Local historian Joyce Cox is currently researching the history of the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce.
For my part, I will attempt to cover events from 1959 to 1971.
Prior to the hiring of Judd Allen in ’59, the Reno Chamber of Commerce was a typical one for a rather small community such as Reno was in those days. With its limited budget, it had little more to publicize than the annual Reno Rodeo, celebrity divorces and the occasional motion picture filming, mostly at the University of Nevada. One long-lasting Special Event that the Chamber did inaugurate was the Silver Spurs Award, which first went to John Wayne and John Ford in 1950.
The memorable staff in the old days included Bill Brussard– the Director, Selby Caulkins– publicity, aided by the ever-present Fred Shields. The offices were located on the ground floor of the now-gone State Building.
Once Judd Allen had settled into his new duties, which occurred during the world premiere in Reno of the long-running “Bonanza” TV Show, he tried rather unsuccessfully to gain a consensus of the major property–owners at the hotel casinos of that time. Having been a Hollywood Press agent before coming to town, he knew the value of publicity. His next move was to get the PR men from the major properties to join with him in forming a Promotion Committee. That group met on a weekly basis at the small A-frame building that was the new Chamber “digs”. The group included Allen, Chamber Publicity man Vern Baker, Roy Powers of Harold’s Club, Mark Curtis of Harrah’s, the writer representing the Mapes Hotel, Max Dodge of the Holiday Hotel, a series of gentlemen representing the Riverside Hotel and Fred Davis of the Sparks Nugget. During those brainstorming meetings, many new promotional ideas were tossed about with the group settling on a handful, which they, in turn, would take back to their principals in order to secure funding for the ventures.
This procedure was greatly enhanced when the Fair and Recreation tax was initiated, the funds from that tax going primarily to the Chamber for its promotional efforts. This resulted in such promotions as the Fun Train from the Bay Area, the Fun Flight, and a Reno Drive-up Auto Package. It also funded the opening of a Chamber office on Market Street in San Francisco and a bank of telephone operators in Reno that answered reservation requests. The San Francisco office was managed by Don Burke, former 49er Football player and the Fun Flight was directed by Vern Durkee of Durkee Travel Agency.
Later on, the funding for the Chamber dried up when the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority became the recipients of the tax money. Nevertheless, the Chamber activities continued from their new Headquarters on Sierra Street. One of their most successful promotions was the creation of a giant slot machine which, when mounted on a car trailer, was hauled to various locations in Northern California by Don Burke. He would usually set-up in the parking areas of various shopping centers and offer free “pulls” to the public. The pay-off prizes on the machine would include free room, food and booze at various hotels and comp show tickets at several casino show-rooms. The giant machine was created by the Chamber’s part-time employee, Don Terrell. With his intimate knowledge of the Hollywood Press, Judd Allen took the Silver Spurs to the next level. Instead of having Chamber Directors select the winner, he sent out ballots to the Hollywoodites for their vote as to the best Western actor of the year. As Western movies started to diminish in popularity, the award was then presented to the best Western TV actor. The first such award went to Jim Arness of Gunsmoke.
Previous mega-stars that have received the award included Jimmy Stuart, Gregory Peck, Fred MacMurray, Spencer Tracy, Alan Ladd and Glenn Ford.
Of all the recipients of the Spurs awards, the cast members of the Bonanza Show were the most frequent visitors to the “Biggest Little City”. The location of the Ponderosa Ranch house on the burning map that opened the show was at a point strangely similar to a Western mini-town that was created in the foothills halfway between Reno and Carson City. It was called “Sundown Town” and consisted of several wooden buildings, an authentic stagecoach run, a small lake and a popular quick-draw booth. It was operated by one Bob Talmadge, the son of Buster Keaton and Norma Talmadge. The enterprising Vern Baker was able to convince Talmadge to hold a Press party for Silver Spur winners, one of the highlights of which was for the Western stars to try their skill at the quick-draw facility. Oddly enough, the fastest gun at Sundown was owned by Sammy Davis, Jr.