I’ve a fond recollection of a ’52 Chevy full of Reno High hotshots returning from an afternoon of skiing at Sky Tavern. Far south of where U.S. 395 became South Virginia Street on the east side of the two-lane road was, well, a little red barn. We needed nourishment…
“Let’s stop here,” said one. “Wasn’t this the Li’l Red Barn?” another asked. “Yup,” said yet another. (That watering hole had become the “Liberty Belle” a month or so earlier, on Nov. 20, 1958.) We entered, ordered, and met Frank and Marshall Fey, whose grandfather had invented the Liberty Bell slot machine, that Bell with no “e”, and they had just moved from San Mateo, Cal. to open their new saloon. We formed a friendship that has lasted for 48 years [2017 note: Let’s make that 59 years; sadly, Frank passed away a couple years ago].
I scribe this on a Tuesday for you to read on a Saturday, not knowing for sure whether or when we will satiate ourselves at the Belle again. I do know that there will follow scores of other patrons’ pleasant recollections and a ton of ink about it in the next few months, and thus I’m moved to offer a few thoughts to the assembled Gazoo readers.
By some measure I write of many old Reno establishments that have all converged over time under one roof – that roof itself supporting some of the eight horse-drawn wagons that the Feys acquired from Roy Stagg’s Roaring Camp, a downtown 1940s tourist draw in the now-vacant triangle bounded by Lake, East First and Second Streets. Two heavy ore wagons near the building later arrived, one from Death Valley and the other from Mina.
One hundred years minus 30 days ago, the city of San Francisco was ravaged by an earthquake and fire – from that maelstrom to Reno came the heavy bronze doors from Market Street’s Palace Hotel. Marshall once quipped that it cost them $250 for the doors and two grand to adapt the Belle’s front entrance to utilize them. We’ve all opened them a few times. Underfoot, wooden planks form the decking of the entrance, not just any planks but wood taken from the entrance to the Federated Church on Virginia Street at Fifth when the church was razed to make room for parking at the new Sewell’s market in 1948.
Inside the Belle and over the bar hang two chandeliers and three round glass globes – those hung for 80 years downtown at the Wine House until that venerable saloon was razed to make room for Harolds Club’s addition in 1960. Dust them carefully; they’re pushing 125 years old. From the Golden Hotel, following the 1962 fire came the life-size cocktail waitress-slot machines in the south dining room.
The back bar’s been around for a while also. The rosewood and birch classic started life in the Owl Club downtown at the turn of the last century – some speculate that it came ‘round the horn from Europe but I can’t prove that – and following the repeal of prohibition was relocated to the Pastime Club on Sierra Street at Douglas Alley. The Feys got it in 1964 and my recollection is that it was unveiled during Nevada’s Centennial celebration, after the ceiling was raised two feet to accommodate it. Somewhat noteworthy was Walt Tripp’s early frustration in locating a letter font in mirror image to make engraved signs with, enabling a patron at the bar to read in the mirror “Winchester Model 94” or whatever above the rifles displayed over the bar. Walt’s son Warren, now the honcho of Tripp Plastics, reports that the Liberty Belle’s signs were the only use that mirror image font ever saw.
The list goes on – ephemera from Becker’s Bar on North Virginia, later the site of Southworth’s Cigar Store, antique street lamps from downtown Reno in the parking lot, and a gas lamp brought down from Virginia City. Here’s a note to fit somewhere in this yarn: Behind the original bar in the years before that back bar was installed, were hooks to hang beer mugs from. Frequent customers had their own time card on a rack by the front door, and after they “clocked in” on an antique time clock 16 times they were accorded their own personalized steins to display behind the bar.
In 1967 the south dining room of the building was added and served for a couple of years – at least during the summers – as the Bella Union Theater. Some of my own greatest memories of Liberty Belle visits were to the Bella Union. There was little in Reno in the late 1960s to compare with a warm summer night at that theater – a production of “The Drunkard” with local talent, using that term judiciously. “He tied her to the railroad tracks” the narrator would announce as the villain twirled his moustache, the audience gasped and Barney Barnard of Hatton’s Mens Wear rumbled an ominous chord on the piano (Hal Goodwin of Kentile Floors played the banjo). The show ended in an “olio” – a grainy black and white movie with song lyrics, follow the bouncing ball as Barney and Hal played and all sang. Two nights a week at the Liberty Belle, repeated on another two later in the week at the Bucket of Blood in Virginia City, all summer long, and life was good.
I’ve got more notes but no space, so I’m probably not done as yet. I thank Geno Oliver, who spent three decades behind the Liberty Belle’s plank, for passing on this morning’s column hed which was uttered by an anonymous customer last week. [And made its way onto the covers of thousands of my books!]
We’ll end this visit to the Belle as we always do, with a chocolate sundae in a shiny bowl served up by a pretty lady named Alice in a black skirt, a crisp black blouse and a perpetual smile [and in 2017, we still see Alice at Simon’s on Lakeside Drive! She’s pictured to the right…>>>>] Thanks Marshall, Frank and Jeff Fey, Jeff Courson, Alice, Geno and all hands for what seems like a lifetime of pleasant memories, ale and prime rib – collectively you’re still a municipal treasure.
Have a good week, and God bless America.
Text © RGJ March 2006
[Note: The Belle closed forever the Friday before this column ran, on St. Patrick’s Day, 2006. We were there for lunch…]
Liberty Belle artwork by Roy Powers, used here courtesy of Jackie Powers – Ad featuring Fey brothers © from Sierra Magazine 1961- photo of Alice, from KB file