A story of Reno resident Mel Vhay

Reed/Sparks High reunion info here

MelVhayMy original hed for this tale was “A story of Reno resident Mel Vhay, who was originally married to architect David Vhay, then married Don Powers following David’s passing, and was the daughter of the Mackay Statue and Mt. Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum.” I saw it in print and decided it was too wordy, even for me. So, you read the above hed. My contemporary  Des Powers sent me an extremely well-written e-mail about Mel Vhay, so I here post it for all to see:

Thanks for the update on the development of your column on the Holiday Hotel’s “Mug Hunt.”  Newt Crumley’s wife, Fran Crumley, and Mel were very good friends.   As you likely know, Mel’s dad was Gutzon BorglumBorglum [pictured to the right], sculptor of Mt. Rushmore and friend of Clarence Mackay.  Hence, the statue that Gutzon sculpted, of his friend Clarence Mackay, that stands on the Quad to this day.

Mel and my dad were married in 1990 until my dad’s passing in 1995.  Our mom passed away in 1988.  While married to my dad, Mel’s name was Mel Borglum Vhay Powers.  Kind of a long one, so she went by Mel Powers during those years.  I was very fond of her and felt very close to Mel during the years I knew her.  Mel was immediately very welcoming to my sisters and me, and to our extended families.  She was a remarkable woman and lived a very interesting and fascinating life.  She told a few stories over the years about how the concept of what became Mt. Rushmore came about, and some stories from the days during her father’s  sculpting of Mt. Rushmore.  She told the story of when she met President Franklin Roosevelt when he came to the dedication of Mt. Rushmore in 1941.  The stories she told still have me absolutely riveted to this day. 

[Here, I’ll interject a thought: Mel and David Vhay’s son Tink lives in Reno with his wife Muffy. I haven’t spoken to Tink but would surmise that he and Muffy were aboard for this also. ed.]

For me, in addition to being my step-mother who I loved, she was a living connection to significant times in American history.  In 1991, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mt. Rushmore was held at what Mel’s family affectionately refers to as “The Mountain.”  I went to the celebration with Mel, my dad, many of Mel’s family and a few thousand others whose names I don’t recall.  President George H.W. Bush presided at the celebration.  The celebration was in July 1991.  President Bush had already nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and the President could not hold back including in his official remarks, on the 50th anniversary of Mt. Rushmore, some comments on how important it was to see that Clarence Thomas received approval from the U.S. Senate for his appointment to the United States Supreme Court.  Well, as we know, the rest is history.

The seat I received for the celebration entitled me to a “third-class” view.  Mel and my dad were “down in front” enjoying a “first-class” view right in front of the podium and across the aisle from John Sununu.  Mel took some pictures of the speakers at the lectern on the podium.   I know that he was quite busy with other matters and likely overlooked getting many of the “small things” in his life done on a timely basis.  Anyway, I found a very nice viewing position on the top of the roof of a utility building.  As I got settled in, a young man, dressed in Army attire, who was apparently an ROTC cadet or a 90-day wonder in training, approached me and said, “Sir, you need to move”.  My response was, of course,

“Why?”  His response to my response was, “Because the Secret Service says you have to.”  I continued my protestation by saying, “I’m just sitting here and have already gone through security”.  He said, “Sir, you need to move.”  So I did, most likely with my movements being observed through various types of scopes held by various agents associated with various federal agencies.  I found another place to view the festivities, but it was not as nice as that spot on that roof.

Joining Mel and my dad on the trip was Fran Crumley.  Fran was a delightful lady and always very warm and welcoming to my sisters and me.  I occasionally saw Fran at family events subsequent to the Mt. Rushmore trip and I was always greeted warmly by her.  Fran had a great amount of class and I have remained impressed by her to this day.

MackayStatuePerhaps sometime you could write a column on Gutzon Borglum’s connection to Reno and the Comstock.  Gutzon Borglum, in my view, has yet to be fully recognized for his place in American history.  His connection to Reno and the Comstock’s history, in my recollection, has received only very brief references, if at all, over the years.  His impact on American history lives on to this day.  For example, in a conversation with her, I asked Mel why Teddy Roosevelt is on Mt. Rushmore along with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.  Teddy Roosevelt, while a significant American and a significant American president, to me, was not in the same category, in terms of their impact on American history, as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, yet he is with them on Mt. Rushmore.  Mel told me that Teddy Roosevelt is on Mt. Rushmore because, in her father’s opinion, he made very significant contributions to America, which he did, but also because Teddy and Gutzon were friends of long standing.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Footnote: Mel (Mary Ellis) Vhay Powers, who resided in Lakeridge Terrace, passed away in September of 2002. 

Good words from a man not a writer, but a CPA. The letter goes on with some personal information. But Des’ point is well-taken; Borglum, who had local roots, is a person who should MtRushmore30061 Mt Rushmorehold a higher place in local lore. We know of Mt. Rushmore, and of the John Mackay statue on the Quad. Few know that Borglum was tapped by the National Park Service to re-sculpt the hand and arm of Lady Liberty, who was originally sculpted by Bartholde holding the torch in an awkward position, and thus was redone to the present appearance. I’ll work toward more Borglum stories as time marches on. And, I thank Des for a great letter. KB

A third verse of Home Means Nevada, and a good comment from Barrie Schuster following it

Nye

Our state song has a northern Nevada bias, which is not difficult to understand when it’s considered that most activity in the state took place in the state’s northern region, and the composer/lyricist of the song was from the north.

This did not set well in later postwar years with Las Vegas, hearing the song performed with its obvious northern Nevada references. Somewhere along the line someone wrote a third verse, with an obvious southern Nevada bias. Which is a good thing.

I learned of the third verse about a decade ago, and sent the lyrics to a counterpart of mine, a drive-by columnist in Las Vegas. He ran a story of the song and published the lyrics in his column. And it was offered to Las Vegas radio stations – the plea was, “who wrote this?” No one ever came forward.

It’s well-written. As our state approaches its 151st birthday on Saturday, I publish here the third verse, again, in the hopes that the lyricist who added the verse to Bertha Raffetto’s state song, may come forward or be revealed. In the meantime, I hope all northern Nevadans will refresh their memory of the original verses. Here’s the entire song:

Way out in the land of the setting sun, where the wind blows wild and free,
There’s a lovely spot, just the only one, that means home sweet home to me.
If you follow the old Kit Carson trail, until desert meets the hills,
Oh you certainly, will agree with me, it’s the place of a thousand thrills.

(to Chorus)

Whenever the sun at the close of day, colors all the western sky,
Oh my heart returns to the desert grey and the mountains tow’ring high.
Where the moon beams play in shadowed glen with the spotted fawn and doe,
All the live long night until morning light, is the loveliest place I know.

(to Chorus)

 AND HERE, IS THE MYSTERIOUS THIRD VERSE:

You may follow the modern freeway roads or the old Alejo trail.

at the Joshua tree where the sagebrush ends, to where men with a dream prevail;

From the mining sites to the neon lights turning desert night to day,

Where the Bighorn sheep graze the mountain steep, is the place where I long to stay.

 

(to Chorus)

Home means Nevada, home means the hills,
Home means the sage and the pine.
Out by the Truckee’s silvery rills, out where the sun always shines,
Here is the land which I love the best, fairer than all I can see.
Deep in the heart of the golden west, Home Means Nevada to me.

Words and Music of the first and second verses

and the chorus by Bertha Raffetto, 1932

The photo is of Nevada’s  first governor James W. Nye, seen here boarding the V&T in front of the Great Basin Brewery in Sparks, Nevada, on October 30, 1864 following his speech to the assembled students, parents and teachers of Elizabeth Lenz Elementary School in Reno on the day that Nevada was admitted to the Union, (sort of…)

Home Means Nevada © State of Nevada (donated by Bertha Raffetto); WordPress column © K F Breckenridge/Jas. W. Nye

 

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!

Father Bob’s Car, and a 1959 newspaper

ChevGoldenGateJust as 500 Reno and Sparks kids vowed 50 years ago to return to the Tower Theater on the next Saturday morning, with 14 cents and the top of an Old Home Dairy milk bottle as admission, to find out if the swamp creature would really munch on the fair maiden as it was starting to do when the episode came to an end, Homefinders flock to page 8 for little other motivation other than to find out what personalized license plate FRBSKR on the late Monsignor Robert Bowling’s plain-vanilla Chevy Caprice stood for, as promised in a recent column. You read it above: Father Bob’s Kar. Such was the wit of Father Bowling.

You have also read here that columnists who write about architects, churches, banks and railroads should have their heads examined, and I will now add “irrigation ditches” to that list. A literary house of cards built upon ditches just floated downstream due to conflicting information and will be rebuilt.

Therefore, the column for this Saturday morning will be taken from the text in a newspaper I was researching for ditch info, this a Nevada State Journal [precursor of that paper merging with the Reno Evening Gazette] of a day or two before the Fourth of July of 1959. (The hardest part of newspaper-microfilm research is sticking to the topic while ignoring the news of the day!)

On that day Topic A, aside from the Reno Rodeo in progress and Fred MacMurray winning the Silver Spurs award, was the upcoming bond issue for a convention center somewhere in Reno and a site search team headed up by warehouseman Frank Bender, and a beef already going on over room taxes (repetition herein of “imagine that” and “dayja-voo” could become frequent, as some things never seem to change.) [We did eventually build the Centennial Coliseum, now convention center.] Some old friends and column readers were the flag girls for the rodeo, chicks like LeeAnn Zimmerman, Anne-Louise Cantlon, Georgia Teskey, Karry Devincenzi, Susie Wedge and the Wilson twins, Marilyn and Kay. Cindi Codding, later the bride of Sterling the Butler and Joe Murin, same guy, and later not, won a city parks art contest.

A “freeway” down Third Street, along the railroad tracks? Who the Hell thought of that? Let’s put it somewhere else, maybe north of the University campus, screamed the editorial. Walter Baring introduced a bill to compensate homeowners along a downtown “freeway” route. The Reno city dump closed on June 30 – up on the end of what would later be Sutro Street – and Reno, Sparks and Washoe County officials had their heads together on where to put a replacement facility, great timing to address that issue. Roger Brander was named by the city council as coordinator for the upcoming 1960 Olympics – he died in the East Bay as a passenger on the first aircraft hijacking, three years later on a hijacked airplane, a full column about that somewhere in this tome. The Lancer restaurant opened on the bluff across from present Galena High School (it would burn to the ground on July 30, 1971.)</p><p> In our 1959 newspaper we read that Ted Patrick, a fixture at Nevada Bell and father of our classmates Mimi and Nancy, husband of Billie, passes away, too young. Businessman’s lunch at Newt Crumley’s Holiday Hotel this day was seafood and rice – crab legs, shrimp, lobster and scallops in the Shore Room, a buck ninety-five with a beverage. The Governor’s Mansion got a dishwasher and garbage disposal. The 1959 Hot August Nights are only a month away? Get thee by Lee Bros. for a used ‘56 Ford, $845, or a ‘57 Chevy $1,395 (with a heater). Realtor Mat Gibbons has a starter home for sale in Sparks, $12,000 for three bedrooms, a one car garage and asbestos siding (ouch).

A two-bit union agent named Jimmy Hoffa told a congressional committee that he was “no damned angel,” and look where it got him. Romance of Scarlet Gulch, a corny Comstock melodrama – he ties her to the railroad tracks, as the audience gasps – with an all-Reno amateur cast moves to Piper’s Opera House for the summer; for many summers to follow it played at the Liberty Belle in July, at Piper’s in August – great times, music and laughs. The Bud Connell Trio played Vista Gardens, two miles east of Sparks on Hwy. 40, Bud and the Gardens now long gone. Carl Ravazza played at Harolds seventh-floor Fun Room, Jimmy Durante at the Tahoe Cal-Neva, and Ish Kabibble at the new Harrah’s South Shore (before the showroom was built.) First National Bank, with 19 offices statewide, elevates E.H. (Bud) Fitz to VP-Operations and Harold Gorman to First VP, announced by FNB president Eddie Questa. [Ravazza and his bride Marcie would eventually buy a ranch south of town – now Ravazza Road – and became popular folks in the community. Carl gave up singing Vieni Su to become a Realtor, worked with my dad for 22 years, and never sold a house – which was exactly the way he and Sr. wanted it.]

There were 174 motorcycle license plates issued throughout the state, an out-of-town trucker was taken to the Reno city limits and thrown out of town for fighting at Mac’s Club on South Virginia Street, and Nevada’s entry to the Miss Universe Pageant in Long Beach was 5’-7” tall and 36-23-36 back when ladies had measurements in newspapers. Like to meet her today…

The sports page? A great one in the old Journal – the night before this paper ran, the Cleveland Indian’s legendary pitcher Herb Score fanned 14 Kansas City Athletics (that’s right, Kansas City.) There was an article about the start of a third major league, with interest from Montreal, Toronto, Miami and Buffalo. No league divisions then, just Boston alone at 9½ games out in the American League’s cellar, no All-Star Break in 1959, and the Dodgers and Giants tied up for the National League lead, (and yes, both teams by then were on the west coast.) Locally, a bunch of hotshot young golfers were tuning up for the National Chamber of Commerce Junior Tournament, my contemporaries Skosh Bell, Skip Meeks, Harry Massoth and Rudy Semenza, all mentored by popular pro Pete Marich. Cam Solari was the lead caddy. (Just kidding – Cam, my childhood neighbor, was first alternate to the delegation.) Good guys, all.

And that’s the way it was on the eve of the 1959 Fourth of July – a rather impromptu collection of notes for a Saturday morning. Have a good weekend and a safe short week ahead – let’s see some flags flying this Friday, and God bless America.

• • •

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The Wells Avenue Trench

tunnel

On a bright afternoon soon after World War II, two playmates whose names are Eddie Pine and Jim Miller left the brand-new Veterans Memorial School on Vassar and Locust to walk to their homes, across South Wells Avenue from each other on the corner of Claremont Street.  Crossing Wells was difficult, even then, because the new underpass connecting Wells to Highway 40 – East Fourth Street – made it easy for a lot of cars to use the street to get to southern Reno.  It would be easier for Eddie and Jim, and the hordes of other kids that lived on the east and west side of South Wells, to get together if they had a tunnel between their houses.

            So Jim and Eddie began to dig, in Jim’s front yard.  They spent an afternoon digging, moving not a great deal of earth with only the one shovel that they had, taking turns.  But they made a small dent in the task.  The tunnel was underway.

            Jim’s dad, Walter, came home from his job managing the downtown Sprouse-Reitz department store, and assessed the new hole in his front yard.  The boys explained their endeavor and then dove for cover, expecting the worst.

            “You boys need another shovel?  Maybe a pickaxe?” Walter offered.  The boys concurred that more equipment would be good.  While they were digging the following afternoon, Walter came home and brought them another couple of shovels and picks.

            The dig continued; a few more of the Wells Avenue Gang – now comfortable that they weren’t going to wind up in the soup for digging up the Millers’ yard – joined in.  Walter brought a few more shovels.

            The hole grew – two, then three feet deep, from the size of a card table to a four-by-eight blanket.  A rope ladder was fashioned to get down into the pit.  Still more kids showed up each day to help, bringing their own shovels.

            As the hole reached five feet in depth, a bucket-brigade type of excavation system was devised.  Walter brought some buckets.  Kids were making a pilgrimage from Veterans School to Wells Avenue.  Grownups were starting to stop by and watch.  Even the girls in the student body were chipping in; digging, hoisting the buckets, barrowing the dirt to the growing tailing pile alongside the Millers’ home.  The hole was approaching eight feet deep, now getting a little soggy during the day, easing the afternoon’s dig.

            Walter came home one day and noted that the hole was close to the requisite depth, and soon the direction of the excavation would turn toward the sidewalk, then under the street to Eddie’s yard.  The neighborhood excitement was almost overwhelming, and the whole education structure at Veterans Memorial was going to pot while this project moved ahead.

            But, Walter said, could you guys just level the floor of the hole a little bit in this direction for a few feet before starting toward the street and the Pines’ house?  And so they did.

The time was approaching to start the stope under the street.  They perfected the floor of their cavern, by now over eight feet deep, the work product of scores of their classmates.  And all the while, the neighbors to the site and the teachers at Veterans Memorial, acutely aware of the excavation, scratched their heads in wonderment about what was going on on the corner of South Wells Avenue and Claremont Street, and why wasn’t Walter Miller coming unglued?

            Eddie and Jim decided that the hole was deep enough.  The tunnel would begin.

• • •

Virtually the entire student body of Veterans Memorial School marched from the school on the afternoon that the hole would start becoming a tunnel, picks and shovels over their shoulders, boys, girls – researcher Ghia was unable to confirm that they were whistling “Hi ho, Hi ho…” but it could have happened that way – this yarn is basically founded on fact.

            They approached Jim’s house, ready to go to work and turn the bore toward Eddie’s yard.  Then they looked down into their excavation.

            Resting on the floor of the pit was a tank – a brand-new, black furnace oil tank, about four feet around, and five feet long.   It’s probably still there.

• • •

The kids got a good laugh out of it, for they all knew deep down that a tunnel was out of the question, but didn’t know how to call off the project.  And we’re told that Walter made it right for the whole neighborhood.  He’s since passed away, but is remembered as a pretty good guy by the Wells Avenue Gang…

God bless those who dug, Walter, and America.

 

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

Fun with surreys, gigs, bass fiddles and John Phillip Sousa!

music man

Several days ago a reader took me to task for insinuating that Dave (Buck) Wheat, who too few knew as the brilliant bass fiddle player for the Kingston Trio, wrote the letters attributed to him in my piece (April 14th). Actually, it didn’t seem to bother that reader that the letters were primarily bullcrap, manufactured as a vehicle to tell a few stories about pre-1960 Reno and those who lived in it. The greater concern was my chronology for the production and maturation of the Kingston Trio. I knew damn well that the whole thing was haywire, but, in the pattern of Mark Twain, I’m seldom prone to let a good story get screwed up by the facts. Fact is, most of the column beside what the reader complained about was also sheer baloney.

Curiously, I had a couple other projects going this week; in both, I determined some facts that America has come to love and embrace, are about as off-base as my letters from Buck Wheat that never existed. But this reader seems to leave Meredith Willson and Oscar Hammerstein alone, for works that the whole world has come to love and enjoy: respectively, their Broadway shows The Music Man, and Oklahoma!

Professor Harold Hill, in The Music Man, incants, “…And you’ll feel something akin to the electric thrill I once enjoyed when Gilmore, Liberati, Pat Conway, The Great Creatore, W.C. Handy and John Philip Sousa all came to town on the very same historic day.”

Patrick Gilmore was probably dead when most of the others led their bands, Giuseppe Liberati lived a continent away,  Pat Conway – well, maybe he was in River City, but it’d be a stretch timewise, The Great Creatore like Liberati was hell-and-gone away from River City for most of his career. W.C. Handy, now he was a little younger, a black musician of great renown but mostly for jazz, and John Phillip Sousa – of him, we needn’t write a great deal. The father of the American March – Stars and Stripes Forever!

But – did they ever  all come to town together, as Professor Harold Hill suggests, on that same historic day? Ta-ta-daaaah…I think not.

•••

But – did anybody bother Meredith Willson? Nooooo…  Did they nominate him for two Oscars for his misconceptions? Yup. Did he get a star on Hollywood Boulevard? Yup. Do I get that after a slight mis-step with my Buck Wheat tale? Noooooooooo…

          Now, let’s talk about Oscar Hammerstein, just one song, Surrey with the Fringe on Top. That one. Did he write about a surrey, with a fringe on top, with four, count ‘em, four, wheels. That’s how many wheels surreys have. Yup. And don’t the lyrics mention, “You will set behind a team of snow white horses, in the slickest gig you ever see!”? Yup.

          And what’s a “gig?” It’s a horse-drawn carriage with two wheels. Count ‘em: two. A “brouette,” an Irishman might say. Or might not. But does anybody bug Oscar Hammerstein? Noooooooooo…  Does he get Oscars, Grammies, Platinum records, a place in the pinnacle of American entertainment (which he richly deserves)?Yup.

          Life ain’t fair. One little column, one slight goof, intentional at that, and my career is doomed.

          See you tomorrow, right here on the Ol’ Reno Guy. Maybe I’ll tell you about the night I played banjo for the Limeliters at Blyth Arena in Squaw Valley…

          That ought to get somebody worked up!

 

Under-the-radar local artwork

MotelSignsRanchoSierraMotel

Here’s a few little treasures that have been around since the early 1950s, when the Lincoln Highway, Highway 40 and West Fourth Street – same street – rolled through our town. There’s a sign evocative of the ol’ west, all different, on every unit door in the motel like the two seen here.

These iron signs have been on the doors of the motel since then, crafted back in the days well-before they could be done by a water-jet steered by a computer, or plasma welding as it would be done today.

They’re neat. I’m always surprised as I drive by the motel at 411 West Fourth, north side of the street, that they’ve survived the ravages of time and aren’t in somebody’s back yard now. Maybe I shouldn’t even post this – I might endanger them. But our readers are pretty upstanding folks, and will just drive by and enjoy seeing them.

Who did them, and when? God only knows. I’ve tried to find out to no avail. But, I’m all ears if a reader knows…