#ThursdayDoors: Marilyn Slept Here

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A warehouse door with obvious fire damage which a graffiti artist decided to cover up appropriately with a fire scene.  Downtown Reno Nevada

Paris has the Eiffel Tower and New York City, the Statue of Liberty. But poor old Reno Nevada’s iconic landmark is a sign spanning the main drag that reads “Biggest Little City in The World.”

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If you can’t figure out what the heck that means, don’t worry.  No one can. The slogan is the result of a contest won by “one G.A. Burns of Sacramento” who was awarded $100 for his brilliance by the “City Fathers.” That was back in 1927 when Reno was being run by railroad men, merchants and ranchers. They had officially approved gambling and the town needed some glitz. Thus, a sign was born.

As an aside, the town’s original name was “River Crossing” but it was changed to Reno in honor of a Civil War general who was killed by friendly fire and whose last words were “Sam, I’m dead.”

There is no downtown Reno any more. Not really. Unlike Vegas, the casinos and resorts are spread out all around town.

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Downtown Reno (seen from across the Truckee River) sometime in the 1960s

Once there was a downtown Reno, a stretch along the Truckee River where the casinos intermingled with banks, city offices and department stores.  Today some of the older casinos remain (Harrahs and the El Dorado), cramped in between pawn shops and check-cashing places. It’s four blocks square that hold all the joy of an abortion clinic unless the Hells Angels and their buddies are holding their yearly jamboree. Then it feels a bit like Armageddon.

The casinos try to woo potential gamblers by creating magical and surreal environments where no one could possibly lose all their money but to me they feel like neon-lit fish tanks where I am the fish.

But it wasn’t always that way.  Once upon time there was The Mapes.

The Maples Hotel had an old-fashioned coffee shop in its lobby. Red velvet booths and a counter where you could watch soda jerks create the greatest chocolate malts and floats.  And the french fries, oh my! Trust me, the chocolate malt you buy with hard-earned baby-sitting money at age thirteen will forever be the best one on earth.

But the hotel had another claim to fame.  For a stretch in the fifties and sixties it was a prime spot for catching a glimpse of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Cliff and the Rat Pack (Sinatra et al).  Monroe stayed there with her husband Arthur Miller during the months of filming “The Misfits” which meant the hotel was always surrounded by news crews.

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I always thought the Mapes’ marquee (above) represented the town far better that a sign no one understands. I can remember hitches outside the casinos for cowboys who would ride into town on the weekends from one of the many nearby ranches.  Of course I’m not quite old enough to remember actual horses being attached to them.  But I do remember stepping in cow dung on my way across the field between my house and the school.

Unfortunately, the so-called “city fathers” had no sacred memories of chocolate malts and no desire to preserve the room wherein Marilyn Monroe slept. Despite the all-out efforts of preservationists, this was the Mapes’ fate:th-1

So famous was this building that it’s destruction was broadcast on the evening news here in San Francisco. I felt like I was watching an execution.

I have veered (as usual) wildly off Norm Frampton’s prompt of ThursdayDoors.

35 thoughts on “#ThursdayDoors: Marilyn Slept Here

    • Thanks Jean. I have so few good memories of Reno that it was devastating to watch the Mapes demolished. But apparently the foundations were rotting and it couldn’t be saved.

  1. I really love this story, Jan. I went to Wikipedia to learn more, and what a hot spot it once was! Apparently it was poorly constructed and although there were big efforts to save it, it just wasn’t salvageable. Too bad, because it sounds so full of life. I love your story with the chocolate malt, and what a thrill that Marilyn Monroe (and many other stars and cowboys) stayed there. It’s great that you found these photos to add to the story, especially that very cool neon marquee. Great descriptions too.

    • Thank you Jet. The city fathers have unfortunately demolished many Reno landmarks over the years so I no longer buy their claims of “unsalvageable.” I went to school with many of them and they are from conservative republican families where being an artist is a family disgrace. I don’t go up there that often anymore.

  2. I remember being about 11 the first time we went to Reno. My parents gambled a bit and dropped me and my siblings at the theater to watch a double feature, but not before leaving me with enough pin money to buy treats for us to munch while watching the movies.

    I loved the lights, and the sounds of the bells, and coins dropping from the slot machines. We could stand outside and watch unless going to a restaurant inside. Then we quickly walked through.

    I remember how much fun it was watching my Dad drop in a nickle then pull the handle of a slot machine then he stood back and I stared with wide eyes as the center panel whirled around and around with pictures of cherries, oranges, and lemons spinning round and round. Where would it stop? I was hoping his nickle would be the one that would win and the bells would sound out the news, the lights would flash and a bazillion coins would pour forth! It didn’t happen but I’ll never forget that first trip when I was a girl.

    I haven’t been in Reno for decades and can only imagine how much it’s changed.

    Thanks for reminding me of my first visit there!

  3. Jan, this told a sentimental story in just the right way. I wanted everything to stay: the coffee shop, the homemade chocolate malts, the delicious fries and it being called, “the Mapes.”
    The big sign may have meant the town was small but the contents were “big” as in powerful or exciting. My “best guess” although it wasn’t like you asked! So, hope it was okay to guess! 🙂

  4. What a wonderful story about a city I knew nothing about. Your memories are rich 🙂
    I laughed at the part “It’s four blocks square that hold all the joy of an abortion clinic unless the Hells Angels and their buddies are holding their yearly jamboree. Then it feels a bit like Armageddon.”

    • Thank you Joanne! They’re trying to fix up the downtown but it’ll never be like it was back in the days of the Mapes. At least to me, that is.

  5. I know just what you mean about candy and other sugary treats tasting so much better when purchased as a young teen with your own money. There was this nice little mom and pop owned drug store I used to ride my bicycle to whenever I had a few quarters to spare. It was always worth the extra pedaling effort.

  6. They do say here in the UK that it takes 50 years for people to go from hating a building to seeing it as worthy of preservation. But even then some delights are destroyed for greed on spurious reasons. Hey ho. Nowhere is immune hey?

    • Casinos today are all about packing in as many people as possible thus rooms are cheap. They make their money off gambling. It was cheaper to tear down the Mapes than to bring it up to modern day (cooking cutter) standards. However their first idea (to make it into a parking garage) was so unpopular with locals that they put a ice skating rink where the hotel stood. If the building had to go, an ice skating rink is a slightly better option than a parking lot!

  7. I do love the creativity of the artist on that “fire door”.
    We spent an afternoon in Reno about a dozen years ago while on a road trip in the area. It was early September and the dashboard thermometer on our rental car said it was 107F when we stopped to stretch our legs in a casino parking lot. No shade anywhere, so we sought the indoors as quickly as possible.

  8. Pingback: The Beatles’ Slept Here (or not) | JT Twissel

  9. Jan, this post was so funny and yet altogether very sad, too. You and I have talked about the city of Reno before, and it’s stubborn resistance to change and modernize. But destroying an old hotel like the Mapes truly was a reckless destruction of a real piece of history that should have been preserved. So on April 7th when we’re over in Reno—ironically to see a show the Eldorado Casino—I’ve made up my mind not to visit the abortion clinic and check-cashing establishments between Harrahs and the El Dorado. After all, someone should have to pay for this civic mistake, and for some strange reason, it just might be me. But seriously, I feel Reno really messed up a chance to embrace a real golden part of their history.

    • For some reason I didn’t receive notification of your comment until today. It’s hard to explain Reno to people who’ve never been there, isn’t it? I think of it as a place without visionaries.

      • And I think that’s a shame too, because Reno has the potential to be a real resort city. After our talks, though, the city leaders appear to lack real imagination. As for WordPress and losing comments, I myself have been having some difficulties with that too. Yeah, I don’t know what to say, Jan, but I’m happy they finally got the comment to you. :O)

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