It happened at Squaw Valley 62 years ago, or so the newspapers said:
“…A fanfare of trumpets, crisp against the mountain snow…2,000 doves of peace flutter skyward…and all eyes are on Little Papoose Peak as Andrea Mead Lawrence bears the Olympic torch down the hill on the final leg of its journey from Norway.
“She passes the torch to a speed skater who circles the speed skating oval once, then holds the flame aloft and lights the Olympic torch…the Olympic prayer is preceded by chimes high in the mountains… the 2,645 voices and a band of 1,285 pieces render an impressive ‘God of our Fathers.’”
A nice prediction, but the real drama preceded the event. What the writer of the preceding bullshit didn’t foresee was that there was no snow at all until a day before the Games’ opening on Feb. 18, 1960. Fallback plans were being made to use Slide Mountain for the downhill events. Then on the 17th it snowed – boy, did it ever.
It was cloudy and still snowing an hour before the Opening Ceremony. And windy and bitter cold – the musicians’ trumpet valves and trombone slides froze. The 2,000 doves, caged in two flatbed trucks brought by Walt Disney Productions (who staged the opening ceremony) chirped “no way” and stayed perched, waiting for the trucks to haul them back to balmy Anaheim.
Vice-President Richard Milhous Nixon declared the Games open, and Karl Malden recited the Olympic prayer. (Malden played a priest in 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” so he was spiritually qualified for the job.)
Then – and I kid you not: As the chorus started to sing through the gloom, the clouds parted and a brilliant sun – which we hadn’t seen for three days – glowed above Little Papoose then eventually lit up the valley as Mead Lawrence descended the slope with the torch. She did hand it off to the skater, who took it around the track. (One glitch: As he lit the flame, it flared as high as the nearby pine trees, scared the hell out of him and he fell off the tower.) That’s show biz…
The program writer mentioned chimes and the chorus, maybe not knowing of the yodelers and the Alpenhorns – a half-dozen of these ungodly loud instruments, surely the Swiss’ revenge to the Scots’ bagpipes, waited high above the valley and began at once to play (you don’t hear an Alpenhorn – you feel it under your boots!). The sky by then was fully bright and blue, the pine trees green, the new-fallen snow pure white. The five Olympic rings hung above Blyth Arena, framing the Tower of Nations and the burning cauldron (a replica of this peristyle had been built in Newt Crumley’s Holiday Hotel parking lot.)
Tahoe meets the planet
From a valley bereft of snow two days before, to a breath-taking winter scene, filled with that ethereal, incredible Alpine sound. “River and plain, and mighty peak – and who could stand unawed? As the summits blazed, I stood unfazed at the foot of the throne of God…”
Karl Malden? (Just kidding. It’s from “The Ballad Of Blasphemous Bill” by poet Robert W. Service.)
So the Winter Games were underway in Squaw Valley and the eyes of the world were upon us. There was a lot to see and do around the Big Water: Bill Harrah had opened up a brand new casino at Lake Tahoe’s south end, and Red Skelton inaugurated the South Shore Room just before midnight on New Years Eve of 1959 and continued into the new year. (Liberace and Marlene Dietrich would play the room during the Olympics.)
In Reno, Lee Frankovich had renamed the Riverside Hotel’s showroom the Olympic Room; the Will Mastin Trio with a new fellow named Sammy Davis Jr. would head up the Mapes Sky Room.
And the Olympics wasn’t just about athletes. A leggy local fashion model named Bobbie Bender wrote a segment in a ski magazine about appropriate dress for snow, and another fashion article told of the new ski-pant style called “Bogners,” described by someone (Herb Caen?) as an ankle-length bikini and eponymous with German Alpine ski racer Willi Bogner, Jr.’s father. A guy named Don Dondero, who was taking a lot of pictures for the world press, aimed his lens at racers Penny Pitou, Heidi Biebl, Betsy Snite and Joan Hannah.
(Before proceeding, I should thank my friend Don Stockwell of Sparks for loaning me a box of Olympic memorabilia, which enabled me to avoid a lot of honest research on this piece – ugh.)
Looking back six decades, it’s obvious that Olympic hype is not new. Be advised that Absorbine was the Official Liniment of the VIII Winter Olympics, while Listerine, the Official Mouthwash, kept Carol Heiss and Toni Sailer from buffalo breath on the high Sierra mornings. (An older person can tell you about those Olympic idols.) The Renault Dauphine, sold at Retzlaff Motors on South Wells Avenue, was the Official Car of the Olympic Games.
Gold medalist (1956 Cortina) skater/TV commentator Dick Button had hair. But he was already annoying. The Bavarian Inn was on Fulton Alley downtown and catered to the Nordic oom-pah crowd, but Eugene’s became the go-to place for the athletes’ after-hours gathering. Double rooms were 12 bucks at the Holiday Hotel; no vacancies though.
Long-forgotten facts: The cross-country and biathlon events were held at Lake Tahoe’s McKinney Creek. And, there was no bobsled nor luge in these VIII Olympics. Luce & Son of Reno, the liquor wholesaler to local watering holes for many decades, pushed the Tahoe Toddy, the official drink of the 1960 Games. (I still have the recipe and am willing to share it, but I owe it to y’all to test the concoction before endorsing it.)
And just who was Andrea Mead Lawrence, the skier who carried the torch down Little Papoose? Sorry, I should have fleshed that in for the younger readers: Lawrence won the Slalom and Giant Slalom at the Oslo games in 1952 and was the 27-year-old darling of the American skiing scene in 1960. One reader corrected me, rudely, and claimed it was Tenley Albright who hefted the torch down the hill. Not likely; Albright was the ladies figure skating Gold medalist in the 1956 Games at Cortina, Italy.
Karl Breckenridge, a journalist and author, came to Nevada 68 years ago. He began writing what was to be a business-related column in the Reno newspaper about 20 years ago but it rapidly deteriorated into anecdotes about Reno, its residents and heritage, usually with a bit of humor and horrible poetry. In 2005 he pulled 58 of his newspaper columns into a book, “You're doing WHAT to the Mapes?” He followed up with "You're doing WHAT to the Liberty Belle?” an anthology of another 57 columns. Breckenridge, who also is the author of business books, is happiest writing about local history. His recent columns can be found on his website, “Ol Reno Guy.”