Boasting the biggest cast and the biggest prop — a real jetliner, sans motors — the show was an immediate hit and over its lifetime of some 11 years it is purported to have played to more than 7 million people.
At the time, the MGM was under construction and it was a vast expanse to walk through. The casino area was so large that it was said if you stood at one end and looked toward the other you could actually see a horizon under roof.
Head man for the project at that time was Jack Piper, a savvy casino exec who had a long history in gaming operations. However, he was closely monitored by “the brass” from the parent MGM in Las Vegas. These individuals were jetting into Reno on an almost daily basis to check on every detail of what was then the largest construction project in the history of the Truckee Meadows.
During the pre-opening days I was contracted by Piper to handle the advertising and publicity for the project. One of my assignments was to travel to the Vegas MGM so that I could be indoctrinated into the MGM way of thinking and operating. The highlight of my first trip there was to meet with Don Arden, the producer of “Hello, Hollywood, Hello” and a show biz vet who had made his reputation in Hollywood and Vegas. When he described the vast scope of the production to me initially I had trouble visualizing such a giant undertaking. Later that day I was ushered into one of the public rooms of the hotel and there, in perfect scale was a replica of the Reno showroom stage. Every item was placed in position, including tiny doll-like creatures that were costumed in the appropriate outfits. As the covey of MGM execs crowded into the room Arden began his presentation, using a long croupier’s stick to move his little characters about the stage. As he worked though the entire show, a clock was very prominent and each act was timed to perfection. When the actual show finally opened in Reno it was within three minutes time of the initial presentation that I witnessed in miniature.
Extremely impressed with scope of the show, since I was used to the routine nitery presentations in the state that normally consisted of an orchestra, a boy vocalist, a chorus line, an opening act (usually a comic) and a megastar, I couldn’t wait to prepare the ads and press releases for this fantastic production.
Returning to the home base here with tons of photos and materials, I met with Piper to discuss the scheduling of the promotion.
“Before we get to that” he said, “your first assignment is to locate a jetliner that we can purchase for the opening number!”
Not having that many contacts in the aviation field I was a little nonplussed on how to proceed. Then it occurred to me that practically everyone in the state of California was an avid reader of columnist Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle. I quickly dialed Herb’s number and talked to his assistant, Jerry Bundsen, who screened all requests and column items that were submitted to Herb. He got just as excited as I was when I told him that I was on a quest to purchase an out-of-service jetliner for the opening show at the MGM Reno. Caen gave it a good play the next morning and within two days we had a half dozen calls from available plane owners. Once selected, the plane was stripped to its lightest weight and painted with the colors of Western airlines. Opening night fans were treated to a huge motion picture screen onstage that showed a real jet, that was a replica of the shell we had, landing at the Reno airport. As the filmed plane taxied forward into the camera the stage curtain parted and our plane rolled majestically onstage. Easily the most dramatic opening of any Nevada stage show before or since.
The rest of the show was equally spectacular and the production played to full houses for almost all of its 11-year booking. The lavish production numbers were abetted by constantly changing feature acts so that no matter how many times you went to see the show, you were guaranteed to catch something “new” on every occasion.
In addition to the feature attraction the staffing of the showroom was done in just as impeccable a fashion. Longtime maitre’de, John Thomas, with whom I worked many years at the Mapes Hotel and who had a long career in Las Vegas, was the head man of the room. A natty dresser who claimed that he got a manicure every day, John had the enormous room under perfect control. His cadre of captains was led by John Wallis, a “hip” easterner who had gotten solid training in the Vegas showrooms before moving north. Surprisingly, for a room of that size the food was excellent and the large efficient serving staff took care of the thousands on hand with dispatch and aplomb.
As stated “Hello,” was the longest-running show in the history of the Silver State and when it was destined to finally fold the hotel started opting for “star” name attractions like Frank Sinatra and others of that ilk.
For over a decade then the “Biggest Little City in the World” was on par with the mega-resorts in Las Vegas and the “Hello, Hollywood, Hello” show drew patrons from the four corners of the earth.
Of the enormous cast of “Hello” many stayed in the Reno/Sparks area to pursue other endeavors, but all remember fondly when they were part of the “Greatest Show on Earth” in the Reno MGM.
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.