When people talk about old Reno, they often are discussing something they didn’t actually experience. That’s not the case with Neal Cobb, who grew up in the city at the tail end of the Reno that mostly disappeared after World War II and now exists mainly in old photos, fading memories and the novel The City of Trembling Leaves. His parents operated a pioneering radio station and a photography business that produced a lasting legacy of historical photos. He has been one of the most active supporters of Reno’s Good Old Days Club.
You grew up here, but a lot of people did and take no interest in local history. Why do you?
Well, I was born here, in Washoe Medical Center, May of 1939. I’ve watched the changes, and I reflect back, and I copped an attitude for a while—because there was such an extensive amount of change that I didn’t like. Then I thought about it a little more seriously, especially when I fell heir to all the photos from my mom and my dad. I reflect back, and I say, “Wait a minute. We grew up in a little utopia. We just didn’t even know it. We thought every place was like this.” And so instead of feeling sorry for ourselves that there’s all of this change that’s going to happen everywhere, you have to consider yourself one of the very fortunate ones to have ever had the chance to experience firsthand what Reno was. The people coming in now, they’ll never see or experience what I have. So you reminisce. Everybody looks back with rose-colored glasses. I’m no exception.
Tell me about the GOD Club.
The founders of the GOD Club were Harry Spencer, Bob Carroll and Don Dondero. I’ve been a member right from the very beginning. That was the invite: Hey, we want to have a little bit of fun here and reminisce. And there’s no rules, no dues, there’s nothing. We ended up having to have the equivalent of dues to cover the cost of the post cards [for meeting notices]. There’s only one designated officer, and that’s Bill Berrum, the treasurer. Somebody has to keep track of the money. GOD Club is local history—appreciation and preservation. We’ve been able to have just every kind of a speaker—all different types, different walks of life, different backgrounds. Many in the media, but then people like Lou Spitz [Reno Police Department officer] who came up with the crossing guard program in Reno, or Jud Allen of the chamber of commerce, who was in the middle of things, and then we had these directors of live shows in the casinos. Then you had individuals like Dondero and [photographer George] Kerr and even myself. And we’ve a huge amount of fun with people like [cabaret entertainers] Bob Braman and Jan Savage, Frank Bender of Bender Moving and Storage, Ben Scott from the Cadillac agency, [furrier] Lester Conklin. Different casino owners—Warren Nelson, Charlie Mapes. … Everybody has got a great story to tell.
How do you get newcomers interested in local history? Why should someone from Wisconsin or Tennessee care?
I have been invited to do old Reno presentations [to community groups]. Individuals are curious about what was here before. … I saw this guy at Sundance Books buying one of the tapes [on the Cobb historical photo collection]. I introduced myself and asked him why he was making the purchase. He said, “Look, young fellow, we raised our kids and got them all through college. We’re from Tallahassee, Fla. We’ve always wanted to get out of the community and find a better place to live … and we decided on Reno. The heartbreak of pulling up roots, the mental anguish, the dollars, the backbreaking work it takes to make a move—I didn’t go through that much trouble to not know more about the place I want to call home.”
When you walk around downtown, and the Arch Drug is not there, and Armanko’s is not there and the big pedestal clock has been removed, and the Harold’s movie theater is not there, do you get a pang?
Yes, plain and simple. But it’s the idea that I can reflect back and know I was part of it when it was the Reno that was famous worldwide.