During this rodeo week in Reno, a few references have been made to the Harolds Club mural (and I should note here that Pappy Smith, who owned Harolds Club, named for his son, didn’t like apostrophes and that’s good enough for us!) Therefore, it’s probably appropriate to scribe a few words about that mural.
It was commissioned by the club in the mid-1950s, and a picture painted by Theodore McFall of Pacific Grove, Calif., was chosen. McFall knew that the mural that was to be created from his picture would be huge – 38 feet high and 78 feet wide – pioneers at a campsite that could be Crystal Peak to the west or the shore of the Truckee to the east – a campfire burning, azure-blue water falling in the background. He also knew that the farthest away a viewer could get from the mural was about a hundred feet – from Harolds Club across Virginia Street to Southworth’s Cigar Store on the west sidewalk – so he created the picture to look proportionate from any view, absent a parallax from looking up, or crosswise at it.
Deal was made and deed was done for the newish casino to buy the rights to the photo, and the process of taking an oil photo to a mural capable of withstanding weather and beating sun then began. It was decreed that it would be of steel, with color porcelainized onto the steel and fired (the mural consisted of many small squares of artwork.) But who could do such a process?
A man was located, an interesting artist named Sargent Claude Johnson, a New Englander by birth who later spread his time between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. He was a sculptor, and a mosaic artist (his works can be seen as a mural on George Washington High School in SF, in some sculpture still in place on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, where it was placed for the 1939 World Exposition, and mosaics in the veranda of the Aquatic Park Museum in SF, and in that same building’s entrance in the form of intaglio. Most other works are on private property, and one is in storage, a scene similar to the Harolds Club mural created for a Las Vegas casino, acquired by the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, and now in storage.)
Curiously, I first wrote of Johnson and the mural in a February, which is Black History Month, because Johnson was half black, and elected to live his life in the black communities of LA and Oakland. He was a member of the Communist party during his adult life.
He undertook to create and fire the mural in 1948, and it was ready for presentation to the City of Reno by Harolds Club in 1949. It was trucked to Reno in many pieces, and suspended on a steel frame affixed to the Harolds Club building, and here Neal Cobb and I differ; he thinks it was for the Fourth of July; I, (while I remember the hoopla attached to its creation) found references to later in that year, and maybe it was partially erected for the Fourth with the balance following later – I dunno, won’t argue the point herein, but simply write, 1949.
In its original form, the waterfall “fell,” sort of like the lights in a Wurlitzer jukebox, and the campfire “burned.” The waterfall’s cascade and the fire’s flickering flame were allowed to fall into disarray at the advent of the Hughes acquisition of Harolds Club. And some of the artwork on the lower part of the mural, primarily the snake that appeared poised to bite the lady pioneer’s butt, were covered by some signs spelling out the casino’s name. The legend atop the mural was attributed to Harolds Club’s genius adman Thomas C. Wilson, Dedicated In All Humility to Those Who Blazed the Trail.
Sadly, a home for the mural could not be located in downtown Reno when the club’s structure was demolished in 2001, and was in storage for a decade until the Reno Rodeo Association, with some help from other local people and entities, made it possible for it to be re-erected on a building at the Reno Events Center on Wells Avenue.
Well done, Smith Family, artist Theodore McFall, sculptor Sargent Claude Johnson, and the Rodeo Association!