A star is born (license plates, that is)




“Why,” several e-mailers have asked, “don’t you ever write about personalized plates…?”

            First, I’ve revered the late RG-J columnist Ty Cobb from a time dating back to my early 1950s Reno Rec youth baseball days (before Little League), and it’s still a bit early to invade that popular milieu in his Cobbwebs columns.  .

            That said, this Saturday morning we’ll read of a personalized plate that has prompted some calls and comments over the years.  It was attached fore and aft to a late model Cadillac parked at Longs Drug in the Village Center last Monday, so I laid in wait for the owner. 

I first saw this plate in the early 1970s on a red Caddy, and often through the years on a number of intervening Cads, always red.  I thought back then “How in the world did he get that plate?”  Over the years occasional column mentions of blue license plates have sparked inquiries about this unique one from some of the Homefinders.

Soon a couple exited Longs; a nice-looking couple who could pair in any TV commercial as the all-American, picture-of-health grandparents, and they fortunately also had a great sense of humor when this total stranger/drive-by columnist told them that the time was here and now, to speak of their license plate for a hundred thousand-or-so waiting Homefinder readers.  We talked for a half an hour.

            A little background is required here: Before World War II Nevada plates used just numbers, and shortly before the war they received a county prefix, in our local case a “W”.  Fast forward to the late 1960s when the connoisseur of all things automotive, William Fisk Harrah, wanted something a little more unique than “W23743” or whatever on the tail end of his hopped-up Chrysler 300.  He dispatched his minions out into the hinterland with orders to bring the casino every plate in Washoe County from W1 to W100, car and truck alike (trucks wore “WT” back then), and use any asset in Harrah’s arsenal to convince the plate’ owners to cough them up.  There were a whole lot of Nevadans winding up with everything from trips to the club’s Idaho Middle Fork Lodge retreat to showroom tickets for life to a date with Olivia Newton John in a chauffeured Harrah Rolls Phantom V, and acquire almost all the double digit “W” plates for his execs and truck fleet, Harrah did.

            One such plate was W7, whose owner resisted early efforts by club delegates.  “Do you like to hunt?” they asked.  “Why sure,” the owner said, “but what I really want is one special plate.”  “We can get it,” the suits promised.  “We otter just hop in the club’s Twin Otter and fly up to Idaho and get acquainted.  We’ll get you an Idaho elk tag, pack horses and a guide and have a little barbecue for a couple of days while we chat.  Bring a friend.”  And so they did, successfully.  Harrah’s mounted the trophy head, skinned the beast and tanned it, and processed the beef when they got home.  “Now, what plate was it you wanted?”

            “A star, a simple, five-pointed star, smack in the middle of the plate,” said Swede Olsen, aka W7, and as a matter fact, as W76, for Swede owned the Union 76 service station at the Village Center almost since the center was built in the mid-1950s.  “We can do it,” said the Harrah people, secretly wondering how in the hell they could sell that symbol to the Nevada DMV, but Harrah’s had clout then.  The craftsmen at the gated community in Carson City that make license plates lacked a star in their font of dies, so they sent it to their branch office at San Quentin to be struck – a star centered in the field of blue, the ’69 stamp on the upper left corner (those plates were issued in 196; 1969 was the expiration year.) 

            The new plates were returned to Carson City, and Swede and his wife LaRue (retired from Sierra Pacific Power Company) journeyed there to pick up their star plates in trade for W7.  It’s been on four or five Caddies since, all red.  The Olsens have pizzazz.

            I asked if it drew any inordinate attention from the fuzz.  Once on their way to Portland, Swede recalled, they were yanked over by one of Oregon’s Finest, piqued about Swede’s mile or two (or 15) over the speed limit.  The officer gave him the usual admonitions and checked his license, but as the moment drew closer to putting pen to paper on a ticket he seemed to have second thoughts, something disarming about a sharp, well-spoken driver and his attractive wife in a new clean Caddy with a weird license plate that didn’t fit into any highway patrol computer.  Who was this guy?  He let the roadside visit end with a pleasant “Now you all be careful and keep it down a bit.  My wife and I were married in Reno so I want you to enjoy Oregon.”  Swede and the trooper were both relieved.  (Spend five minutes with Swede and you’d learn he’d have just paid the ticket like the rest of us would.)  “What happens if you get rear-ended and the plate gets mashed?” I asked.  I’m sworn to secrecy, but an extra might have fallen out of the press that day in San Quentin, just might have.

            That started the era that personalized plates started to proliferate, owing largely to, you guessed it, Bill Harrah, who eventually came up with almost all the low numbers save for one – I still smile when I see another Caddy streaking across Washoe Valley to John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks, then parking in the Nugget’s executive lot – “John” on the parking space, W6 on the car.  Perfeck. 

Mr. Harrah was eventually able get the low numbers, yet longed to put “CLANG” on the auto collection’s cable car, “SAMMY” on Mr. Davis’ son’s Duesenberg or a lone “H” on his personal Ferrari Boxer (red, natch).  He successfully lobbied the Nevada legislature for personalized plates, grist for a future column unto itself.  Ty Cobb deciphered them for us in grand style, but it was Swede and LaRue who got the Star of the Show. 

• • •

OK – I have to deal with a few license plates.  Correspondence has been heavy about another plate with a star, like the plate with the lone star that started the whole thing.  Recall that I mentioned that Swede and LaRue Olsen, whose surname I booted last week, had plate 7 and W76.  While the thrust of that column ran to the one lower-numbered plate, they actually wrangled, or wangled, two plates in the trade, the second one being 7-star-11, the very plate that the correspondence has been about and struck at the same time.  Space limited the text and I focused on the lone star, but the Olsens have them both.

I’ve enough license plate correspondence to start a Cobbwebs redux – the title of the RG-J’s legendary Ty Cobb’s column, if you’re just joining us – and I’ll save the notes for a rainy day.  But one has to be mentioned.  Cheryl Yee’s e-mail this week could be fashioned into a column unto itself – great Reno history you’ll see more of herein in time to come – but for this week, we’ll simply report that her husband, John Doherty, decided some years ago that he’d like a low number plate, so when it came time to renew his registration he asked DMV for the lowest number that was not assigned.  He received at random W411, a great coincidence, as he’s the Director of Public Information for the Desert Research Institute.

[…and two e-mails came in: “What’s so cool about that???”

    (response: years ago, we dialed “411” for “Information”, and, oh, never mind)]

• • •

Promising more acuracy I’ll move on to a few notes about last week’s column, which if you were out of town I’ll remind you dealt with Harrah’s Club’s quest for low-numbered blue license plates.  One of the sadder tales it produced came from affable retired Reno entrepreneur Larry Oakley, who in the late 1960s as a college student, through luck, perseverance, karma, kismet and a little je nè cais quà with Pug Chavez at the DMV, possessed license plate -W- and was approached by Harrah’s to part with it.  Larry read last week of others’ trips to Harrah’s Middle Fork Lodge in Idaho and a menu of other grandiose inducements to motorists to give up their low plates.  I detected a tear falling from Larry’s eye as he confessed that he yielded his single-letter plate to the casino for two cases of beer.

            On the bright side, he recalled that at least it was quality Anheuser-Busch suds, not Fisher’s or Red-White-and-Blue or some of the other inferior rotgut that was in vogue on campus 35 years ago.  Larry went on to get three degrees on the Hill, but never made it to Harrah’s Middle Fork Lodge.

            Two notes beckon: The Nevada DMV office was then on the northwest corner of Mill and Kietzke, in a building now a convenience store, and, the dash-symbol-dash plates were an early precursor of personalized plates, prior to the time one could actually spend 35 hard-earned bucks to get OICUQT or some other foolishness.

            As I wrote last week I’m not anxious to include every cutesy vanity plate in our valley individually, but reader responses invited some pleasant recollections.  One was that 50 years before one could order a personalized plate, hundreds of folks laid awake nights to get a plate with their home’s address – my childhood friend’s family had W2240, for they lived at 2240 Plumas.  Or to match a phone number – the Reno Bell – recursor of Nevada Bell – customer with phone number 70X6 would garner the matching plate; (the phone number grew to 2-70X6 then FA2-70X6, later 322-70X6.  That friend still has the plate and the phone number.)  Many of those early plates are still in use.  A Homefinder contribution to Guy Clifton and Marilyn Melton as they complete the inevitable sequel to their excellent book You might be a Nevadan if… might be: “…if you knew someone with a license plate that matched their phone number or street address.”  Many plates went with numbered organizations: W597 for the director of Elks Lodge #597 and W14, held by Fred Bonnenfant’s odd grandfather, the Supreme Poobah of Chapter 14 of the turn-of-the-century Odd Fellows Lodge.  Finally, I’m told Harrah’s never went after W13 – unlucky in the gaming game.  (W13 was held by Fred Bonnenfant Sr., large-in-charge of the I.O.O.F. Hall #13.     And if you had a party line with 70X6 and wanted to call someone else on the same party line, you dialed “1191” then hung up, making both phones ring, then picked it up and said hello when it quit ringing.  You just don’t get trivia like that any other morning of the week in the Gazoo.

            Did someone say a party line…?  What’s that…?  Housekeeping item: Like other writers, I tire of clarifying “turn-of-the-century.”  ‘Til further notice, on these WordPress sites, that phrase connotes 1899-1901 A.D.  There.

• • •