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I never thought I’d be invited to Pat Nixon’s birthday party — I cheered when her husband resigned the presidency — but here we are, Robin and I in Ely, stepping on board the Pat Nixon Centennial Flyer to make the ceremonial journey to Ruth in her memory.
(Here’s Ed Vogel’s column on Pat Nixon in the Las Vegas R-J.)
Engine #40 shoved us eastward far enough that it could be switched onto the westbound rails leading up to Ruth, and then tugged us gently up the slope on Ely’s north side, so that we glided, rocked and clicked slowly along above the little city, gazing down on it as if from afar.
A bitterly cold wind was dragging a storm in behind it from the southwest, and for the passengers who braved the open flat car at the back of the train, what might otherwise have been a light drizzle was a sharp spray instead.
We chuffed easily up Robinson Canyon, through the tunnels and past the debris of old mines and the remnants of Riepetown and Lane City, and volunteers read information about the life of Pat Nixon. We learned, among other things, that she had worked as a sale clerk at Bullock’s Department Store (as my mother had at about the same time), and that she was a school teacher when she met the young lawyer Dick Nixon at a theater group in southern California. We already knew from looking at her photos that she was drop-dead gorgeous.
She was born Thelma Ryan on March 16, 1912, in the family’s
little house on Campton Street but no-one called her that; her father named her Pat because she arrived so close to St. Patrick’s Day. She was just a baby when Will Ryan quit his job as timekeeper at the Veteran Mine in Ruth and moved his family to a truck farm in southern California.
A few people in Ely still treasure wispy recollections of the Ryans that they’ve inherited — “My grandmother remembered walking with Mrs. Ryan on Pine Street, both of them with buggies,” Virginia Terry told me, “she with baby Aileen and Mrs. Ryan with little Thelma” — but they left no trace beyond Pat’s birth certificate and these few fleeting memories when they departed.
When you take this ride on the
Nevada Northern you have the opportunity to visit Renaissance Village on the way back. This is a curious cluster of small residences rescued from dilapidation by the same civic group that is responsible for most of the murals around town.
The murals have made Ely more visible in the big world, and Renaissance Village is adding a new attraction for visitors and an activity center for locals (the local Farmers’ Market is held here).
The group’s latest project, just underway, is to rehab a former bank building downtown as a visitor center, gallery and public space.
At the Pat Nixon Centennial banquet that evening, Democrats were scarcer than Zoroastrians, but the atmosphere was nonpartisan as Ed Spear read proclamations in her honor, and apologies from her daughters for not showing up. There weren’t any state dignitaries on hand either. Lt. Governor Brian Krolicki had wanted to take part, but our sudden snow squall had persuaded him to change his mind and turn back to Carson City.
However, local resident Pamela McClellan is a second cousin of Richard Nixon’s and she was there, so the family was represented after all, and there were enough dignitaries in the room that Mr. Krolicki’s absence was gracefully accommodated. Though there were folks from Las Vegas, Mesquite, Gold Hill and other faraway Nevada communites, a couple from Switzerland came the farthest distance to attend.
A magnificent supper was served, more words were uttered, more wine was poured, and perhaps for a few moments Pat Nixon was present, if only in our minds, to be well and truly honored for all that she was and for all that she did.
You might think “Love Ranch”, the Helen Mirren – Joe Pesci movie “inspired by a true story”, famously that of Joe Conforte and his wife Sally, would have been at least a local hit. But even in Reno it was a flop.
The inspiration appears to have been: man, wife, whorehouse, Argentine boxer.
But Joe’s life is the stuff of Grand Opera, and this is just a bed-time story. For all Joe Pesci’s raging around, there are only a few flashes of the smart, bold, scheming ruthless charmer who took on the world and won. Curiously enough, even though they paid him, no-one from the movie ever actually talked to Joe about any of this stuff, and maybe that’s why it never seems real.
It is like a pageant, marching briskly along from scene to scene without nuance, depth or surprise. And all those tears and tenderness! Whatever true story they were inspired by, it couldn’t be Joe and Sally’s.
The real Joe and Sally
Of course this is just a fanciful take on some things that happened to some people once upon a time. But because of all the weight of the local connection, I couldn’t help thinking of Joe Pesci’s character as Joe Conforte and Helen Mirren’s as Sally. So my suspended disbelief came crashing down onto the sound stage right at the beginning when the movie showed Joe, wearing a cowboy hat(!), playing the guitar(!!), in the parlor of the brothel(!!!) and singing a love song to Sally(!!!!) as adoring prostitutes and customers are pretending not to notice, but seem almost ready to join in. Oh, please.
Actually, even before that I was thrown off by the title. Of all the things that a whorehouse isn’t about, love is the biggest. “. . . selling what passes for love,” one character says about the place toward the end of the picture. But the entire point of a whorehouse is that it doesn’t pass for love.
The real Oscar and Sally
This cluelessness is enhanced by phony emotions. One especially cheesy line was delivered by Bruza as he and Sally overlook Donner Lake: “We still eat each other,” he says. And then, presumably because his unhappy wife has lept from a tall building with one of their children under each arm, he says, “I hurt the people who love me.”
This guy is a million miles from being Oscar Bonavena, and the big fight scene in the movie seems merely trite as Bruza bursts heroically back from a horrendous beating to win the fight with one huge haymaker. It’s also entirely unsuspenseful as by this time everyone in the audience has their bullshit meters pegged.
In this movie Joe shoots Bruza with a revolver in the parking lot out in front of the place. In the true story that inspired it, Ross Brymer (Joe’s cowboy hatted, guitar-playing, love song singing protogee) shot Oscar from outside the kitchen door with a deer rifle, and served a year and a half for manslaughter. Oscar had ducked back into his car and come up with a pistol, still demanding to be let inside.
The lineup, Mustang Ranch 1986
In this movie, Sally turns over evidence of financial chicanery to the feds by revealing a second set of books. She goes to prison and Joe runs to Brazil. In the true story that inspired it, Sally grieved for Oscar until his family sued over his death. Then she pulled herself together and told them to go fuck themselves. She reconciled with Joe, but there were no tears between them except tears of rage, and eventually no tears ar all. Also: there never was a second set of books. There wasn’t a first set either.
|Postcard from Shorty
Here I am in the Vicki Carr room (#407) at the Hotel Nevada, Ely. My article in the May/June Nevada Magazine is called “Travels With My Posse”, and among other adventures it tells about taking my first elevator ride right here in this hotel. Don’t ask me about “the big orange ape” (as it’s described in the Guestbook on the nightstand), it comes with the room. I am hard at work on my first book! I want my Guide to Dog-Friendly Nevada to include every lodging in the state that accepts pets, so if you operate such a place, or can recommend one, please let me know.
S H O R T Y
Sally died in 1992, by which time Joe had returned to the penthouse apartment in Rio where, after a life of almost non-stop adventure, he lives to this day in luxury.
The movie ends with a reverent voice-over: “Love and Truth forever . . . finally and forever. . . .” What dismal hogwash.
Quick notes from beyond the mountains: Here are some great railroad photos of the V&T and the Nevada Northern, along with a pleasantly readable blog about the journey that produced them. Photo links are right at the top . . . Another constantly-changing exhibit of Nevada photography is on Facebook. . . .
Alaska’s Fiddling Poet Ken Waldman makes his first Virginia City appearance on Wednesday April 25 at Piper’s Opera House. His 7 pm show is titled “From Virginia City to the Yukon River”, an evening of fiddle music that connects the grandeur of Nevada to that of Alaska. He’ll be joined by West Coast fiddlers Kevin Carr and Ray Bierl, Reno banjo player Mary Siders and Reno guitarist and bass player Tom Dose. Tickets will be pay-as-you-can (suggested donation $10; call 775-847-0433 or send an email for information . . . Actually, the first person to note the Alaska resemblance may have been Wayne Thomas of Silver City about 40 years ago when he paused while preparing for a siesta one afternoon, and gazed out over the sagebrush vistas to the snowcapped horizon beyond. “Nevada,” he said before drifting off to sleep, “is a combination of Alaska and Mexico!” And Alaska is a combination of Nevada and Siberia?
Here is a great source of info for those of us from out of town who must plumb the mysteries of Carson City in the course of our duties. Lots of great places you haven’t heard of yet! . . . The monthly Dinner Murder Mystery Theater is returning to Piper’s
Opera House in Virginia City. The next performance will be “A Death’s Awake” on Saturday, April 14. (A wake is a celebration of a friend’s or loved one’s life. You shouldn’t expect to see someone murdered right in front of your eyes — or should you??) Cocktails begin at 6 pm and dinner and theater start at 7; reservations are required. Call 1-866-415-1476 or email FunTimeTheater@charter.net . . . An ambitious new event, the Genoa Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival was introduced in Genoa in 2010, and this year’s production, April 26-29, is another great show. With the exception of the opening night concert (Dave Stamey at the Carson Valley Inn), all of the venues are located within just a few blocks in Genoa. Park once and you’ll be able to see and hear everything without getting back into a car or shuttle. In this case, “everything” includes three days of floor-to-ceiling entertainment by talented performers.
Overheard aboard the Pat Nixon Centennial Flyer, between Ruth and Ely: “What really flatters a man, Jennifer, is that you think he’s worth flattering.”