Currently at the Nevada Museum of Art, 60 W. Liberty St., there is a display of a small part of iconic photographer and former Sparks resident Don Dondero’s work. It is labelled “The Dondero Collection” and will be available for viewing until July 10. The exhibit is located on your left as you enter the building and is juxtaposed to the gift shop.
The exhibit will be up in conjunction with the opening (in March) of the museum’s newly expanded Nightingale Skyroom, a space that takes its inspiration from the classic Skyroom at the former Mapes Hotel. This is of special interest to the writer, since I had Don take hundreds of photos in that Mapes location.
The current exhibit came about through the efforts of one Carol Buckman, a New Yorker who is related to the Dondero family. Working in conjunction with Don’s daughter Debbie, she selected a score of prints for the display that perfectly illustrate Don’s variety of intimate photos, publicity photos and shots of international celebrities. Probably the one picture that gained the most attention at the preview night was that of Marilyn Monroe’s arrival at the Reno airport when she came to town to begin shooting of “The Misfits.”A flyer for the exhibit is entitled, “Don Dondero: a Photographic Legacy.”It goes on to say, “For nearly 50 years, Don Dondero is celebrated as one of Reno’s most accomplished publicity photographers. 20 delightful photographs exemplify Dondero’s prolific career and provide a unique peek into Reno in the 1950’s.”
According to his daughter Debbie, Don was a self-taught professional. While living in a small two-bedroom home in Carson City where his career began, he found enough space to create his first tiny darkroom. Since he had no dryer at that time, he would place the wet prints on windows in his home and squeegee them to the glass where they would remain until they were dry enough to fall off. Moving from Carson City to Sparks in the early 50’s, Don’s main clients were insurance adjusters. His interest in publicity photos probably started when he was lucky enough to get a shot of President Herbert Hoover. Another early celeb photo was that of heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey. These pictures and many others are contained in his book, “Dateline Reno,” copies of which are on sale at the Museum. In that tome, Don’s skill at photography is matched by his one-of-a-kind humorous writing.
On one occasion, when I was visiting Don at his home studio, I noticed a large, prefab barn in his back yard. I asked him if the structure contained chickens or livestock. With a chuckle he said, “No, it is crammed full of prints and negatives, which I someday will try and organize.” Daughter Debbie estimates that there are at least a million of such items in the barn.
During his half-century career, Don covered as wide a variety of events as any lens man in the country. From photographing major figures in all walks of life to covering intimate weddings, he was nonpareil.
I first met Don in 1958 and worked with him until his passing in 2003 at the age of 83. He was my photographic assistant covering such celebrities as Richard Nixon, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Nelson Rockefeller, Jim Arness, Frank Sinatra, Lowell Thomas, Del Webb, Richard Boone, the Cartwright Clan, Joe DiMaggio, Andy Williams, Jackie Jensen and Willie Mays just to name a few. My job was to tell the subjects where to stand, and Don would snap a crystal-clear photo. None of his prints was ever out of focus. We worked together on his most prolific assignment when he shot daily photos of the 1960 Winter Olympics and returned to the Olympic Press Club at the Mapes in the evening hours to get shots of famous newsmen such as Walter Cronkite. On one occasion, we managed to hijack the Russian press corps so that they could be photographed with the prince of Sweden at the Press Club.
On another occasion, when we were photographing the principals of the movie “Downhill Racer” in the Skyroom, Don approached me in a state of consternation, noting he had run out of film in the middle of the proceedings featuring Robert Redford, Gene Hackman and Natalie Wood. I asked him if he still had plenty of flash-bulbs and he replied he had. I told him to keep snapping shots with that empty camera and no one would be the wiser.
To sum up Don’s career, you could say that he loved his work and that work loved him back.