Travel back in time to Reno, December 17, 1947, opening night of the Hotel Mapes…
The following is a sneak preview from the second edition of The Divorce Seekers: True Stories from the Nevada Divorce Ranch Era by William L. McGee and Sandra V. McGee. Coming in 2022.
The big news in Reno was opening night of the Hotel Mapes on December 17. The 300-room hotel had a prime downtown location across the street from the Hotel Riverside and Truckee River. The hotel was twelve stories high, making it the tallest building in Nevada and the first skyscraper built in the Western United States after World War II. Before the Mapes, the Hotel El Cortez, 239 W. 2nd Street, and the Hotel Riverside were the tallest buildings in Reno at six stories each. The Mapes changed the Reno skyline.
It was snowing on opening night and Allie and I took our time driving Emmy and the guests to Reno. When we arrived, Emmy took the guests who preferred to dine formally up to the Sky Room on the top floor. Emmy was a V.I.P in Reno and she and her party were seated immediately at a prime window table. Joe Reichman, billed as “The Pagliacci of the Piano,” and his orchestra were playing.
The sole male in Emmy’s party was Victor Orsatti, a talent agent and film producer from Hollywood. He represented some of the biggest stars like Judy Garland and Betty Grable. He was divorcing his second wife (he would have four) the singer/actress Marie McDonald, known as “The Body Beautiful.” Orsatti danced with all the Flying M.E. ladies, who also had invitations from other men in the room. Emmy said the views through the full-length picture windows overlooking the lights of Reno were “magnificent.”
Allie and I stayed in the Casino-Cocktail Lounge on the ground floor with the guests who wanted to drink and gamble. We had the informal dinner on the mezzanine for $3 a plate.
The turnout for opening night was big. Members of the press from other cities covered the event, including Herb Caen from the San Francisco Chronicle and Jimmy Starr of the Los Angeles Herald-Express. Wilbur Clark, owner of El Rancho Vegas, drove up to look over the new hotel and casino.
Allie spotted movie stars Bruce Cabot, Cleatus Caldwell, boxer-turned-movie-star Maxie Rosenbloom, and Johnny Weismuller of Tarzan movie fame. I spotted. Jack Fugitt of the Donner Trail Ranch in Verdi and we acknowledged each other with a polite nod. I was still miffed at him for hiring me as a dude wrangler, but not telling me I had to milk cows, something no self-respecting cowboy wanted to do.
Johnny Weismuller had just started his six weeks on the Donner Trail. He was easy to spot with his unmistakable physique and longish hair. He was divorcing his third wife, San Francisco socialite Beryl Scott. During Weismuller’s six weeks, he spent so much time at the Mapes gambling and drinking, the social columnist in the Reno Reporter dubbed him “Tarzan of the Mapes.” Five hours after getting his divorce on January 29, 1948, Weismuller would marry Allene Gates, a twenty-two year-old blonde golf star from Venice, California. The best man was Jack Fugitt. “This is a take this time,” said Weismuller in Hollywood film parlance.
Sky Room became the showplace of Reno and a venue for the most famous entertainers in show business. When the Flying M.E. guests wanted a fancy night out on the town, they chose the Mapes.
—From the second edition of The Divorce Seekers: True Stories from the Nevada Divorce Ranch Era by William L. McGee and Sandra V. McGee. Coming in 2022. A limited quantity of the 2004 first edition, a hardcover coffee table book, is available on Amazon for $35. The book is currently being developed as a series for cable or streaming.