr, whose act consisted of taking a bath in the buff. It was interesting to see her performance from backstage.
The most sophisticated gentleman who ever appeared on the Mapes stage was society band leader Eddie Fitzpatrick. The dapper Irishman who had achieved his reputation in the top hotels in San Francisco was a perennial presence in Reno until the day he died.
Probably the top performer who ever graced the Mapes’ stage floorboards was Sammy Davis, Jr. Every time he appeared there his shows were completely sold out. I can recall him waiving apart the clouds of smoke from ringsiders’ cigarettes and saying, “I can’t see you.” In addition to his two-a-nights he would get unreleased movies from Hollywood and show them to friends in the Indian Room of the top floor of the hotel following the midnight show.
Whether they were just starting in show business or at the top of the heap, they all appeared in Reno in those days.
Harry Spencer is a Reno freelance writer.