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Senior Spectrum Newspaper
April 2018
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Golden Pages
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Generation Boomer

Senior Spectrum Publications

BIGGEST little City
by Harry Spencer
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Favorite Movie Channel

Harry Spencer
Harry Spencer

Of all the many TV channels available today, my favorite continues to be the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) offering. On that channel I frequently see movie luminaries with whom I had personal contact.

Case in point occurred last month when two flicks of a very different nature featured many Reno locations. The films were “Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble” and “Charley Varrick”.

The Andy Hardy series was one of the most profitable for MGM in the early forties and helped enthrone Mickey Rooney as the box office king when older, more established actors like Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart went off to World War II.

In the “Blonde” show, the puckish Rooney is, as usual, up to his ears in trouble – this time with a University official, played by the usually serious actor Herbert Marshall. Naturally, Andy’s father has to somehow get him out of his predicament and actor Lewis Stone does his usually yeoman job. In the movie, one of the stars besides Rooney—who was a regular on stage in the Mapes Sky Room here—is the University of Nevada Campus. All of the outdoor sequences were shot on “The Hill” as were many subsequent films, such as “Mother Was a Freshman” (Loretta Young and Van Johnson), “Apartment for Peggy” (William Holden and Jeanne Crain) and “Belvedere Goes to College” (Shirley Temple and Clifton Webb).

Of the three above films, I was fortunate enough to have bit parts in “Apartment” and “Belvedere”. Also, I worked with Rooney on several other occasions, most notably when he appeared here during the Winter Olympics.

In “Belvedere”, I had the singular pleasure of being called upon by the director to serve as Shirley Temple’s escort during evening parties in the Sky Room. My most embarrassing moment came when Shirley, a well known dancer, asked me to escort her to the dance floor. Star of “Varrick” was Walter Matthau, whom I first met when he appeared here in a segment of the TV series “Route 66”. Since cast and crew were ensconced at the Mapes, one of the key scenes in the film was shot in the casino portion of the hotel. The “66” show was a weekly staple on TV and was about two young guys in a vintage Corvette who travelled the historic route and had exciting adventures along the way. Although the City of Reno was never on Route 66, the area was selected as a good one in order to film two segments of the series. One segment was on Reno/Virginia City and the other was filmed at Squaw Valley. Matthau served as a guest star, along with the two principals in the show who were played by George Maharis and Martin Milner. I had met Milner several years before when he was a cast member of “60 Saddles for Gobi” which starred Richard Widmark and was shot primarily at Pyramid Lake.

In “Charley Varrick”, Walter Matthau played against type when he was cast as a pilot/bank robber who unfortunately robbed a small bank that was hiding Mafia funds. Because of that, he was not only fleeing from the police but also from a Mob hit man, played by Joe Don Baker. In the “Varrick” flick, the City of Reno had extensive exposure with many scenes shot in the downtown area, mainly around the Arlington Towers. Since Matthau’s love interest in the film was Felicia Farr, the wife of Jack Lemmon, Jack himself was a frequent visitor to The Biggest Little City. I struck up the old acquaintance with Matthau and my friend, Jack Knorpp and I had several social drinking sessions with Matthau and Lemmon at the bar in The Towers. Although it was well prior to their “Grumpy Old Men” flicks, you could tell the two were fast friends and had a great rapport.

Getting back to “Route 66”, the name has a very special memory for me since I had the opportunity to travel the initial route from Chicago to LA. The occasion occurred when two of my classmates and I were returning to the University after a stint in the Service. Our cross-country adventure began in New York City around midnight when we left Mama Leone’s Restaurant in Greenwich Village.

One of my roommates had just purchased a new two-door Ford sedan and our plan was to travel nonstop across the nation. Our formula was that one of us would take a four-hour stint at the wheel while another sat next to him in the front seat and the third party slept in the back seat. The rotation would begin with the sleeper taking the wheel next, the driver moving to the passenger side and the former passenger going to the back seat for a snooze.

One of the highlights of the trip was the car radio, which almost continuously played Nat “King” Cole’s version of the hit song, “Route 66” that had been written for him the year before by Bobby Troup. Ofttimes, we would be travelling through the very town that Nat was singing about in the song. I still recall the burgs that made “Route 66” the “Mother Road” as novelist John Steinbeck dubbed it. We pounded the little Ford mercilessly as each of us tried to outdo the others in miles covered. We encountered numerous detours along the way, but were still making sensational time until we blew the water pump in Kingman, Arizona. The four-hour layover caused us to arrive in Pasadena, California some forty-eight hours after we left New York. Essentially, we covered the entire mileage in fort- four hours of driving.

I still look forward most evenings to catching some old memories on TCM.