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Winter Olympics then and now
by Harry Spencer
Feb 19, 2010 | 969 views | 1 1 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
AP Photo -
A ski jumper participates in the 1960 Olympic Games in Squaw Valley, Calif. The games were the first ever to be televised and the first to be held in the Western United States.
AP Photo - A ski jumper participates in the 1960 Olympic Games in Squaw Valley, Calif. The games were the first ever to be televised and the first to be held in the Western United States.
Watching the crystal clear, high-definition color TV transmissions of the current Winter Olympic games in Vancouver, British Columbia serves to stir up memories of the first televised, black and white, grainy images from Squaw Valley, Calif. in 1960.

Most of our local TV viewing was on the closed circuit setup between the Mapes Hotel and Squaw. The TV sets were placed in the International Olympic Press Club that was located in the southwest corner of the top floor of the hotel.

The room used for the club was the original home of the Prospectors Club when it was first formed here and then it later became the Indian Room. When it was transformed into the press club in late 1959, it was a combination newsroom, cocktail lounge and headquarters for credentialed press from around the world. Complete with a bank of typewriters and Western Union runners, the facility offered a place to get the latest results from Squaw and send them off to various publications worldwide.

In addition to the top sportswriters on the globe, the press club was also home to the many Hollywood columnists and feature writers for movie magazines who came to Reno to cover the doings of celebrities like Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, who were in town to attend the games. Also, they did features on Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis Jr. and Mickey Rooney, who were appearing in the Sky Room of the Mapes during that two-week period. Bay Area society page writers were also in abundance as they followed the doings of the San Francisco “400” — in particular, International Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage.

Stringers from United Press International, the Associated Press and INS wire services were nightly visitors as they did bits on the social activities of people like the Prince of Sweden, the Russian Press Corps and other world-renowned figures.

The recognized king of the press club was TV’s Walter Cronkite, who had drawn the juicy assignment of being the anchor on the first-ever televised Olympic games. Noting that there was little to do when the sun went down in Squaw Valley, Cronkite would leave his small A-frame chalet, from whose deck he did his daily telecasts, and drive to Reno and the Mapes. Once there, he would have a few libations at the club and then settle in for a sumptuous dinner show in the Sky Room.

Another press club regular was popular TV personality Art Linkletter. When Walt Disney had been tapped early on to stage the opening and closing ceremonies at Squaw, he immediately enlisted Linkletter as his right-hand man. It was Linkletter who spent many visits during the year prior to the games, staying at the Mapes. After his routine inspection trips to the site every day, he would return to the Biggest Little City to enjoy making the rounds of the town’s hot spots. When I would accompany him on some of those sojourns, we were constantly interrupted by fans seeking his autograph. Many times he would bring the table games at Harold’s Club to a standstill as he strolled through the casino floor.

One localite, Waren Lerude, who would later gain fame in the newspaper publishing field but at the time was a journalism student at the University of Nevada, Reno, managed to gain accreditation from the Olympic committee as a legitimate reporter for the event. He may well have been the only such university student to have attained that lofty status. He was also a regular at the club but probably too young to have drinks.

The daily trip to the games was accomplished from the hotel in a small fleet of Lincoln sedans that had been furnished by the Ford Motor Co. The official cars at Squaw Valley were tiny Renaults, many of which had to be dug out following the massive snow storm that delayed the start of the games.

Press headquarters at Squaw was an army-dayroom-type building on your left about midway into the valley. It offered a sweeping view of the entire facility, especially the hill for the long jumping and wasn’t too far from the ice skating and other indoor venues. It was also a short walk to the Cronkite chalet. I would often walk over to that spot and watch Cronkite at work. In between the times he was on the air, he would graciously visit and sign autographs for the fans passing by. A very outgoing and cordial individual, he was always upbeat.

On one occasion, when we escorted Curtis and his then-wife Leigh to one of the venues, the press that was covering a certain event quickly abandoned their assigned posts to come over and film the couple, who at the time were among the hottest in Hollywood by virtue of their recent movies, “Some Like it Hot” for Curtis and “Psycho” for Leigh.

On very rare occasions, some of the athletes, who had finished their particular events, would make their way to the press club in Reno and do some candid interviews. Other top skiers, like Tony Sailer and Stein Erickson, were also present on numerous occasions and provided excellent feature fodder for reporters.

As much as the Winter Olympics has grown in the past 50 years, there are may people who still view the 1960 games, held in the relatively small and intimate surroundings of Squaw Valley and close to the excitement of Reno and Lake Tahoe, as the best Olympics ever.

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: Opinions expressed in Harry Spencer’s column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.
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March 23, 2010
I like reading stories about the Olympics and Squaw Valley in particular. Thanks. One minor detail about being the 1st televised Olympics is incorrect. The '36 Berlin Olympics were also telecast. Squaw Valley has the distinction of being the "1st worldwide".
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