When it opened on Dec. 17, 1947, it immediately changed the face of Reno from that of a honky-tonk cow town into a city with a substantial cosmopolitan attitude. While there were a few other notable hotels in Reno at that time — the Riverside and the El Cortez — none could hold a candle to the aura of sophistication brought to the city by the Mapes.
Why was the Mapes so significant? A number of reasons: First, it was the first skyscraper built in the Western United States since World War II and as such, it towered over every other building in the city. At one time it served as “the Reno skyline” whenever you approached the area from any direction. Additionally, it combined all the elements that its majestic successors in Las Vegas would one day possess: It had a showroom on the top floor as well as a casino, it had a gourmet restaurant and bar on the main floor along with a 24-hour coffee shop, a large drugstore, fine jewelry and other commercial shops, as well as a beauty shop, barber shop, health club and newsstand.
To further its preeminence, it started booking top names in entertainment for its Sky Room and would eventually turn the ground floor drugstore area into one of the first lounge entertainment areas in the state. Then, it would add a piano bar in the gourmet area so that entertainment would literally be available from dusk to dawn. Joe Karnes was the longest-lasting of the masters of the keyboard to play at the Mapes.
The list of its superstars who appeared for two-week engagements would probably fill most of the pages of this edition of the Tribune. Among the most notable were Mae West, Liberace, Sammy Davis, Jr., Nelson Eddy, Rowan and Martin, Billy Eckstine, Dennis Morgan, Jimmy Durante, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Jack Carson, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Milton Berle, John Rait, Spike Jones and Victor Borge.
The top-name entertainment at the Mapes was one of the main draws in capturing the pre-jetsetters of that era, prompting the competitive Riverside Hotel to add a showroom and additional guest rooms to its property. Following that, there was a friendly rivalry between the two hotspots. At one point the Mapes had booked Olympic heavyweight lifting champion Paul Anderson and had him featured live on a segment of “The Ed Sullivan Show.” To counter, the Riverside booked the first-ever “midget convention,” consisting of about 40 little people. When owner Charles Mapes was questioned on how he could top the Riverside coup, he responded, “Our guy, Paul, will go over there and ‘lift’ the whole convention.”
Thirteen years after its opening, in 1960, the Mapes enjoyed its most spectacular year. Starting off as the home of the Winter Olympics press club (complete with the prized five-rings logo), it drew top sportswriters and columnists from around the world. Among those enjoying the perks at the Olympics press club room on the top floor of the hotel were Walter Cronkite, Herb Caen from San Francisco, Red Smith from New York, Dave Condon from Chicago, Jim Murray from Los Angeles, the complete Bay Area press and even the Prince of Sweden, who “popped a few” with the two dozen members of the Russian press corps.
While still recovering from the effects of the Olympics, then-manager of the Mapes, Walter Ramage, and this writer took a midnight sortie to the neighboring Holiday Hotel and spirited away two advance men for “The Misfits” motion picture that was to be shot in northern Nevada that summer. As a result of the hijack, the entire cast and crew of the film were housed at the Mapes for the better part of three months, during which time press from all points on the globe traveled to Reno to interview the stars: Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter, as well as the director John Huston and writer of the movie, Arthur Miller.
“The Misfits” also spawned one of the longest-lasting special events in this area when, during the filming’s down time, Huston challenged good friend and professional jockey Billy Pearson to a camel race in Virginia City. The pair rode camels down one of the main streets, sans saddles, and drew the biggest crowd ever seen on the Comstock.
When she was celebrating her 35th birthday, the Mapes was closed on the same date it had opened, Dec. 17. For the next 18 years, a number of different owners tried unsuccessfully to reopen the property but all attempts failed.
Despite the fact that the Mapes was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and a large segment of the local population tried desperately to save the building and convert it to other uses, the city government of Reno at the time decided to condemn the building and implode it. The actual destruction drew press from all over the world — the last time such a large gathering of them has descended upon the Biggest Little City.
For all those who remember her — particularly the individuals who were able to purchase one of her iconic bricks — the hotel will live forever in their minds as an important piece of the history of “the little town by the Truckee.”
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.