Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus…


By Francis P. Church, first published in The New York Sun in 1897. 

We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:

Dear Editor—

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O’Hanlon

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except that that they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else as real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood

Blinkin’ a holiday green


“Slim” Dickens, fourth and illegitimate cousin of Charles

Some columns are hard to rewrite any differently than the last one, and after a dozen Christmas columns, I give up and am just running an old one, this from 2007. Merry Christmas to all! Karl

As is our Christmas tradition to return to holidays past, we cranked the microfiche reader at the Nevada Historical Society and made a few notes from several Nevada State Journal editions published close to Christmas of 1960.

We find that if you’re gift shopping downtown later today, Ginsburg Jewelers will sell you an Omega Seamaster watch (still a classic today) for $175 and this new model even shows the date, right on the dial. Broili’s Nevada Machinery & Electric offers a Sylvania black-and-white 19” TV with “wireless remote control.” Remote control? The date on a watch? What’s next? Out on Wells Avenue Art Rempel is selling the same size Admiral TV, and will take a trade in on your old round-screen Capehart or whatever. Also on Wells Avenue, Murdock’s has a Ship ‘n Shore blouse for $3.98. A full page ad for the best-ever Christmas shopping place: the basement of the Eagle Thrifty on South Wells Avenue, (now a Mercado.) (CQ capitalized) In the Town & Country Center at the dead-end of Vassar at Kietzke, Reno Drug has Zippo lighters for three bucks. And by the way, in this morning’s paper we read that a stop light is going in at Mill and Kietzke next month.

Back downtown, an ad for Conklin’s Furs, always a favorite store; at Bricks (CQ no apostrophe) Men’s Shop downtown on North Virginia, a $4.98 Arrow shirt, just like General Custer wore. Menard’s (a cross between Menante and Bernard) Men’s Furnishings, Paterson’s, Sunderland’s and Hatton’s all ring in with fashionable Stetson business hats for gentlemen.  Here’s a full-page ad for Gray Reid’s on First Street, with artwork by Posie Edwards, who with her husband Revis were dear friends of many readers.  Hansel & Gretel (baby clothes) will be open ‘til 9 p.m. on South Virginia. If Santa’s bringing wheels this year, Richardson-Lovelock Ford’s ad pictures a gift-wrapped Ranch Wagon; something not-quite-appealing about that photo. Johnson Chevrolet’s pushing a ’61 Chevy Corvair at $2,600, with a heater.

In national news, Ike just passed a stem-to-stern physical at Walter Reed.  The free world is hot because the Americans are cooperating with the French, spying on Algeria with our U-2s. James Francis Durante was wed in NYC, (but not to Mrs. Calabash, who died in 1943, and does anybody out there remember what I’m writing about???) Cuba, a popular destination for college Easter break revelers was being discouraged by the State Department for this year. (But Bob Hope leaves tomorrow to entertain the troops in the Caribbean, with Zaza Gabor, Janet Paige and a new guy named Andy Williams.) Dagwood was bugging Dithers for a raise (I think I write that in every Christmas column…) (CQ ellipsis)   

Locally, Sparks High’s Jean Pagni and Joel Glover won the Nye Sbragia citizenship award. Eagle Thrifty (now Raley’s) founder Martin Gastanaga passed away; the stores all closed yesterday afternoon for two hours. Joe Battaglia and the Men of RENOwn singers (CQ as capitalized) are singing in several venues this season.  Future Sparks city councilman John Mayer pledged Omega Delta Phi fraternity at Linfield College in Oregon.  The name “South Lake Tahoe” was chosen over the other top candidate, “Shangri-La” for the growing town at Lake Tahoe (George Gobel is playing at Harrah’s South Shore Room in its inaugural Christmas season.) 

The newish home at 1855 Sharon Way was robbed last night – guns, coins, the usual. In the classifieds, SW home 3 BR, 2 BA, large FR with FP, cov. patio w vu, $36,750, call Jack Utter FA3-1026.  The county draft board is requesting reservists to contact them, as the board’s records have been misplaced. (Dream on!) The Fleischmann Foundation just gave the university (CQ NOT UNR YET!) a cool million for something called “an atmospherium.” Nilsine Nillson gave up a promising accordion career to accept a “Who’s Who in American Colleges” award and marry our buddy Skip Hansen.  A few society mavens were pictured planning the dreaded Junior Assembly Ball at Hidden Valley CC on Dec. 23rd.   

Food, always in the news: Uncle John’s Pancake Parlor (now Noel Foley’s Irish pub, and even later the Lucky Beaver) is serving a Christmas breakfast. Romance is not dead: Dick Grave’s Chicken Coop on West Fourth offered a gift-wrapped bucket of chicken. Cole slaw extra.  The Inscrutable East: The Chinese Pagoda out on B Street features an “authentic Chinese Christmas dinner.” The New (CQ cap) China Club invited Christmas shopping at Reno’s only coin shop. And Manogue High’s Christmas dance in the gym tomorrow night features a Chinese theme. Go figure…  (CQ ellipsis) Elsewhere on B Street two university students returning home to Yerington for the holidays were busted for heisting a lamb from Sparks’ living Nativity scene.

            Sports editor Ty Cobb wrote an impassioned plea to the city fathers to rebuild Moana Ballpark, torched by vandals last Hallowe’en. (They rebuilt it.)   The Packers and the Colts (Baltimore, that is) led the NFC.  In NCAA football, Ohio State and Bradley were #1 and 2.  Codding & Wetzel’s Jr. Ski Program (CQ as capitalized) starts Dec. 21st.   Greyhound Lines offered a $4 round-trip ticket for skiers to Squaw Valley, still recovering from the VIII Winter Olympics last February.

And finally, Aerojet General in Sacramento warned the North Pole that Santa, Rudolph and company should be wary of the 47 rockets, satellites and other space junk now littering the stratosphere.  Have a good week; try to find a gift made (or written!) in the Silver State, and God bless America.

©RGJ Dec. 2007

Happy Bill Howard, The Nugget’s Flagpole Sitter


‘Twas in the year of 1955 that the battleship gray and black-and-green high-reach crane trucks – Sierra Pacific Power and Nevada Bell’s respectively – set a spindly 60-foot pole on the north side of B Street in Sparks just across the street from the Sparks Nugget’s brand-new building, set guy wires to keep it vertical, and then lifted a replica of a shiny gold nugget as big as a Chevy Suburban to the top of the pole.  On that nugget they set a platform, and finally a canvas tent on the platform, then aimed floodlights up to illuminate it.

            The Nugget casino south of B Street was tiny compared to the Nugget of today; no I-80 freeway over the building, just B Street out in front doubling as transcontinental Highway 40.  No elephants; this was pre-Bertha.  Last Chance Joe had just arrived to keep an eye on the happenings out in front.  And pilgrim, did he get an eyeful as Happy Joe Howard, the last of the great pre-war flagpole sitters arrived to begin his ascent to the platform atop the tower on August 4, 1955, where he would stay longer than any flagpole sitter would ever sit.  Flagpole-sitting was a rage that died out somewhere in the 1930s, probably for good reason, but the Nugget’s then-owner Dick Graves, already well-along in the process of selling the Nugget to John Ascuaga, was a showman, attuned to every PR stunt in the book. 

            Howard soon became accustomed to life on top of the highest building in Sparks.  He became the darling of the local media and the West Coast scribes when his time on top of the gold nugget started to look like a serious attempt.  A month, two months, dragged by, the number on the base of the “flagpole” being changed daily to indicate the number of days he had stayed there.  The summer of 1955 arrived and the world was in turmoil, but local notice was paid first to Happy Bill Howard, so high above B Street, drawing crowds of people who would stop on the highway to look in wonder at how he could possibly keep doing it. 

            Casual visitors could speak to Happy Bill on a phone provided by Nevada Bell, from the base of the tower to his lofty perch.  Several times daily a truck from the Nugget arrived to lift a basket of grub – the best fare of the Roundhouse Room or an Awful-Awful burger from the Coffee Shop, maybe an iced pitcher of piçons from the Nugget’s long-gone Basque Bar, the day’s edition of the Reno Evening Gazette, and letters from his fans.  He had a radio, no TV.  For reasons unknown to anyone, a band of local idiots tried to incinerate Happy Bill by burning down his tower, forgetting that the Sparks Fire Department and Police Department were housed nearby on C Street then.  The fire laddies doused the fire and Sparks’ Finest threw the perpetrators into the hoosegow for a few nights.  

            Time marched on into the dog days of August.  The West Coast press still loved it, and afforded the Nugget the ongoing publicity in the Bay Area that Dick Graves had hoped for.  Happy Bill’s birthday arrived, with accompanying hoopla and a cake from the Nugget’s bakery, songs from the local media and fans. 

          And the unexpected occurred – Happy Bill woke up with a hell of a toothache one morning, and the Nugget summoned respected Reno dentist Arnold Johannes to his aid.  In a display of humanitarian emergency not one bit concealed from the adoring press, Dr. Johannes was lifted in a Jacob’s Chair-harness with his black bag of drills, pliers, wrenches, laughing gas and an Blue Cross form to Happy Bill’s side, to administer on-the-pole medical aid.  I suspect that the rest of the late Dr. Johannes’ career, excitement-wise, was downhill after that procedure…

            As the leaves turned to gold on the trees lining the Reserve in Sparks, the evening winds turned wintry.  Happy Bill’s reign over the little town was coming to a close, although not for lack of interest – the town and the media continued to embrace his effort, but the simple fact was that his flagpole had no heat, and the night was rapidly approaching during which he’d freeze his celebrated buns off.  Leaving on a high note started to become realistic.

            In a round of PR embraced by Reno and Sparks and the San Francisco press, by then including Herb Caen and Terrence O’Flaherty, Happy Bill Howard was returned on February 12, 1956 to Mother Earth by the same Nevada Bell snorkel truck that had set him atop the flagpole, 204 days – almost seven months – before.     

            Bill’s work on earth, or in this case above it, was done – his effort was vastly successful in putting the little burg of Sparks, known before by very few in the Bay Area as being a little east of Reno, wherever that was, permanently onto the map.  For his efforts he was awarded $6,800 and a sterling silver belt buckle as big as a penny postcard engraved with Thanks from the Sparks Nugget in a very public ceremony.  To our knowledge, he never sat flagpoles again.  And Sparks, whatever it been before that, was defined as a destination town; Dick Graves departing, a legend named John Ascuaga soon to arrive.  .

            I thank several readers for inquiring about Happy Bill Howard and inspiring this story, [the late] Fred Davis – the Nugget’s longtime (1958-1972) publicity director, Sparks native Don Stockwell – he of the ironclad memory, the Nevada Historical Society, John Ascuaga, Nugget executive secretary Nancy Trabert and publicist Beth Cooney for their help with this yarn.

© RGJ, a long time ago


Reno’s Twentieth Century Club


I’ve never heard the term “suffragette” associated with the Twentieth Century Club, but any ladies’ club founded in 1896 for the purpose of improving the lifestyle of a community and that hosted Susan B. Anthony as an early speaker, probably wasn’t organized to bake cookies.

            The Twentieth Century Club, which will henceforth this Sunday morning be referred to as “20CC” to conserve space, boasted nearly 1,000 members at the turn of the last century [OK, 1899 > 1901!]. Noteworthy among those founding members, named in a 1903 Reno Evening Gazette were three educators – Libby Booth, Mary S. Doten, and Echo Loder, the latter who would be the final surviving charter member of the club. And very early in the club’s existence, they spearheaded two community projects, one the opening the first circulating library in the state, the precursor to the Nevada State Library, and the second forming Reno’s first public kindergarten.  That would evolve into the Babcock Memorial Kindergarten, named for 20CC member Elizabeth Babcock.  That school operated until 1946 at the corner of West Sixth and West Streets. 

            In 1906 the club incorporated and the membership elected to build its first building, a two-story frame affair on the corner of Arlington, then known as Chestnut Street, and West First Streets.  I – along with a dozen other scribes or historians – have labored under the impression that that 20CC clubhouse building burned even although no fire ever shows up in club records. I discovered in unrelated research in the May 18, 1927  Nevada State Journal that that building did indeed burn on May 17, but it had been acquired by the Scottish Rite Masons a year before.  That site remains vacant and is now a parking lot for St. Thomas Aquinas Church.

            The club completed the fine new building in October of 1925 at 335 West First Street, that building just west of their earlier building.  They added on to it in 1930.  It was designed by a German named Fred Schadler, who emigrated to San Francisco to study architecture, then to Reno where he designed some other buildings, notably the Elks’ Home on Sierra Street that burned in 1957.  The Elks’ building originally opened to the north onto a courtyard area toward West First Street.  That courtyard was later removed to accommodate the Grey Reid, Wright Department Store and the entry turned toward Sierra Street. The original front (north) elevation of the Elks’ Home and the present 20CC building’s river elevation shared a familial appearance (few remember the Elks’ entrance now).

One of the nicest halls in Reno!

            The 20CC was a grand building inside – reminiscent of a lobby in a classic old San Francisco hotel.  A mix of overstuffed furniture alongside upholstered rattan chairs and tables alongside wrought iron pieces; torchieres abounding on the walls, ornate chandeliers and heavy sand-filled granite ashtrays.  An entry lobby the width of the building was separated from the main hall by a glazed window-wall with three wide doorways.  It featured rich hardwood flooring and a small stage with a fairly good system of overhead theater lighting.  There was a kitchen; small but commodious enough to enable luncheons to be prepared in the hall.  The 20CC was arguably the classiest hall in town in the early half of the 20th century through the 1960s for wedding receptions, fashion shows, university and high school proms and private luncheons and dinners.  Many of this morning’s readers got their first look the interior of the club at a “JA” dance – a teenage boy’s worst nightmare was the twice-annual arrival of the engraved invitation to the dreaded Junior Assembly, a cultured debutante ball in a town and time when a cotillion competed for high-school attendance with a tractor-pull at the Washoe County Fair.  But buy our dates corsages, we did; then waltzed them around the 20CC’s main hall for the proscribed 10 segments of sophomoric Terpsichore and whisked ‘em off to the Mapes Coffee Shop for apple pie and a shake on the way to park at Windy Hill.

            The 20CC’s membership declined during the 1970s and the club’s building went on the block for $350,000 in 1980.  My Sigma Nu brother and barrister John White now owns the building and treats it with the pride and reverence it deserves – John changed its use to offices, but preserved Schadler’s original character of the building.  (Except for the club’s official color theme, described in an Oct. 31, 1906 Nevada State Journal as green and pink.  John stood back from that treatment, as he did from the club’s official flower, the pink rosebud. Awwww…)

            But in spite of all that, it remains a beautiful and an historic building – in past columns I’ve dubbed the Christian Science Church/Lear Theater the “Treasure on the Truckee”, and the Twentieth Century Club structure deserves to be accorded the status of another downtown treasure.  Check it out on your next Artown visit, just across the river from Belle Isle (I’m bound and determined to keep that beautiful original name of the island in the Truckee.)

            I thank former RGJ reporters Patrick O’Driscoll and Betty Malmgren for their 1980s accounts of the club; the Nevada Historical Society archives, and Historic Reno Preservation Society’s newsletter Footprints for resources contributing to this yarn.

© RGJ July 2006



Nancy Johnson and Richard Grefrath added to Pam Bodenhamer and Martin Schuster’s reader notes from a couple of past columns. Note: click on Santa’s house below to get to the Washoe Med recipe column ~ I’m still updating them

Adding some letters from Nancy Johnson and I received some feedback about the Christmas decoration column and have asked the e-mail writers for permission to post, and received frp,  these friends, Martin Schuster, Pam Bodenhamer, Nancy Johnson, and  Richard Grefrath.  Pam’s a childhood friend of mine who’s family owned the drive-in on W. Fourth Street. Enjoy! BTW I made the Santa house pictured above from a refrigerator packing box for a bunch of school kids, 30 years ago!
From Nancy Johnson:  

From Richard Grefrath: Good morning Karl,

I continue to find your witty columns so delightfully informative that I hesitate to single out one in particular, but your piece on the Food Shop brought back pleasant memories.

When we moved here in 1978 we adored Reno from the very beginning, but did find it lacking in a few aspects of note for displaced East Coast immigrants.  You couldn’t get a decent bagel, there was no fish sold in the supermarket (just flounder/sole, if you were lucky – we had to travel to a specialty store – Blue Bounty – to buy fish), there were no ATMs (indeed, I had a faculty colleague who was fond of saying “I’ll never get money out of a wall,” who cashed checks for pocket money at the Coney Island), nobody drank coffee with cream and sugar so there was never any on the table in a restaurant (I have a theory called the Wagon Train Hypothesis which explains this), and so on.

Most significantly, the only place that The New York Times was available for purchase of which I was aware was the Food Shop, and a vending machine at the corner of Virginia and First, in front of the bank building.  There was no home delivery of The New York Times at all.  So while I never purchased food nor liquor at what we called “The Food & Liquor Store” (since that was the only sign outside which seemed to identify the establishment – no “Bob’s Market” or anything like that), I did swing by many times, especially on Sunday, to snag The New York Times.  They also had an impressive selection of out-of-town papers too, including the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune.  This was all before Barnes & Noble.

Now we have The New York Times delivered 7 days a week.  We sometimes look askance at progress, but that to us was a big improvement!

Keep up those wonderful columns, Karl.  You are a true local treasure. [Awwwww….KB]


From Martin Schuster:  Hi Karl,
Thanks for bringing up the Christmas Home Decorating Contest.  It was
in the moth ball section of my brain.
In about 1962-63-64 era, my mother built angels and candles and maybe
a Santa Claus or two for the contest.  She started with bare chicken wire
and built the skeleton and then layered on papers soaked in a white
solution (paper mache).  It was my job to paint them and install the
lights.  The angel had a lighted wand and the candles a long bare bulb ,
maybe yellow in color.  It was my job to install them on the nice porch
we had at 443 Roberts Street and connect the juice.  The porch was elevated, so they really stood out after being attached to the wood over the porch with wires. I think there was “gold dust” on the angel also.
We ended up in the paper a couple of times as winners, but definitely not
first or second.  Probably honorable mention, but I don’t remember.  The
angel was probably over 3 feet high and a real pain to take down and store
in the basement, at least for a teen age punk kid.
My memory seems to tell me the area around Virginia Lake had some real nice outdoor displays and put ours to shame.  But it was all in the spirit of Christmas. I don’t think that the real spirit exists today and can’t imagine someone taking the time to build displays from scratch.  Heck, you can’t just say “Merry Christmas” anymore to a general audience, otherwise someone is offended.  Poor progress and getting poorer each day it seems.  Thank you.
Martin Schuster
I wrote Martin to thank him and get permission to use his e-mail, and got a little bonus with the OK!:
Not sure it is worthy to be on the website,  but you surely can.
Haven’t thought about Uncle Happy for years.  Seems he was on Channel 8 with Betty’s show in the PM.
Took my daughter to see the Mapes going down and we didn’t expect to receive all the grit that came our way.  The image of it going down is burnt in memory and also the birds taking off as it blew.  I’m a ’47 model and believe the Mapes also is, so it definitely hurt my feelings they took her down at age 53. I bring up Uncle Happy and the Mapes because you mentioned them today and
it jars my memory of times past, when things were simpler and more sincere.
So, keep it up!
As a side note, I won a trip to Disneyland once, selling subscriptions to the Nevada State Journal and think it might have been a National Newspaper Boy Convention.
Walt Disney gave all of us paperboys a talk about hard work and how it had helped him when he delivered papers as a boy.  Probably around 1962-63 and I still have the in-house booklet the Journal used to put out.  My boss was Packy Inch and he wrote about everything we did, except for seeing Walt Disney.  Maybe I didn’t mention it to him either.  I think another kid also won the trip, but not sure if he worked for Packy or not.  As I look back, most certainly the highlight of the trip was seeingWalt Disney in person.  He was on his way out and passed away in 1966.  So, your article triggered a very warm feeling about seeing Walt Disney.  Thanks again.
Martin, ’til I who thank you. Packy (Pat) Inch was a contemporary of mine. Here’s an e-mail from Pam Lee Bodenhamer. BTW, if you e-mail me about a column with good dope like Martins and Pam’s give me permission to use it on this web! KB
From Pam Bodenhamer:  Hi Karl~
Oh boy did you hit home with me regarding the Santa and sleigh atop the roof at 753 Arlington.
We used to go to Gardnerville for Christmas Eve with the Hussmans at their beautiful old ranch house. It was a special place because Santa visited EVERY house in the town and had a present for every child! We’d sing carols around their upright piano waiting for Santa’s magical arrival.
In 1950 or ’51 when driving home from Gardnerville, I fell asleep in the back seat and woke up as we passed Santa atop the roof at 753 Arlington ~ I was absolutely positive I saw him land!
Every Christmas thereafter I’d hope to see him land, but he was already there. The whole event is still vivid in my memory.
Remember how “over the top” the Stillian display on Hunter Lake seemed? People would whisper “What were they thinking???” At the time, it was pretty amazing.
Oh, we grew up during such a wondrous, innocent time of prosperity and happiness here in Reno.
Thank you for having the memory and words to remind us of our wonderful childhoods.
Thanks & take care,
Pam Lee Bodenhamer