This yarn begins in midweek over 55 years ago (May 6, 1964) at the San Francisco airport, where a man, described later by acquaintances and family as debt-ridden and erratic, purchased two life insurance policies with a value of over $160,000 from an airport vending machine, naming his wife as the beneficiary.
To add relevance to that figure, I’d guess that 80 per cent of the homes in Reno could be bought 50 years ago for under $25,000. He flew Pacific Air Lines to Reno and knocked around most of the night in the casinos. And, in the laissez-faire world of the early 1960s, he was able to both purchase a Colt .357 on-the-spot from a downtown Reno hock shop, and to board San Francisco-bound PAL flight #773 in Reno early the next morning, carrying the gun aboard. [Follow-up correspondence – unconfirmable – speculates that he bought the gun not in Reno, but in his Bay Area home town. Were that the case we could surmise that he boarded an airliner not once but twice with a gun.]
PAL 773 was under the hand of Captain Ernest Clark, a 22,000-hour commercial and Army Air Corps pilot with 3,000 of those hours in the Fairchild F-27 in use that day – the plane a twin-turboprop favorite workhorse of short- and medium-range regional carriers. The flight stopped briefly in Stockton, and passengers who deplaned in Stockton recalled the man seated in the front row, behind the open cockpit door.
Departing Stockton, the flight was on schedule over the East Bay on a long final approach into San Francisco International Airport when a frantic voice broke over the SFO arrival traffic frequency “PAL seven-seven-three, Skipper’s shot…we’ve been shot…trying to help” – the voice of 6,000-hour co-pilot Raymond Andress. One account suggested the phrase “…passenger in the cockpit” followed by a gunshot. Medical examiners would find the pilot and co-pilot shot in the backs of their heads, and all six rounds of the revolver fired.
Investigators speculated that the F-27, trimmed for landing, would, if left unattended, maintain level flight for a while, and that the hijacker must have exerted considerable pressure on the yolk to start the plane into the near-vertical dive that eyewitnesses on the ground reported seeing. The plane impacted on a grassy hill near San Ramon, which on that early hour of May 7th of 1964 was just a wide spot in the road in Contra Costa County.
The incident had worldwide repercussions, inasmuch as it was the first intrusion by an armed passenger into a commercial airliner cockpit. And the PAL 773 hijacking became even more heinous by the catastrophic loss of life. Living in San Francisco at the time, I was amazed and amused, but saddened to see my ‘lil ol’ hometown making the news so often for days and weeks – the “Reno hijacking” this and “Gamblers’ Special” that – (which it wasn’t). The flight originated in Reno with only one Nevadan aboard, with an intervening stop in Stockton and ended in San Ramon, all by a plan premeditated by a San Francisco resident, but around the nation’s newsrooms the unheard-of first-ever hijacking had to be an only-in-sin-city-divorcin’ and gamblin’-Reno occurrence. The siege of take-me-to-Cuba diversions and D. B. Cooper’s stunt would come in years to follow. (And none originated in Reno.)
The fatal flight’s occupant manifest listed 44 souls, inclusive of the pilot and co-pilot, 30-year-old stewardess Marjorie Schafer, the skyjacker (thanks, Herb Caen, for that slang), 39 mostly-Bay Area residents, and …Roger Brander, 34, gnrl. mgr. KBUB-AM radio, Reno, Nev
Endnote: Slain pilot Ernest Clark’s daughter, Julie Clark, who was 15 at the time of the tragedy, went on to buy an ex-Navy T-34 trainer (think Beechcraft Bonanza with tandem seats and a conventional tail) that she flew to numerous international aerobatic championships and demonstrated at the Reno Air Races…
It’s a grand day in the neighborhood; snow has been on many folks’ minds, particularly the TV weathercasters who might have probably gone orgasmic had they ever seen heavy snow in Reno. The transition from 2004 to 2005 was noteworthy and pretty well constipated our roads that New Year’s weekend and for a week to follow.
But I’m not going to regale anyone with snow tales, the “How it used to be” stuff so popular – but – I have a few thoughts and memories, augmented by friends remembering snowstorms that make this last series look like a cloudy day – and I’m not sure that I can still even write – I think it’s A-S-D-F etc. on the keyboard but not sure. And I gotta tell ya: My hands will barely write anymore, hands that once hired out to write cursive – remember that? – for invitations and place cards, so I found a “new” IBM Selectric III typewriter, brown like the last one it replaces, with a couple new balls, er, “elements” to go with the ones I already had. It’s about 40 years old, but reconditioned, and Ken Hamilton of Hamilton Business Machins gave me a “lifetime guarantee.” The S.O.B. knows that I’m 77 years old….. Oh, you don’t want cursive? How ’bout a printed letter with serifs? [at right, a library project I worked on]
But, on this snowy morning, I hearken back to earlier days. I attended Mary S. Doten Elementary School [above], a twin to Mount Rose School (one spells out Mount for that school, otherwise it’s supposed to be “Mt.” according to old stylebooks but seldom is anymore.) I started Kindergarten there in 1946. Mary S. Doten School will hereafter be known as “Mary S.” our colloquial term for it –now the school district and media would just call it “Doten” robbing its namesake of the honor. But that’s what they do now – don’t give a damn about old stuff.
Mary S. was run by a sweet little lady that looked like Mrs. See on the See’s Candy boxes, a delightful lady that could also scare the pants off our six-foot-plus fathers on snowy mornings like this one. Her name was Rita Cannan, note the spelling – and she also has a school named for her, east of I-580 and north of Oddie. And known by some as “Cannan” but not in this column. It’s “Rita Cannan Elementary,” thank you.
Miss Cannan, heavy on the “Miss,” I think but never proved was a product of the Bishop Whitaker School for young ladies [right], in the eponymous park across the Ralston Hill from my family’s house at 740 Ralston Street. Many of the older teachers came from that institution, but that’s another column. Miss Cannan is on my morning musings because she had amassed a collection of shovels appropriate for removing snow – one could not buy a “snow shovel” in 1946. Coal scuttles came close, and most Reno homes had one. These shovels were kept under a stairwell outside the principal’s office of the school, and when, as and if a father delivered his child and some of the neighbor kids to school, he knew that Rita Cannan would land on him like a chicken on a June bug and virtually shame him into shoveling a portion of the elementary school’s infrastructure – the sidewalks, the approaches, some stairs – until the entirety of the school was safely passable. This occurred all over Reno and Sparks on snowy mornings. Dads shoveled. By the crack of nine, when classes convened.
I promised this would not be a “This is how it was” column, but I’m compelled to relate that classes started at 9:00 a.m., rain or shine, in Reno schools (which were a separate district from Sparks, Brown, Huffaker, Glendale, Franktown, and a dozen other small districts in Washoe County) and had some well-meaning father or mother suggested following a back-breaking accumulation of almost half-a-foot of snow, that Mary S. either delay its start time to 10:00 A.M. or in the alternative have a “digital snow day,” the only digit they would see was Rita Cannan’s index finger pointing at the aggregation of snow shovels under the stairwell, facilitating the fathers’ (or mothers’) efforts to remove the snow. By the crack of nine.
It should be also noted here, parenthetically, that the superintendents of the Reno School District, Roger Corbett comes to mind, didn’t particularly give a rat’s ass what the parents, teachers, staff, students nor taxpayers of the City of Reno thought about any issues, nor did he host these ungodly “scoping meetings” seeking “transparent” input about a pending decision until the district went into complete paralysis with a plethora of opinions. He called the shots, period. Same with dress codes, even through David Finch’s days at Reno High – no jeans for the ladies, no advertising on gh boys’ t-shirts, no appeal, no negotiation. Corbett and Finch steered the ship. As did Cannan at Mary S.
Snow was fun in Reno in 1946, and my buddies from Sparks thought the same thing. We wore mittens and galoshes to school over our shoes (we didn’t know what “Keds” were then – leather shoes were all we had!) Upon arrival at Mary S., many of us went to the boiler room, which Mr. Minetto th custodian unlocked so that we could put our stuff on racks next to the boiler and dry them off. By lunch hour they’d be dry, and we went outside to play. And yes, we threw snowballs at each other, at the teachers on playground duty and at the city buses on Washington Street on the other side of the fence. And we bullied – and were bullied by – our classmates, and either toughened up and eventually gave it right back, or are still wimps 75 years later. Our third-grade teacher Jean Conrad could put a snowball into a car’s window if it were doing 60 miles an hour up Washington Street. And did once. (It’s a school zone!) Mrs. Conrad had an arm… I’ve kept in touch with her daughter, Carolyn Darney, the mayor of Puccinelli Drive in Sparks, for the past 70 years – damn, she’s old!
Anyway, that’s what would be happening this Thursday morning at Mary S. I’m out of space, but have to add that after school, 3 o’clock, we’d get our galoshes, mittens, sleds and toboggans and head home. Then the neighbor guys – me, Hank Philcox, [right] Tommy Weichman, Hugh Barnhill, Don Hartman [left], the Molini brothers John and Willie, Hans Siig and even some of the guurrrrrrrls (yecch) Maggie Eddelman, Mary Eichbush, Trina Ryan, Cecelia Molini, Marilyn Burkham and Ellen Murphy – would shovel the neighbors’ sidewalks and driveways. We never asked nor charged; some neighbors would bring us out a silver dollar or a cup of cocoa, and some would hide ‘til we were done. But a buck would get us in a movie with a coke to spare, life was good, and the neighbors who hid would lose biggest at Hallowe’en. We had good memories.
And that’s the way is was on a snowy morning, February 21, 1946. Stay tuned if it keeps snowing in Reno, and we’ll learn of the great haylift of 1948 to feed the stranded cattle in Nevada, of our classmates who lived with their families in the Nevada Bell microwave station on top of Peavine Peak and were marooned by the snow and what our class did for them, or of the choo-choo train that got stuck on top of Donner Pass in 1952. Or the memories that you send in…!
While I’m contemplating whether to continue shoveling sh~~ into an incoming tide any further with this endeavor, I urge you to use the “search box” below – type in a keyword and click on the box, then scroll down – you might just find what you are seeking displayed – there are about 360 posts so one of them might be the one…
Last weekend I went with Dad to the new Commercial Hardware store on East Fourth Sreet and wrote about it. I got a little wordy so I cut off the news at 1,100 words and promised to finish it later in the week. Well, here goes:
The topic was hardware stores as they exist this year, 1948. I wrote about Commercial Hardware and Reno Mercantile but there’s a few others that need attention also. So, again I hop on my bike and ride down the Ralston Street hill, going now straight through town down Virginia Street to Builders & Farmers Hardware, and no, Mrs. Angus, there’s no apostrophe in their name. I checked. HA!
That store is in the 1200 block of South Virginia Street, across the street from where Mr. Games opened his new “supermarket” [yeah, it’s an antique mall now]. It’s one of Reno’s best hardware stores on the main floor, but Dad’s friends Mr. Karrasch and Mr. Ackerman let a few of their friends put a model train layout in the basement of the store after WWII. The train layout got bigger and bigger until it now takes up the whole basement and there’s no room for stock. But the train layout is a real humdinger (Dad’s word) and a lot of men come in to see it on the weekends. Some even bring their own train locomotives and railcars. The “scale” of the trains is huge – bigger than our little Lionels and American Flyer trains we have at home. Some say it’s an “O” scale but it’s actually bigger – the track is O guage but the model trains are bigger than O. But if I’m going to write about Builders & Farmers Hardware I need to write about its basement and the trains. (In the same breath I have to mention our neighbor Dr. Stanley Palmer, who was the Dean of Engineering at the University of Nevada who had a huge train in his basement across University Terrace from the Whitaker Park tennis courts. Both basements smelled like electrical ozone when the trains were running!)
OK that’s one hardware store I wanted to write about, now I’ll pedal my way over to another store near the Food King Market and across Wells Avenue from the new post office on the corner of Ryland and Wells. It was Bogart Brothers Sunday Hardware at 215 South Wells. Originally, a small building and then later, they built a much larger building more to the west. Carl Bogart and his brother Larry ran the place. It was a great store because it had its own parking lot and a lot of men liked it for that reason. Carl was very friendly but Larry was a crab, so I tried to deal with Carl. Carl became the mayor of the City of Reno in the early 1970s. Larry, who cares? (I’ll probably have to scratch that out. I was going to remark about Tawnee Bogart, the drop-dead gorgeous rage of our first-grade class but I KNOW I’d have to scrub that inclusion.)
Bogart Bros., as their sign read, was typical of so many small hardware stores after the war. There wasn’t a great selection of stuff – stuff was pretty much one size, or one color, and if that’s what you needed, the part you bought there would almost always fit. A duplex outlet cover would always fit. But there was a trend forming, to bring out items with a choice of material, or color, or size. The day was coming when there might be two, or four kinds of duplex outlets, or light switches with a paddle or a mercury action, or a nut with SAE or Whitworth or metric sizes and hardware store owners had to carry them all to be competitive. I found this out when my friend got a bicycle made in England and our wrenches didn’t fit. It was hard on small merchants. But I’m only seven; what do I know?
Onward I rode this morning, to another popular hardware store. This was a long ride for I had to go all the way to Sparks and way out 8th Street, which I hear the City of Sparks is going to rename “Pyramid Way,” because that’s where it goes and everybody calls it that anyway. This hardware store only opened a few years ago during WWII. A guy named Carl Shelly, who I would know until he passed away many years later, was a heck of a historian about Sparks and the railroad, and was one of the Washoe County Commissioners who was instrumental in gaining federal funding for Virginia Lake, back when there were only three commissioners. Carl opened his hardware store in an old balloon-roof hangar on the Green Brae airfield. This was a busy little airfield, when there were quite a few airfields in the area, like the one they called “Vista” down by Kleppe’s pond and the Hillside airstrip up by where someday they’d build a school and call it Clayton.
But it’s 1948; I’m only seven and don’t know anything about Clayton Middle School yet.
Carl Shelly carried almost everything it took to open a house and set up housekeeping, and was the go-to hardware store when Dad’s friend Mr. Probasco was building houses like crazy at the east end of Sparks. And Mat Gibbons, who changed her name from Matilda because no one would buy a house from a lady, was selling Probasco homes like hotcakes to returning veterans under the G.I. Bill.
Carl Shelly was a good man. He and his friend Tom Swart, who also grew up in Sparks, were instrumental in getting the Nevada Historical Society going again after the war, and in forming the Sparks Heritage Museum. Someone ought to write about them someday. (! OK)
I’m going to fast forward (that’s a funny expression; what the hell is a “fast forward” in 1948? Why did I even write that? And why did I write “hell”? Mom will be really mad when she sees that) to 1963, which is far beyond what the six-year-old-kid ever wrote about, because I want to include a couple really nice men in this compendium (pretty big word for a seven-year-old, huh?) of hardware stores.
Their names are Gene Parvin and Bill Spiersch. They opened a hardware store in Keystone Square when the whole town was seemingly moving toward Reno’s northwest. They held sway there for many years and were wonderful merchants and friends, and even did some residential landscape design and installation. They opened a branch location briefly in the Village Shopping Center by Reno High School, but scaled it back. Their store was P&S Hardware, a dandy. Gene died in an auto wreck in the Sonoma Wine Country; Bill is still very much with us and still a wonderful friend to many.
And that said, yrs. Truly will revert to age seven and pedal on back up the hill to 740 Ralston Street. My neighbor friends Don Hartman or Hank Philcox are waiting to see where we’ll ride next; c’mon back in a week or two – the days grow longer and we can all take off on another adventure!
write the six-year-old-kid at email@example.com
ADDED AFTER PUBLICATION:
Don Hartman writes:
“Hi Karl……Wanted to get your memory going:…………
1) Do you remember when 9th and 10th, crossing Ralston, were dirt roads? How about Nevada St. from U. Terrace up to 11th…..dirt. The alley between Ralston and Bell St., dirt. Of course, even in 2019, the alley between Nevada and Ralston still dirt. Do you recall when 9th (dirt) went all the way across Nevada St. through the cemetery behind the ATΩ house , and connecting with the paved Street. east….no dead end.?
And Karl responded, Yes; Don, your recollection is much clearer than mine but all the assertions look to be on target then and now… and one home on Nevada Street was owned by the architect of Death Valley Scotty’s resort in Death Valley. And Reno streets are spelled out through Tenth Street, and use Cardinal numbers above that.
2) OK….how about this: Do you recall at road construction sites in the 1940s – early ’50s, had round, black, steel pots about the size and shape of a small volleyball with a flattened bottom so to stay upright in the street? The pots were filled with oil or kerosene and the top of the pot lit so a flame would warn motorists to be careful of the road work area at night? We had great fun, once, kicking a pot over on Nevada Street at a road construction site and watching the flaming oil flow onto the dirt street!!
And Karl responded, read my post about the Donner Ridge fire above Truckee in 1960. whan the smoke from the fire was so intense and the power was out that airplanes couldn’t land, and a couple hundred of those pots were lined up on either side of the approach to the north-to-south runway one-six, to provide landing pilots a ground reference/
In all your RGJ writings, I never saw you mention the above. Of course, I have not read all your wonderful 73,684 RGJ articles of memories of good old Reno’s long gone days, either..
And it’s only 72, 199 columns thus far! said Karl
Your Ralston Buddy, Don Hartman”
O boyoboyoboy – I get to go this morning with our neighbor Mr. Sala and Dad to Dad’s old classmate Mr. Horgan’s new hardware store on East Fourth Street – it’s 1948 and the store’s only a year old. We’re going because Dad and Mr. Sala like to barbecue meat and they need one of those new-fangled gadgets for the backyard where they can start a fire in it then put food on the grate over the fire. And have a couple cold Tahoe beers while they’re at it…
So into the back seat of the ’41 Chevy I go and they pile in the front seats. Mr. Horgan’s store is east of town a few blocks; his father started the first one in 1904 and named it for the street it was on – Commercial Row. There were two hardware stores on Commercial Row – the other was Reno Mercantile a block east of Commercial Hardware in an old building with a creaky floor that was built as a Masonic hall. Dad said that it should have been torn town a long time ago – thought it might be the oldest building in Reno and I think he was serious!
But this morning we’re off on East Fourth – what a great new building it is – it has new lights that the Nevada State Journal wrote an article about – they’re called “fluorescent” lights – long skinny tubes that glow and light up the room – no bulbs hanging down. More stores should get them. The new Commercial Hardware is huge and has all kinds of stuff – it’s hard to imagine that a hardware store could be much bigger.
The new store’s location was picked in line with the old Commercial Hardware and Reno Merc stores – close to the train tracks. Commercial Row was named that because of Reno’s early dependence on the commerce of the Comstock, and the V&T came to Reno daily from the mines in Virginia City. And the agriculture of Carson Valley relied on railroads. That’s why so many stores that relied on mining and livestock were on Commercial Row, like Cannan’s Drug, with all the veterinarian drugs for animals. And mining supplies, like carbide for the miners’ lamps. Neat stuff – get it wet and it makes acetylene gas for the miners’ head lamps. Or flush it down a toilet if you want to move the porcelain commode across the restroom of a service station. But I’m only six years old, so don’t know about that. Yet.
Commercial Hardware’s new location also benefited from the railroad; in its case the Western Pacific Railway, that connects with the Mighty SP down by Louis’ Basque Corner. The WP served the Sierra Valley, and every morning it brings milk, livestock and produce in to Reno and points beyon, and has a lot of industry along its right-of-way. It now keeps its locomotives in an area between Evans Avenue and the University of Nevada, where my crystal ball says will someday be the Fleischmann Agriculture Building. And its locomotive repair shop will someday be a coffee house on Record Street. But I don’t know that yet; it’s only 1948 now.
The railroads’ influence…
One of our teachers, Mr. Leimback, told us about how Reno was built around the railroads, keeping the industrial and food-oriented businesses like Commercial Hardware and Nevada Livestock close to the railroad tracks. He was a neat guy. Like most of our post-WWII male teachers, he had earned the right to teach in the big schools, like Reno and Sparks, by teaching in some cow-county (that’s Dad’s word, not mine!) school. The State Education Board had that rule, so most of our men teachers knew our state pretty well – the mining and the ranching.
In years to come we’d meet David Finch, who was the no-nonsense principal of Reno High School and put that school on the national map after taking over its reins after it opened on Booth Street in 1951. Mr. Finch, who wouldn’t let us sing “There is nothing like a dame” in our senior assembly in 1959, came to town from Stanford University, (where he was on the Indians’ boxing squad) through the little silver mining town of Rochester, a hoot-and-a-holler east of Reno by Lovelock. Looking back we’re glad he wound up in Reno. Even although we had to change our song to “…a girl.” (Which we did for the final rehearsal, but in the actual performance our underclassmen and parents heard it just as Hammerstein wrote it: “…like a dame.” We sailors paid for that stunt… Mr. Finch, in retrospect, was probably one of the best education administrators to ever hit Reno.
We got our “barbecue” gadget that morning, which wasn’t easy in 1948 – it would be five more years before they really became available. I read once that some guy working for the “Weber Steel Company” that made round steel buoys, cut one in half, took it home and put a grate on it and the Weber buoy company thereafter became Weber Grills. Don’t know if that’s true, but I learned early the words of Mark Twain, not to let the truth interfere with a good story. And that’s a good story!
So, we’ve toured Commercial Hardware and Reno Merc with its squeaky floors and bats and birds zinging around the store, and walls that creaked whenever a million-pound SP cab-forward steam locomotive passed across Commercial Row. Then. And it didn’t get any better.
And as usual, I’ve used up ‘way too many words, 1,019 on my page-counter on my yellow lined tablet that I’m writing this on after Dad and Mr. Sala and I returned to our homes on Ralston Street across from Whitaker Park. And I’ve no pictures that aren’t protected by that picky-picky “copyright” thing that I’ve been warned about. So – I’ve several other early hardware stores in Reno, and of course Carl Shelly’s on Green Brae Avenue in the Rail City, Greenbrae two words then, had opened during WWII and I want to have some space to say something nice about Carl Shelly, whose influence on Sparks’ history, with his friend Tom Swart’s, would endure for 40 more years. So to keep this from getting too long, I’m going to wrap it up and get back to the other hardware stores in a separate column in three or four days. Now, the Great Gildersleeve is on KWRN radio so that’s where I’m going. Meet you right back here midweek.
And I’ll point out a milestone that we’ve all reached together: The Six-Year-Old Kid has been pedaling his Schwinn around the village, splitting participles and using run-on sentences since his first column, a no-brainer was written out of boredom during the Super Bowl game of 2017. Two years later, he’s still six years old; he’s grown up once in a while so he can ride his bike with his buddy Henry Philcox, but usually returns to 740 Ralston Street. He thanks you for riding with him…!
firstname.lastname@example.org – lemme know if I have permission to post your comments!
A comment about David Finch: “Hi Karl, I was so glad to see mention of David Finch. Senior year, I was in his Human Relations class. We had to write an essay every week. It was the best class I took until graduate school in Anthropology 15 years later, and the skills he helped us develop were the best preparation I could have had.
One just can’t make prose like this up: “[redacted] on Pine Street, praised for slices and pies that unite Northeast-inspired fundamentals like scratch sauce and thin, eminently foldable crust with a West Coast openness to new ingredients and combinations.”
“…a West Coast openness to new ingredients and combinations…” the copy reads. About pizza, this is? “thin, eminently foldable crust…” Still about pizza, I s’pose. The bloviating continues, “…that unite Northeast-inspired fundamentals…”
This local writer was obviously intent on turning fun into hard work. Or, he fancied himself a food writer akin to Paolo Luchessi or Michael Bauer of San Francisco’s Chronicle or Sam Sifton of the New York Times but fate dealt a cruel blow and in Reno one writes about pizza parlors, endless restaurant openings in an area one can’t get to nor park near, and of food trucks on Friday nights.
But – I’m not a newcomer to the lordly advance of pizza from its plebian roots – last summer in Napa, or Sonoma, I know not which, but lean toward the latter because there was a modicum of parking. Sufficiently hungry to eat the ass out of a grizzly bear following my journey from Reno to Sonoma while threading my way through a couple of wrecks on Sonoma County Highway 12 involving otherwise extremely bright, trendy and interesting people who were over served as are many other motorists on 12 at afternoon wine tastings at the many vineyards along the way, my sister and I sat in a pizza parlor with a tablecloth as a well-coifed server asked if we wanted to hear the dinner specials. In a pizza parlor. With a cloth table cover.
“Dinner specials!?” I exclaimed to the joy of my sister and patrons proximate to our table. “I thought this was a goddam pizza parlor. How ’bout pepperoni and sausage for a dinner special? And a bottle of some beer that I’ve heard of before?”
I chuckled as I thought of my introduction to pizza, which was probably in the summer of 1959. I was pumping Flying A gas for Walker & Melarkey on the southwest corner of Liberty and South Virginia Streets. One of my buddies was a guy in town at the University of Nevada from Tonopah, his name was Peter Breen and he pumped gas for Buddy Traynor on the corner across Virginia Street. I’d help him clean his station between customers then he’d help me clean mine. I don’t think Buddy Traynor nor Myneer Walker or Jimmy Melarkey knew that, but that said, three finer men you’ll never meet. Then Pete and I would catch some dinner and watch our buddies cruise main. With the Wolfman on the AM radio, natch.
One night Pete said, “Gimme a buck and I’ll go get us some dinner.” I flipped him a cartwheel. He came back in a few minutes with this round thing, about the size of the steering wheel on Jon Key’s mother’s 1957 Chevy (robin’s egg blue). It was smeared with something that might have once been – or smelled like – tomato sauce, and had pieces of sausage and little chips of something in the sauce.
“What the hell is this?” I asked Pete. “It’s called pizza. Try it; you’ll like it.” And I tried it. And liked it. By the way, Key pumped gas also, but on Fourth Street.
So we had pizza more often. What had happened was, was that an Italian cook named Ralph Festina, who worked at the restaurant at the Colombo Hotel on the northeast corner of East Second and Lake Streets, in the shadow of the Mizpah Hotel to the east and the Toscano Hotel to the north, took unused food home – leftovers – which his bosses were glad to be rid of.
Someday I’ll write about the Toscano’s Sunday night dinners with their huge bowls of great minestrone soup. But not tonight.
Mr. Festina, you see was not only a great cook but an enterprising sort, and in short order was successful in establishing “Festina’s Pizza,” best in the west, with the fixins he’d purloined from Columbo’s. A new tradition was born; young swains would no longer take their ga-ga-eyed dates to the Mapes coffee shop for hot chocolate and apple pie, but around the corner to Festina’s Pizza. All together: On KOH radio, all knew “Oh, boy, what a joy, Ralph Festina’s Pizza” – he even had his own radio jingle, recorded in a studio downtown with some singers from Dr. Post’s music class on the Hill of the University.
He started downtown, but soon was able to build his own, stand-alone parlor – Festina’s – then across Virginia from Eugene’s and the drive-in theater, north of the Zanzibar; now housing a title loan office south of Clary’s across from the Peppermill. If those walls could talk…
Pizza was king, with few other suitors chasing it – the Pizza Baron over on West Fourth Street just west of the Standard Station on the busiest corner in the state of Nevada. And a “parlor” in Sparks whose name escapes me, and it wasn’t Bojo’s (yet!) nor at the bowling alley. But, pizza was coming, across America.
Pizza is a fun article to write about because the more I research the more I learn that no matter what I write it’s probably supported in fact on some web source or library. It came from Italy, the Bronx, Iran, China, Minsk or Copenhagen (bet on Italy). And it was invented during the time Christ walked the earth (Joseph and Mary were really looking for pizza, not a place to pay their taxes and the Wise Men brought not frankincense and myrrh but pepperoni and sausage), or it was invented by ancient sailors, or travelers by oxcart, by the Gypsies or the missionaries or in the late 1800s in Italy and brought to America by returning soldiers after WWII (bet on that, but all the other times cited are supported by thin research).
Well, maybe not the Bethlehem thing, but who knows?
Pizza chains were springing up – the one putting our little burg on the map was on a new street extension (of West Fifth Street westward from Vine Street and the Santa Claus Market.) Its name was Shakey’s – formed in 1954 and coming to Reno in 1959 – truly an instant legend in Reno, the precursor of so many others. With some screwy marketing notions, but they worked. Now we have TV, and see some even screwier marketing techniques – insurance on your pizza should you pick it up then get in a wreck, they’ll buy you a whole new pizza. Or, should you hit a pothole, unlikely in Reno but certainly a threat in some cities, you can call their 800- number and they’ll come out and fix the pothole.
But – I have to admit that when Pete Breen brought that messy, smelly round dinner back to our service station that night, I knew not that in 60 years a slight young dude would offer to recite the specials at a “pizza parlor” nor that a scribe would rave on about “…a West Coast openness to new ingredients and combinations…” with a “thin, eminently foldable crust…”
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Come back next week; we’ll put up some photos of the stranded SP streamliner from Jan. 15, 1952
Photo © SF Chronicle
Our editorial staff last evening, New Years Eve, played hooky from our bounden duty to readers of updating this site, and instead streamed a classic: “Smokey and the Bandit” – the Bandit, Snowman, Fred the Basset, the Frog, Beaufort P. Justus, still ranking up there with Butch and Sundance and with Igor and Frawnkensteen for the three greatest shit-kickin’, no-brainer, New Years Eve flicks ever made!
Thanks for coming back and viewing – as in the past 12 years, the site in 2019 will be no different – poorly-written and -edited notes about God-knows-what, arriving on your screen with little or no forethought nor schedule – this year with hopefully a bit more reader participation, wherein I’m downplaying the “comments” feature of the site in favor of including my email address below and inviting everything from a short squib about a past column to your submission of a complete new column, that I can post for all to see. Don’ worry about the gramer or speling – I’ll fix that for you. Photos are welcome and encouraged with releases and accreditation, and no downer stuff – this remains an upbeat, non-political place to visit and relax.
On that score, I encourage newer readers to utilize the WordPress “search” function in the box below. Type in a keyword and then click the box and scroll down. You may just find what you’re seeking. If not, email me and I’ll try to help. There are over 420 posts on the site and I don’t know myself what’s posted here! But if it’s somewhere we’ll find it, or maybe just write a new one for all to enjoy.
Now – it’s the kickoff day to a great year, the sun’s out – let’s make a dandy!
KarlBreckenridge490@gmail.com (a new address for column/website traffic; don’t panic, the old live.com address still works. Usually.)