July 1 – of restaurant photographers…

kb_thingIt’s July; Artown commenced several hours ago as I scribe this inaugural offering of a story that I thought I wrote a while back but as usual can’t find in my laptop. So I’ll type what I recall:

The tale concerns the photographers who once worked the finer dinner houses in Reno – Don Dondero, Gitta, Gene Christiansen to name the most ubiquitous, working nightly at Eugene’s, Vario’s, the Sword Room, Harrah’s Steak House, the Mapes’ Coach Room and other venues where the valley’s finest would don their finery, make a reservation, put on a necktie or nylons – hopefully not both – and join one or two other couples for a planned meal, often to celebrate an engagement or the resulting marriage, an anniversary, a dissolution of another marriage or some other life-changing amendment to their lives. Or in some cases they were just hungry.

SinatraIISo off they would go to the above-mentioned venues – one reader once asked about the Sparks Nugget’s various high-end restaurants’ photography, and I think I recall that John got annoyed with the photographers and gave them all the Basque boot. I’ll probably hear about that, hopefully from John. The swells would arrive and the squirts like me, Lynn Gerow Jr., Don Richter, Dave Blakely,  Ingo Nikoley and other such minions would park their automobiles, and in the case of Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg arriving at Eugene’s with their god-dam slobbering St. Bernard named T-Bone Towser, I or II, park him also. Then, all would go within and be seated.

Enter now, the aforementioned photographers. For two to five bucks, they would take a photograph of the diners, at their tables. The cost was added – usually – onto their dinner bills. Now it gets interesting:

The photographers – while the diners were enjoying their meals – would drive like bats out of hell to their darkrooms – usually downtown. A footnote to the reader: This was the 1950s era, boys and girls; and continued for about 25 years following that period of time. Therefore, their cameras used film – which some of you may remember – not digital. (Film is still around, I should point out; my childhood home, the Puzzle Palace, formed the backdrop for the 2005 Hot August Nights poster, and the image was shot on, a drum roll please: Film). The saga of that photoshoot might be desirable for this 31 columns-in-31 days task I’ve bitten off.

So, into the darkrooms the photographers disappeared. They were good. In almost no time at all, they could print and dry a 5×7 inch, or 8×10 inch for the bigger spenders, image and mount it into a cardboard frame with the restaurant’s name printed on it. Many of such are still around.

Back they’d go to the restaurant while the diners at the target tables were finishing off their dessert. The photographs, plural because a table of four couples might have ordered a photo for each couple (one more thing for the photographers to keep track of!), and then been delivered with the bill to each table.

An incredible amount of work, to be sure, six nights a week for most restaurants – most closed Monday nights in that period of time.


This account of the photographers’ task so far omitted one element vital to the job: Imaging the patrons at the table who asked for a photo, while omitting from the photo the guy up from Sacramento seated at an adjoining table having a repast with the airline pilot’s wife while the pilot was enroute to Hong Kong. This period of history and dining out still embraced a certain presumption of privacy, and the images captured thus included those choosing to be included, to the exclusion of the Lothario from Sacramento and his companion.

This was done in the darkroom by the photographer employing a spoon-like wand, holding it over those not included in the photo to darken their image, so that there’s a pleasant “halo” of light around the target table, but no discernible image of the others.

All that said, one night it didn’t happen that way. Reno photo icon Don Dondero, early in the maturation of dining room photography, 1951 it was, snapped a shot for AP in the Riverside Hotel’s nameless dinner house. The picture was seen worldwide and by this scribe a dozen times in a dozen different publications. Then on my 13th viewing, I looked at it.

Well, sumbich, I thought with a chuckle.

Over Ol’ Blue Eyes’ right shoulder, in the table behind him, was a guy I knew. A good-lookin’ man, unmistakable. He set and casted my left wrist from an ice-skating crash at Lake Park in 1950; he cared for my entire family for years and I think even delivered my brother into the world (a doctor, by the way, delivers the mother, grammatically, when a child is born but I quit beating that drum in the 1980s in print. Kind of like a high school graduates a student, the student doesn’t graduate, but all that’s for another column).

Don had snapped Frank and Ava,  and the world saw them dining right here in Reno, Nevada, but the world also saw Dr. Wesley W. Hall, practitioner extraordinaire, and probably his bride E’lise less prominent to Don’s camera. And their image was never dodged out of the AP photo. Yes, they’re the dad and mom of the vascular surgeon in Reno, Wes Jr., and the grands of the plastic surgeon, Wes III.

What’s it all mean? Who knows – I’m a drive-by columnist with a deadline. But I gotta tell all – I laughed like hell when I realized a favorite Reno family doc had snuck into the world’s spotlight, but no one ever knew it.

See ya tomorrow….

Sinatra/Gardner photo © AP