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That’s More Entertainment
by Harry Spencer
May 12, 2012 | 3066 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
AP Photo/MGM
Judy Garland and Ray Bolger are shown performing the Harold Arlen-Ira Gershwin song, “If I Only Had A Brain” from the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz.”
AP Photo/MGM Judy Garland and Ray Bolger are shown performing the Harold Arlen-Ira Gershwin song, “If I Only Had A Brain” from the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz.”
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In mentioning live entertainers who graced Reno’s stages in the past I would be remiss in not recalling Ray Bolger. 

This talented dancer, who had achieved his top role as the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz”, frequently appeared in the Mapes Skyroom.  Even at his advanced age he was still able to kick either leg above his head as he danced around the stage.  He eschewed staying at the hotel during his appearances because it did not have a swimming pool.  He once confided in me that he stayed limber because of daily swimming session.  Consequently, he would select one of the better motels that had such an amenity.  In addition to his superb rendition of “Once in Love with Amy” from a successful stage show, he was an avid golfer by day.  On one occasion, I chanced to be a member of a foursome where Bolger and I competed against Charles Mapes and Al Bello.  During a round, Bolger showed me the proper way to swing a golf club, for which I shall be forever grateful.

Another Skyroom performer who also enjoyed his daily round of golf was singer Billy Eckstine.  It was said of Eckstine that neither he nor fellow Skyroom performer Nelson Eddy needed a microphone when they sang.  They both had big voices.

Another Mapes performer who only had a voice when his owner supplied it was Charlie McCarthy.  I recall one day when we prevailed upon that owner, Edgar Bergen, to bring Charlie to lunch in the Coach Room.  We set him up with a place setting, napkin, and placed him at the number one table at the top of the stairs.  We then had him whistle appreciatively at every woman who walked by.

Probably the most controversial entertainer who ever appeared at the Mapes was Liberace.  His appearances occurred prior to his very successful television show.  The most frequent question I was posed by the visiting press was his supposedly different lifestyle.  I would counter their inquiries by telling them, “As far as I know he is OK, because he cut himself shaving today.”  The average reporter would respond, “Really?” “Yes” I would answer, “we thought his leg would never stop bleeding.”  That was usually the end of the conversation.

Another famous pianist who appeared at the Mapes was Victor Borge.  In addition to being a classical pianist, he was an outstanding comedian.  His signature routine was his phonetic punctuation.

Knowing that Borge was a bona fide cattleman at his home digs, Charles Mapes decided he would present him with a Black Angus calf. To gain a little attention he made the presentation on stage following a performance by Borge.  Getting the calf into the freight elevator was a bit of a struggle and fortunately our worst fears were not realized when we had no accidents on stage.

Easily the most difficult performer to get on stage was George Gobel.  Every evening we would look for him in the Coach Room Lounge where he would be well into his cups. However, once the curtain went up and the stage lights went on, he was as sober as a judge and did his hilarious “Lonesome George” routines to appreciative audiences.

I forgot to mention last week the first time that we booked Milton Berle he introduced me to his brother.  I asked Berle what his brother did in the act so I could give him a bit of publicity.  Berle replied, “No, he doesn’t need any; all he does is sell the hammers.”  Confused, I asked, “What hammers?” His brother then produced a small wooden mallet that had the words “Skyroom Mapes Hotel Reno” printed on it.  I was informed that the mallets would be set at every place setting so that instead of applauding, the patrons would bang the mallet.  The din the 300 mallets produced was resounding.

On one occasion, we had booked Marie MacDonald into the Skyroom and it happened that her birthday occurred during the engagement.  At the time she was married to Los Angeles magnate Harry Karl.  Charles Mapes decided to give her a birthday bash in the Indian Room on the hotel’s top floor (in 1960 the room later became the International Olympic Press Club).  Among the guests was Joe E. Lewis who was appearing at the Riverside Hotel, several other show business types, Charles Mapes, and my wife and me.  During the dinner, Karl presented Marie with a blue mink coat; her response was, “Oh Harry, it’s the only color mink I don’t have.”  When the dinner started the assemblage had been introduced to one another.  Unfortunately, my wife only caught Lewis’ last name.  In that same era there was a dapper nightclub star named Ted Lewis whose closing act consisted of him singing a tune he made popular, “Me and my shadow,” while he did a sophisticated soft shoe in tuxedo, top hat and cane.  In the second spotlight behind him was a 12-year-old black boy in a similar ensemble who mimicked every move that Lewis made.  My wife had seen Ted Lewis on several occasions and during dinner she turned to Joe E. Lewis who was seated beside her and said, “I just love it when you dance with that colored boy.”  In his famous raspy voice, Joe E. said to her, “Honey I am not Ted Lewis, I am Joe E. Lewis. He dances, and I tell jokes.”

Many years later, Frank Sinatra played Joe E. Lewis in the biopic “The Joker is Wild”.

Harry Spencer is a Reno freelance writer.
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