Happy Bill Howard, The Nugget’s Flagpole Sitter

Howard

‘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

 

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OK, I GOT THE MESSAGE; I’LL UPDATE THIS SOON! KARL The old mom-and-pop groceries – we get mail…

Washoe_streetONE OF THE JOYS OF BEING A DRIVE-BY COLUMNIST IS READING SOME OF THE MAIL THAT THE COLUMNS PRODUCE, AND AS TIME PERMITS I LIKE TO GET PERMISSION OF THE SENDER AND POST IT – IT’S PRETTY COOL STUFF AND THE READERS HAVE GONE THROUGH A LOT OF WORK TO SEND IT, SO IT DESERVES TO BE SEEN AND ENJOYED! WHAT FOLLOWS ARE A FEW OF THE RESPONSES TO THE RECENT BOMBARDMENT OF GROCERY STORE MEMORIES, WITH A LOT OF INFORMATION THAT I’D OTHERWISE HAVE NO WAY OF LEARNING NOR PUBLISHING. E-MAILS COPY AND PASTE TO WORDPRESS IN A WEIRD WAY I DON’T COMPREHEND, SO IT’S A LITTLE MESSY…PERMISSION TO REPRINT HAS BEEN GAINED FOR ALL

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Sparks’ retired fire chief Don Young writes, 

“Karl, enjoyed your story on Sparks grocery stores. I worked for Kellison’s Market in 1949 or 50. I stocked groceries and delivered them in Milt Kellison’s new Ford pickup while he was flying a P-51 in the Korean theater. The manager was Elton Williams who went to Old Orchard later. The meat cutter was Marvin Edwards who later had his own meat market in Reno.”

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My old post-war northwest Reno neighbor Pat Randall checks in:

“I enjoy reading your columns regarding Reno’s history when it was smaller than it is now. I remember many of the markets in your most recent offering. I hope you will include Quilici’s in your next column. As I recall , it was located on the southwest corner of Washington and 7th Streets and three blocks from where I grew up. There was a butcher shop in the rear and out front was a manually operated gas pump. The gas was pumped into a calibrated glass container on top and then gravity fed into the car’s gas tank. My brother worked the pump and worked the hose one summer in 1947 or ’48. The building was old even then and the wood floors creaked when walked on.  I moved from Reno in 1955 so I doubt that the place still exists; but I would like to visit it again thru your writing.  Thank you for your work.”

I told Pat that Quilici’s was included in the second column, which was submitted but not yet published. She responded with an account of our old neighborhood: 
“I lived at 1025 University Terrace, just west of Canal St. We moved there in Oct. 1941.  University Terrace was unpaved west of Vine St. and ours was the last house on it. The street ended at our house. Keystone was called Peavine Road and it was also dirt and it dead ended at 6th St. next to my grandmother’s house. When WWll ended construction of houses in the area resumed and now my old house appears to be in midtown. My family name is Randall and most of us were born in St. Mary’s. I knew a guy named Cal Dorothy who lived near the top of Ralston hill across from Whitaker Park His mother ran a beauty parlor there at one time’
What about the market? Will it be part of your next article?”
I assured her that Quilici’s was in the mill. And the beauty shop t the top of the Ralston Street hill that she mentioned? Here’s my response:
“The guy at the top of Ralston Street’s mother was named Shermerhorn and my dad bought that house (740) in 1946 right after the war. He turned her old beauty parlor room on the front of the house into his office (real estate and insurance). We lived there until 1948 when my dad bought the house at the end of University Terrace at the corner of Peavine Row, which was still dirt. (Its address was 1095). On Christmas Eve of 1949 we moved from that house to the top of the Peavine hill to the southwest corner of Sunnyside Drive and Peavine Row, the only house west of Peavine (I think the street was paved then to the top of the hill.)”
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Here’s a note from Fred Messman, whom I know from a speech I made at a service club in Sparks a year ago. Fred writes:
“My first job was as a bag boy at the Food Mart across from Deer Park on Prater Way in Sparks, started in 1962 while I was still in high school (Reno). I worked at that store, owned by Tom Kelleher until he sold it to Ron Gardner who called it Food King. (He ultimately opened another store on the corner of Wells Ave and Ryland, now a liquor store I think)
While I was working at the Food Mart on Prater a huge new store opened across the street to the east called “Safeway”, today it is PEP Boys auto parts.
I transferred to the new Food Mart they had on Kietzkie and Vassar which later sold to Washoe Markets who eventually consolidated and closed it running their last Washoe Market at 1251 South Virginia (now an antique store). I left for Vietnam in 1966 and when I returned Bob and John Games immediately hired me back where I eventually became assistant manager and then manager for that store until just before it closed. Our phone orders were a high priority and I made many trips delivering groceries in the early to mid 1970’s.
I have many great memories about the bakery and meat market at Washoe Market, truly a customer friendly and family store where we would order any item for you if we didn’t stock it. The butchers were celebrities behind the counter.
I eventually used my GI Bill to get a degree in wildlife management and became a game warden captain with the Nevada Dept of Wildlife and retired in 2009 after 28 years.
Please feel free to use any of the information above, edit it as you see fit.
I have been reading your articles for a long time, keep up the great work
Also, I have charge and payment receipts from my grandmother somewhere in the closet, did a cursory check and didn’t find them, from Akert’s and a couple other corner grocery stores, they lived on Keystone and I remember as a child walking to the store to pick up the day’s food, then they were able to buy a first-class Westinghouse electric refrigerator and a new wringer washing machine (early 1950’s).”
Didn’t have to edit a thing, Fred!
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And I’m reminded by the daughter of my favorite third-grade teacher, who was Mrs. Conrad in 1949 at Mary S. Doten Elementary, whose daughter’s name is Carolyn Darney. Carolyn phones, because Carolyn will buy a computer and start e-mailing when pigs fly, that Brickie Hansen’s sister (Brickie owned Hansen’s Market, mentioned in the column) became the wife of Reno mayor Tank Smith. Where else would you get information like that, I ask???
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Next up, a Reno High guy named Rich Steurer:
“Hi Karl. I was reading with interest your column on old grocery stores
> the last 2 weeks and wondered why you didn’t mention the two I worked at
> as a student at Reno High.
> My dad worked downtown in the 50’s & 60’s, and was good friends with the
> butcher at Washoe Market. He asked my dad if I was interested in a part
> time job at the Washoe Market on 4th and Vine Streets cleaning up the
> butcher shop after school, which I was and worked there for a year or
> so. I then found a temporary job working odd jobs for friend of my
> dad’s which paid a little more than the $1 an hour. When that job ended
> the Washoe Market on So Virginia and Pueblo hired me there, again at $1
> hour. That saw me thru High School. Remember when they had sawdust all
> over the floors? Anyway, thanks for the memories, Rich.”
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Lynda Morris chimes in – Lynda is the daughter-in-law of the late Betty Morris, whom I mentioned in a column about schools two weeks ago (Betty was the popular Kindergarten teacher at Jessie Beck Elementary School, saddled with my two sons, among several thousand others. She was immensely popular, and I once nominated her (unsuccessfully) to have a new school named for her. Lynda writes,
“We certainly enjoy reading your column. The recent article, “What Goes Into an (Alma Mater’s) Name?” was especially interesting to me and my husband, Guy Morris. Guy’s mom, Betty Morris, was my much beloved mother-in-law, and we have always hoped that a school would be named after her. Guy and I both taught in the Washoe County School District for over 31 years, and yet we do not know the procedure for the naming of new schools. If you have any information or know how we can spearhead a movement to get a school named after Betty, we would appreciate that information. Guy worked as a school counselor at several middle schools in the district, retiring from Traner Middle School. I taught at Orvis Ring for one year, moved to Vaughn Middle School for five years, and then retired from Reno High School after 26 years as the head librarian. Two of our sons graduated from Reno High and we also find it annoying to see Huskie spelled Husky. Thank you for clarifying that in your article. Guy and I have only the best memories of growing up in Reno, attending local schools, and graduating from the University of Nevada where we were active in ATΩ and Kappa Alpha Theta.
“In your November 1, 2015 article about grocery stores, I saw the market listed that my father, Leonard R. Carpenter, owned in the 1950’s. (He came from Las Vegas on a football scholarship to attend UNR in the late 30’s) The Reno Public Market was a venture for him after he stepped down as the U.S. Marshal for the State of Nevada. He continued his employment with the U.S. Marshal’s Office as a deputy, but desired other employment and hoped it would be a family business for his dad and my mom to carry on. Although that did not work out, I have fond memories of the time I spent in that market during my childhood and especially when it flooded during the 50’s. Ironically, my brother-in-law is Bert Pincolini whose family owned Pinky’s. I believe much of the enjoyment we receive from reading your column comes from realizing how connected we are to this community. Thank you for your historical research and interesting writing and yes, God bless America!”
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Here now, Nancy Mull. Nancy refers to a Washoe Market on Wells Avenue that I’m trying to find. Thanks, Nancy!
Hi Karl,
I’ve been enjoying reading and reminiscing about the old little grocery stores in Reno.  My mother worked for Mr. Churchill at his store so it was a kick to see it mentioned.  As I recall, the store was narrow and had a wooden floor.  Very old-fashioned.  Fresh produce. 
She also worked at the California Market on North Virginia Street.  It was on the west side, close-ish to 4th Street, right downtown.  Southworth’s was a short distance south.  There was a butcher shop in the back and I may be wrong, but I think it was run or owned by a Jolly of Butcher Boy fame.  This was in the 50’s when a kid could wander around downtown safely.  We lived on West St. across from Central Junior High (maybe it was Reno High then), next door to the Jewish synagogue. 
Another grocery store she worked in was the Washoe Market on Wells Avenue. 
What a cool stroll down memory lane.  Thanks!
Nancy Mull
Here’s Nancy’s placement of the Washoe Market:
The Eagle Thrifty grocery store was across the street from the store where my mother worked.  It was in the building across the alley from what is now Lucke’s Saloon.
 
More e-mails may be added, if such arrive, if I get permission to use, and if they don’t rip me too badly for omitting a market. Which I did – sorry, it’s a space thing. 

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial comes to the Hollywood Bowl!

HollywoodBowl                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Just testing to see if I can still make this computer work – the photo was taken at the Hollywood Bowl last night. On the stage is the LA Philharmonic, playing John Williams’ score from the movie (Williams, now 83, introduced conductor David Newman on a videotaped segment).ET_moon copy My overall review is that when Elliott rode his bike across the moon in that iconic shot from the movie with E.T. in his basket, causing 17,000 children of all ages to applaud and cheer, that for all the problems on this rock, life is really pretty damn good!

An update and newer photo of the Black Mariah in the old Reno Rodeo parades

the restored Black Mariah

BRINGING THE READER UP TO SPEED: LAST SUNDAY, JUNE 20, I WROTE OF THE BLACK MARIAH, USED AS A PADDY WAGON TO HAUL PEOPLE WITH NO WESTERN ATTIRE TO THE KANGAROO KOURT IN EARLY POST-WAR RENO. I MENTIONED THAT FINDING INFO OR PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE PADDY WAGON WAS DIFFICULT, AND RECEIVED THE FOLLOWING FROM JOHN EVANOFF, A LOCAL HISTORIAN WHOSE WEBSITE FOLLOWS HIS NARRATIVE. HE ENCLOSED THE PHOTO OF THE BLACK MARIAH FOLLOWING ITS RESTORATION; NOTE THE LETTERING IS NEW AND DOESN’T COINCIDE WITH THE ORIGINAL LETTERING DESCRIBED IN MY COLUMN FOLLOWING ITS RESTORATION. I’M GRATEFUL TO JOHN FOR HIS EFFORT; HIS STORY FOLLOWS:

John: Here I am with the Black Mariah in 1980 in front of the Eldorado. I was the vice-president of the Reno Jaycees and the new winner of the Nevada Jaycee-of-the-Year award. We worked tirelessly all year putting the jail back together and getting the Mariah back in shape for this and many other events. The Reno Rodeo was our most fun event though. We gave out Reno Jaycee Rodeo garters for a $1 or more donation to get out of our fun jail. Everyone wanted to have their picture taken next to the Mariah or while they were in the jail. Our Kangaroo Court enlisted the help of anyone who wanted to enjoy the chance to be part of this fun event every year. We had as many as five thousand garters sold as a get out of jail donations to help many Reno/Sparks charities each year. During the Reno Rodeo Parade, we threw candy and pins to the crowds along Virginia Street and won Parade Honors annually for our contribution to the festivities. We even towed the Jail one year and had crowd volunteers jump in to be part of the parade, after which we gave them a garter for participating.

Responding to my request to reprint the photo: Yes, of course. The jail was in total disrepair and we bought the supplies to bring it back in 1979. We took it downtown that year with the help of my truck and parked it on Virginia Street in front of the Horseshoe Casino and then the next year began to move it to more events. I left the Jaycees in 1981 after six full years of service and a friend told me they had problems with getting a permit for the jail so they put it away in someone’s backyard. The Mariah had engine problems and was tough to keep cool after just a half hour on the Rodeo Parade route so we had lots of water which we added constantly to try to keep it running throughout the day. I think one of the guys tried to get it back in shape a few years later but it cost too much to bring back and so it was parked.

Check out John’s column for other interesting facts about Northern Nevada… http://visitreno.com/evanoff/index.php

My column about all this is at http://www.rgj.com/story/life/2015/06/19/breckenridge-black-mariah-kangaroo-kourt/28980431/

AND THAT’S THE WAY THE COLUMN HAS WORKED FOR 27 YEARS – I DON’T KNOW IT ALL BUT HAVE FRIENDS AND READERS LIKE JOHN, AND BIT-BY-BIT WE WEAVE THE TALE OF OUR VALLEY! THANKS, JOHN…

Bach’s “Shepherd on the Rocks with a Twist” pegged to headline the Reno Master Works Chorale’s Christmas show!

Sextette
We anxiously await the Sierra Nevada Master Works Chorale's Christmas offering next Saturday, Dec. 14th at the Nightingale Hall of the Church Fine Arts Building at the University of Nevada "How Great Our Joy." Our friend Larry Horning will be one of the leads, possibly in the role of the shepherd.

The doors open at 7 p.m. with a showtime of 7:30 p.m. Free parking will be available at the Brian Whalen Garage. General Admission is $20, Senior/Student $15, under 12 free.

This website has been afforded an early preview of the samplings of the music to be offered, including,

Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice,
an opera in one unnatural act
Fanfare for the Common Cold
Birthday Ode to “Big Daddy” Bach
The Abduction of Figaro, a simply grand opera
1712 Overture (often mistaken for a later work)
Toot Suite for calliope five hands
Suite No. 2 for Cello, All by Its Lonesome
Perviertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloons
Shepherd on the Rocks with a Twist
Oedipus Tex, and Other Choral Calamities
Music for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion

(The program is subject to change by event night)
photo credit Richard Termine for The New York Times