Every so often I am asked about the first Virginia City Camel Race and when it actually happened. It was in the summer of 1960 when the Misfits movie was being shot in Reno and outlying areas. Recently I saw a photo of the 2019 Camel Races that sported a banner above the street in VC that noted the Camel Races were staged from 1959 to 2019.
To set the record straight, in 1959 Bob Richards, who was the editor of the Territorial Enterprise, had a four-inch space to fill in his paper, and so he wrote a faux news story about a fake Camel Race. Some of that story got wide circulation because the paper was internationally known. So in essence, Richards lit the spark that produced a real race in 1960 when actual camels raced in the mountain city.
During the prolonged shoot of the Misfits, which took the entire summer of ’60, there were many fits and starts primarily due to Monroe’s absences.
During a time when the entire production was shut down, one of the most long-lasting events in northern Nevada was hatched by Huston and his good friend Billy Pearson, professional jockey. They had read in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise about the mock camel race in Virginia City. Huston, who was known for his wild and whacky ways, challenged his pal Pearson to a real camel race in the mountain hamlet.
The idea was broached to hotel owner Charles Mapes, who agreed to pay for the four-footed beasts of burden and to provide prize money for the winner. The event gathered momentum when the San Francisco Chronicle and the Phoenix Gazette agreed to sponsorship of the competing beasts. On the day of the race, casino-owner Bill Harrah had invited members of the Horseless Carriage Club, who drove vintage automobiles and dressed in vintage clothing, to make the journey up Geiger Grade to VC. I can recall passing at least half the old cars that had boiled over coming up the hill.
When I reached the corral in which the camels were contained, I was accompanied by photographer Don Dondero. To get some up close and personal pictures, he suggested that we climb into the enclosure. That didn’t last long because we quickly found out that when you are a stranger approaching a camel, spit does happen.
As we exited the corral, I got a very alarming message from the handler of the beasts when he informed me that while the reins had arrived, the camels’ saddles had not been shipped. I quickly informed Mapes of that fact and we were on the verge of cancelling the race when Huston noted that one of the beasts was a Bactrian, which was a camel of the two-humped variety. He said he thought he could manage to straddle the creature between its two humps and wouldn’t need a saddle. Pearson, who was an agile little fellow, said he thought he could maintain his balance on the one-humper camel, which was a dromedary.
Unfortunately, even the veteran Pearson was unable to maintain his balance on the one-humper. Luckily, I had spotted a tennis net in the playground of the adjoining school. We cut the tennis net down, paid the school and wrapped it around the camel two or three times thus giving Pearson at least a hand hold.
The race went off on schedule and Huston quickly grabbed the lead and easily won. Dondero and I were in the back of a pickup truck preceding Huston’s camel so that Don could take some action shots.
Following the race, the celebrities adjourned to the Sharon House for a private reception.
As far as I can tell, there has never been a larger crowd at the Camel Races.
In actuality, the first race was a Reno promotion that used Virginia City as a venue. My job was to promote the event.
Nevada Football Team. Last Saturday the surprising Nevada pigskinners played Oregon following their exciting last-second victory over Purdue. Since this column was written before the contest, I don’t know how the Silver and Blue came out. But it brought to mind the time Nevada defeated Oregon when I was in college. The year was 1947 and Nevada was a two-touchdown underdog to the Oregon Ducks. What made the game most interesting was that the coach of Oregon was one Jim Aiken who had previously coached at Nevada for a number of years. The game meant that many of the Nevada players would be facing their old coach. Fortunately, Nevada had All-American Stan Heath at quarterback. So he was a good match for Oregon’s All-American Norm Van Brocklin (who later played for the L.A. Rams and gained more notoriety when he married Jane Russell). Amazingly, Nevada won the game 13-6.