Perusing Jack Harpster’s “The Genesis of Reno” continues to bring back memories of my time at the Riverside. Although I spent only eighteen months handling the hotel account, there were many interesting events that occurred during that time.
As mentioned in a previous column, my first interaction with the hotel occurred when Frank Johnson of the Nevada State Journal and I snapped the famous photo of Frank Sinatra along with his girlfriend Eva Gardner which resulted in a hefty sale to United Press International wire service.
Also, while I was still a student at the University of Nevada, my roommate Bob Burke and I prevailed upon the manager of the casino to act as “spotters” at the casino bar where we monitored the two cash registers to see if there was any hanky-panky when it came to interaction between cocktail waitresses, bartenders and the registers.
Probably the best known feature of the hotel was the iconic Corner Bar, which was located on the northeast corner of the building. It had easy access from the outside and from the hotel lobby plus the casino area. Head man at the bar was diminutive Frenchy Dupoy, who seemed to know the name of every barrister in Reno. This was because the hotel was cheek to jowl with the Washoe County Courthouse and the lawyers would spend many hours there as they waited for the jury to come in.
It was said of the Corner Bar that if you sat there long enough you were likely to see most of the famous people in the world. A daily habitué of the bar was the sophisticated Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. From his perch he would cast an eagle eye on the many divorcees who stayed at the hotel. It was in the same Corner Bar that the infamous conflict between DA Bill Raggio and whoremaster Joe Conforte came to a head when Conforte attempted to blackmail Raggio. Result of that imbroglio was that Conforte went to prison for five years.
Another salient feature of the hotel was on the southeast corner, the Riverside Flower Shop run by the likeable Al Barbagelata.
A special event that occurred in the showroom between shows one night was the crowning of “Mrs. Reno”, Ann Spencer, as part of the eventual Mrs. Nevada Contest, which she subsequently won in Las Vegas. Judging the contest at the Riverside were orchestra leader Eddie Fitzpatrick, movie mogul Val Dage and Carol Guild.
Located deep in the bowels of the hotel was a radio station run by Franz Robischon, a barbershop where Tommy the barber held sway along with several other offices.
One day I got a call from the Mapes Hotel’s entertainment booker, Pierre Cosette, who asked me if we could hire a fresh new act that he thought had great potential. He said that Mapes had turned this act down. I told him I would check with our entertainment director, who eventually told me that we were fully booked with four acts in the showroom, three in the theatre lounge and a piano bar artist in the Corner Bar. I call Cosette to inform him we could not afford any more entertainment and he said if we could fit the act in, he (Cosette) would pay the salary. I informed our entertainment guy of the offer, and he said, “Fine. We’ll put her fourth in the lineup in the lounge.” When she arrived, I was surprised to see a young singer of little note who eventually achieved superstardom as Ann-Margret. Coincidentally, the third act in the lounge at that time was called the Newton Brothers with a young Wayne playing second fiddle to his older brother. Showroom headliner was Kay Starr and the third act in the showroom was Rowan and Martin.
My most embarrassing occasion at the hotel came when I had returned to the Mapes and had dropped in to the showroom to catch Don Rickles. At that time, Rickles was a little too avant garde for Reno audiences and consequently never had more than a hundred spectators at his show. However, he had a deal with the showroom maître d’ to feed him names of localites who were in the audience that night. Rickles would then use his acerbic type of humor to routinely humiliate them. In my case he said, “There’s Harry Spencer over there, he’s the SOB that booked Sammy Davis, Jr. in the Sky Room of the Mapes at the same time I’m playing here.” I summoned the maitre d’ over and told him to tell Rickles the only reason we were attending his show was that it was standing room only for Sammy at the Mapes.