Remembering the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics – (Fair Warning: This is three columns combined, takes forever and is boring to read all at once)

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Written February 7, 2002

Let The Games Begin! 

Some readers may have watched NBC’s Olympic Opening Ceremony coverage from Salt Lake City last night.

            CBS carried an earlier opening a little differently 42 years ago at Squaw Valley.  I quote from the official VIII Winter Games’ brochure, published – writer unattributed – prior to the opening ceremony:  “…A fanfare of trumpets, crisp against the mountain snow…2,000 doves of peace flutter skyward…and all eyes are on Little Papoose Peak as Andrea Mead Lawrence bears the Olympic torch down the hill on the final leg of its journey from Norway.

            “She passes the torch to a speed skater who circles the speed skating oval once, then holds the flame aloft and lights the Olympic torch…the Olympic prayer is preceded by chimes high in the mountains… the 2,645 voices and a band of 1,285 pieces render an impressive God of our Fathers.”

            A nice prediction, but the real drama preceded the event.  What the writer didn’t foresee was that there was no snow at all until a day before the Games’ opening on February 18th, 1960.   Fallback plans were being made to use Slide Mountain for the downhill events.  Then on the 17th it snowed – boy, did it ever.  It was cloudy and still snowing an hour before the Opening Ceremony.  And windy and bitter cold – the musicians’ trumpet valves and trombone slides froze.  The 2,000 doves, caged in two flatbed trucks brought by Walt Disney Productions (who staged the opening ceremony) chirped “no way” and stayed perched, waiting for the trucks to haul them back to balmy Anaheim.

Then – and I kid you not: As the chorus started to sing through the gloom, the clouds parted and a brilliant sun – which we hadn’t seen for three days – glowed above Little Papoose then eventually lit up the valley as Lawrence descended the slope with the torch.  She did hand it off to the skater, who took it around the track.  (One glitch: As he lit the flame, it flared as high as the nearby pine trees, scared the hell out of him and he fell off the tower.  That’s show biz…)

            The program writer mentioned chimes and the chorus, maybe not knowing of the yodelers and the Alpenhorns – a half-dozen of these ungodly loud instruments, surely the Swiss’ revenge to the Scots’ bagpipes, waited high above the valley and began at once to play (you don’t hear an Alpenhorn – you feel it under your boots!)  The sky by then was fully bright and blue, the pine trees green, the new-fallen snow pure white.  The five Olympic rings hung above Blythe Arena, framing the Tower of Nations and the burning cauldron (a replica of this peristyle had been built in Newt Crumley’s Holiday Hotel – now the Siena – parking lot.)

            From a valley bereft of snow two days before, to a breath-taking winter scene, filled with that ethereal, incredible Alpine sound.  River and plain, and mighty peak – and who could stand unawed?  As the summits blazed, you could stand half dazed, at the foot of the throne of God”

            I wish I had written that, but poet Robert Service beat me to it in his Spell of the Yukon.  And this Disney fellow was good, breaking that sunshine through like he did.  But his doves never did leave their cages. 

• • •

The Games were underway in Squaw Valley and the eyes of the world were upon us.  Bill Harrah had opened up a brand new casino at Lake Tahoe’s south end, and Red Skelton inaugurated the South Shore Room just before midnight on New Years Eve of 1959 and continued into the newyear.  (Liberace and Marlene Dietrich would play the room during the Olympics.)  Lee Frankovich had renamed the Riverside Hotel’s showroom the Olympic Room; the Will Mastin Trio with a new fellow named Sammy Davis Jr. would head up the Mapes Sky Room.  A leggy local fashion model named Bobbie Bender wrote a segment in a ski magazine about appropriate dress for snow, and another fashion article told of the new ski-pant style called “Bogners”, described as an ankle-length bikini.  A guy named Don Dondero was taking a lot of pictures for the world press, of racers Penny Pitou, Heidi Biebl, Betsy Snite and Joan Hannah.  Knowing Don, he’s still got the negatives, and weirder yet, he can still locate ‘em.  [Don passed away, but his family can still locate them…]

            (Before proceeding, I should thank my friend Don Stockwell of Sparks for loaning me a box of Olympic memorabilia, which enabled a lot of honest research on this piece.)  It develops that Olympic hype is not new.  Be advised that Absorbine was the Official Liniment of the VIII Winter Olympics, while Listerine, the Official Mouthwash, kept Carol Heiss and Toni Sailer from buffalo breath on the high Sierra mornings.  (An older person can tell you of those Olympic idols.)  The Renault Dauphine, sold at Retzloff Motors on South Wells Avenue, was the Official Car of the Olympic Games.  Skater/commentator Dick Button had hair.  And he was already annoying.  The Bavarian Inn was on Fulton Alley downtown and catered to the Nordic oom-pah crowd.    Double rooms were 12 bucks at the Holiday Hotel, no vacancy though.  Long-forgotten facts: The cross-country and biathlon events were held at Lake Tahoe’s McKinney Creek.  And, there was no bobsled or luge in these VIII Olympics.

Luce & Son of Reno, the liquor wholesaler to the local establishments for many decades, pushed the Tahoe Toddy, the official drink of the 1960 Winter Olympics.  I have the recipe and I’ll include it here next week.  I owe it to Homefinder readers to test it first before endorsing it.

The Twilight Zone: Leaving the 1960 Olympics just for a moment – I write this an hour after the Super Bowl broadcast, where John Madden bid Pat Summerall into a happy retirement.  One of the resources in the Stockwells’ Olympic memorabilia box is a January 4th, 1960 Sports Illustrated, its lead story an account of the famous Colts-Giants football game, the game where a young Giant place kicker named Pat Summerall kicked three field goals…

They’re having no more fun in Park City and Salt Lake City right now than we had working up at Squaw Valley so we’ll probably go back to Squaw Valley next weekend.  I’m on a roll.

Have a good week, and God Bless America.

• • •

The View from KT-22, 1960

President George W. Bush’s invitation to the children of the world to convene in Salt Lake City, extended in that magical Olympic opening telecast last Friday night on NBC, must have put Homefinder readers in the mood to reminisce about the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics.  The e-mails and phone calls with your recollections following last Saturday’s piece were welcome and wonderful.

            A favorite Squaw Valley moment came from a favorite Reno High sweetie of mine, a comely lass named Sherry (Cannon) Butler, now a Southern California denizen who picks this column up off the internet.  Sherry, using her considerable feminine wiles, scored a ticket for the semifinal hockey match, the U.S.A. versus the U.S.S.R.  Remember now, relations between these two superpowers were plumbing new depths in 1960 and the whole hockey match was seen as a metaphor of world politics, but that wasn’t what Sherry remembered most:  It was the slightly disoriented inebriate seated next to her who spent the entire match rooting for “Stanford”.   Apparently the Russians’ jerseys looked a little like the Cardinal.  At least to Sherry’s bleacher mate.  Many of you remembered that contest, on the closing day of the Games – a real thriller – and the final score, 9-4, (the U.S.A. won.)  That score remained on the scoreboard at Blythe Arena until the arena collapsed in 1983, a “maintenance accident” that should have landed Squaw’s management in the hoosegow.  Did a Russian skater die in that match?  One of you resurrected that rumor that flourished for a decade following the Games.  Their goalie got slammed into the wall with a crash you could hear on top of KT-22, and many thought he died.  Don’t know myself, but if he was alive, he was damn sure counting birdies on his stretcher ride out of the arena.

            And just who was Andrea Mead Lawrence, the skier who carried the torch down Little Papoose?  Sorry, I should have fleshed that in for the younger readers: Lawrence won the Slalom and Giant Slalom at the Oslo games in 1952 and was the 27-year old darling of the American skiing scene in 1960.  One anonymous caller corrected me, rudely, that it was Tenley Albright who skied the torch down the hill.  Not likely; Albright was the ladies figure skating Gold medalist in the 1956 Games at Cortina (Italy).  Maybe this caller is a Stanford alum.

The reigning jumper during many prior Winter Olympics was the Finn Juhani Karkinen, a star jumper in the Oslo and Cortina (1952 and 1956) Games.  USA’s Gene Kotlarek, who won the Gold in Squaw and Innsbruck (1964) jumping wore classic, as in baggy, Nordic-style ski apparel and hit the 80-meter jump like a herd of turtles with his arms out in front of him, his knickers rattling in his own 50 mile-an-hour breeze.  Imagine his surprise, (and jump hill steward/judge Jerry Wetzel’s), when the Japanese jumpers hit the inrun wearing new skin-tight Spandex flight suits, their hands at their waists.  And they glided like silent birds…  Not enough good can be said about Wetzel, the late Reno ski-store co-owner (with partner Hal Codding).  And, as some old 1960 newspapers remind me, the local employees of Nevada Bell, then a local company, donated their time generously, and Bell made time available to them. They basically ran the communications for the Olympics, with fewportable radios back then that I recall. One volunteer who has to be included, although I haven’t permission to use his name, was a college guy from the Midwest who came to Squaw as the operator of the brand-new Zamboni.  He lovingly tended the ice rink and speed skating oval and now lives in Lakeridge.  Truly, the hero of every American male (a Zamboni’s a guy thing.)  I should probably do a stand-alone column about Squaw Olympic volunteers.  Virtually the whole town of Reno and certainly the University of Nevada came to a standstill, providing labor to the Games.  White Stag ski wear donated the officials’ nylon parkas with the Games’ logo, probably a thousand of them, color-coded by work assignment (Nordic, Alpine, Ski Patrol, Gatekeepers, Communications – things were pretty well organized.)  I recently dug my red (Press) parka out, and pulled a “Sparks Nugget – Two Fine Restaurants” matchbook from a pocket.  I’m donating it to John.

I mentioned “Bogners” last week – a reader pointed out that the namesake for these ski-pants (Willi Bogner) competed in the Squaw Olympics (Downhill, 8th place).  Another reader reminds us that Vuarnet sunglasses got their name from the gold medalist in Downhill (Jean).  Several of your recollections were of the Indian snow-dances in the valley – the Shoshone tribe sending a team of their best dancers.  They did well – it snowed beyond belief for twenty-four hours preceding the opening.  And the valley “parking lot” – many remembered that fiasco: Sawdust was mixed with snow and compacted, to make a solid, non-slip surface to park on.  Worked great for the Games’ chilly first week, then it warmed up and thawed the second week, and, well, there’s probably a couple of heavy DeSotos and Packards still out in that valley somewhere.  Yikes, what a mess!

Last week we promised to reveal the Tahoe Toddy, the Official Warmer of the Olympic Games, according to Esquire magazine, March 1960 edition.  Here goes: garnish a glass with lemon twist, pour in four ounces of very hot water, add a level tablespoon of batter.  (That’s batter, not butter.)  Batter up: 4 teaspoons brown sugar; 2 teaspoons butter (that’s butter, not batter.)  2 dashes of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg, a pinch of allspice, and 2 teaspoons Bols Orange Curacao.  Serves four.  (Oh, and did I mention one ounce of Early Times per drink.)  Have three and the butter and batter won’t matter.

Of course, as we learned in a column last summer, it would be easier go to Eugene’s restaurant on the way home from Squaw Valley, where bartender Cliff Challender could make us a Toddy from memory.  And, we might see Eugene’s owner Gilbert Vasserot entertaining the athletes from his native Switzerland, notably favored skater Madaleine Chamot. (Eugene’s hosted the prestigious International Olympic Committee at a luncheon prior to the games, a feather in Reno’s cap.) 

Wrapping up Squaw Valley

The original plan for this Saturday morning was another Homefinder walk, probably taking a couple of Saturdays, along South Wells Avenue.  While we usually walk downtown in 1950, we’ll walk Wells in the 1970s, to try to bring a little clarity into its metamorphosis; to watch a street go from a post-war residential street, gradually flourishing with businesses and shops, then to a street that everyone traverses daily but never shops on, then a dying street, finally to a street attracting a new culture and neighbors, and tardy attention from the city fathers, slowly waking up to the fact that there’s more to Reno than downtown.  This is going to be a great walk.

            But wait!  An email and a phone call arrive into our lonely writer’s garret in the God-forsaken desert, regarding our visits to Squaw Valley during the 1960 Winter Olympics.  One’s from an old friend, the other from an Incline Village resident who called me a male chauvinist for the way I worded a passage.  Imagine that.

            What offended her was that I identified by name the 27-year old darling of the 1960s slopes, Andrea Mead Lawrence, the twice-Gold medallist skier who brought the torch down the hill during the Olympic opening ceremony, but then left the male speed skater that Mead Lawrence handed the torch off to to remain in obscurity.

            Frankly, I skipped over a whole bunch of people in that description of the opening ceremony, including Richard Milhous Nixon, who declared the Games open, and Karl Malden, who recited the Olympic prayer.  But the skater?  He fell into relative obscurity, and only after uncharacteristic and tedious research can I offer that his name was Kenneth Henry, which should make Henry’s mother and the Incline Village reader happy.

            Karl Malden???

• • •

The phone call came from my old buddy Buddy Sorensen, who helped me with a couple of names: Gene Kotlarek  and Juhe Karkinen.  I’m glad he called, because it prompted me to write what many of us know: When local skiers gather in the warming hut to speak of the golden days of 1950s-skiing, Buddy’s name comes up prominently with Dick Buek, Jack Bosta, Dick Dorworth, Harry Ericson, Lynette Gotchy, Rusty Crook and a bunch of other guys, as a Far West Ski Association official and coach, Nordic Director, sometime Falcon coach and a mentor to a hundred local skiers that went on to regional and national prominence.  Our area and our sport are indebted to him.

            Another name and anecdote that came up in the past few weeks was that of George Kerr, known by many as Harolds Club’s photographer/host, when mighty Harolds and Harrah’s ruled Reno.  George clicked thousands of golf tournament and celebrity photographs, many going ‘round the world on wire services, and was known as a linguist:

            Just prior to the Games, he was asked to be available as an interpreter.  “You speak several languages, don’t you?” George was asked.  “Actually, I speak only two: the King’s English, and Nevadan.”

            In truth, George could say “Say Cheese” in seven languages, not counting the King’s Nevadan after a Tahoe Toddy at Eugene’s.  He did Yeoman duty during the Games.

• • •

A week ago I wrote of my red Olympic parka, the color assigned to the Press whereupon a friend accused me of posturing as a hotshot.  In truth, I was a grunt, working with five other University of Nevada grunts who could ski, backpack and snowshoe, and we were assigned “Weasels” – open Jeep-sized tracked vehicles built by Studebaker, loaned to the Olympics by the marines at Pickel Meadows Winter Training Center.  We ran all over the valley, typical cargo being endless paperwork, clipboards full of race results, times, schedules, a dead Longines timing clock, an urn of coffee destined for a CBS camera crew at the jump tower, somebody’s glove that was left in a limousine, a pair of snowshoes, three reels of communication cable, box lunches for the slalom timers and a very important person needing to be somewhere else (a very important person being almost anyone in Squaw Valley beside us.)  We mentioned earlier that CBS carried the Games, but in 1960 only 15 to 30 minutes each day – taped – in reality not even videotape, but movie film with sound on a different recorder, the big tanks of film and huge batteries somewhere in the back of the Weasels, to be processed in the Bay Area and aired that night. 

            I’m waxing (skier-term) sentimentally toward the close of the 1960 and 2002 Games, with an observation about how things have changed in 42 years, as we watch on NBC tonight – a production not filmed, but digitized, sent not to Sacramento by courier for processing, but to a satellite for instant broadcast.  The clocks, timing, and standings are instantaneous, not delayed hours by the lag between the start house and the finish line and virtual longhand computation.  A tiny camera gives us a real-time pilot’s view from a bobsleigh (the sleigh built from materials developed by NASA).  Ice dancing and the half-pipe.  How the sport, and the way we view it, has changed in 42 years…

• • •

They were wonderful weeks in our towns’ heritage, and we wish the children of the world now convening at Park City the fun, success and memories that we continue to enjoy.

 

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