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September 29, 2005

Reno is Keno (Parrish the Thought)

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Nevada has always been off my personal beaten track.

Part of this is geographical: Living near Puget Sound, if I drive to the east coast (even to Denver or Salt Lake City) or down to California, Nevada gets avoided.

Moreover, I've often consciously avoided the state. This is because (judgmentalism alert!!) I find gambling a sick, tawdry, destructive business. Casinos themselves were pretty sleazy, even the shiny new ones circa 1990. And since I've never been much into performing arts, the shows offered no enticement either.

Things are changing. The Fiancée has a condo in Las Vegas and spends a week there every year. I've been for a couple visits now, and find that Vegas is okay nowadays even though I used to hate the place. Recently I saw a statistic that claimed more than half the visitors to Vegas don't gamble. I can't vouch for that, but it's plausible: after all, c'est moi.

Vegas has really good shopping if you're into luxury goods; I tend to leave town with at least one Italian sweater that costs a lot and that I seldom find an occasion to wear. I've even gotten to the point where I can cruise through Caesar's, the Bellagio and the Venetian en route to their shops without being particularly distracted or offended by the gambling floors.

One negative consideration for me, setting aside my tepid interest, is that the top shows tend to be overblown and over-priced ($150 seats, anyone?). My bêtes trop-noir are the Cirque du Soleil shows, but that can be the subject for another post 'cause I'm here to talk painting. And cars.

Some of the fancier casinos (the Bellagio and the Venetian come to mind) have mini-museums of art (complete with gift shops) with entry fees that strike me as being 30 percent too high for the amount of art available -- I'm talking fees that aren't much different from those that'll give you an entire day at the great big honkin' Met. Last November we took in a display at the Venetian dealing with entertainment as depicted in classical paintings, many from the Hermitage. Over at the Bellagio was a Monet show that included some works by Pissarro, Manet and others to set the scene.


Reno ain't quite Vegas: never was, might never be. Las Vegas has always struck me as being an artificial place whereas Reno seems more genuine -- a cowboy town that served as a transportation hub for mining operations on the eastern slopes of the Sierras. Even the gambling seems more genuine. When I was a kid, the now-defunct Harold's Club used to pepper western highways with signs proclaiming "Harold's Club or Bust!" along with the mileage to Reno.

Back in the early 70s, Harold's Club, at around eight stories, was one of the tallest buildings in town with a restaurant near the top where I dined once while on my way from San Francisco to Albany, N.Y. I recall overhearing some older couples at a nearly table talking about how they saved their money for an annual two-week gambling splurge in Reno. I recoiled in condescending horror from their foolish sense of priorities, but now I know enough to shrug it off: they weren't doing themselves much damage, after all.

I hadn't been to Reno since 1975, so last spring we used a Maxfield Parrish exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art as an excuse for a visit. A further enticement was the National Automobile Museum which houses the remains of the Harrah Collection that I saw back in '75.

My first impressions were: (1) Reno had certainly sprawled over the last 30 years and (2) it had grown a genuine skyline. Much of that skyline is in the form of large hotel-casinos. The tallest building, at 38 stories, is the Silver Legacy, where we stayed. Its gambling area is linked at the second-floor level by sky-bridges to the hotel itself and to the gambling areas of the Circus-Circus and El Dorado.

My billfold was pleased to learn that uber-pricey shopping centers have not attached themselves to casinos in Reno, unlike Las Vegas. But the restaurants offered good food and pleasant service along with the omnipresent Keno cards. (Well, one waiter was kinda annoying: every time he placed something on the table he said "Bon appetit!") We took in a breezy 75-minute show by Kenny Rogers (at $45 a seat); yes, he sang "The Gambler" to avoid being lynched by the assembled fans.

The Maxfield Parrish Exhibit

The Parrish exhibit was a pleasant surprise. Given my experience with eye-dropper doses of art in Vegas, I was afraid I'd see maybe a dozen or so works. Actually, this was an 80ish-piece touring exhibit assembled under the aegis of The Trust for Museum Exhibitions, a Washington, D.C. non-profit, with local co-sponsors. Check the TME web page for details, but Parrish will be traveling to Savannah, Huntsville and Memphis through May 2006. I leave it others to speculate why Parrish is not also going to New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.

Given that some of my previous Blowhards essays dealt with Parrish (for instance, see here), I’ll limit this discussion to items that I found notable or interesting. And I won’t launch a discussion of the merits or defects of Parrish’s art – did that before.

The exhibit was noteworthy because it presented several of his murals. East coast Parrish freaks can see his "Old King Cole" in New York’s St. Regis Hotel and west coasters sooner or later can probably make it to the Sheraton Palace Hotel on lower Market Street in San Francisco where "The Pied Piper" can be found.

"Old King Cole" was evident in Reno in the form of a study painted on burlap, of all things. The rough texture of the burlap pretty much dictated that the result would not be as detailed as the final version -– might this have been intentional? According to some sources including the exhibit catalogue, Parrish depicts the king (modeled after John Jacob Astor who commissioned the work) moments after passing a gigantic blast of "wind."

Parrish - Old King Cole.jpg Old King Cole

To me, the most stunning mural was the "North Wall" portion of the mural commissioned by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and mounted in 1918, the last of a set of murals for her Long Island studio. (Unfortunately, two murals were stolen from a West Hollywood gallery in July, 2002 and are still at large, the last I heard. Most or all of the remaining pieces were in the exhibit.)

Whitney North Wall

The North Wall mural is large – five feet six inches high and eighteen feet six inches wide. The brilliant colors and the overall effect are breathtaking. If you stand about 30 or 40 feet away, the mural gives off a nearly 3-D appearance. More accurately, the objects (people, architecture, sky) seem to exist as 2-D images on different planes such as with the "multiplane" animation camera developed by Disney in time for making Snow White.

Another mural of interest is the original Irenée Du Pont mural completed in 1933. Perhaps due to being stored in a poorly-heated studio during a cold New Hampshire winter or maybe because Parrish used an unsuitable sizing to coat the canvas, the mural’s surface soon began breaking into small (about quarter-inch) pieces that then curled away from the canvas. Eventually, large areas flaked away and Parrish attempted to patch things up. But nothing worked, so in 1953 he finally painted an entirely new mural and presented it to Du Pont free of change, feeling that the original was still "on warrantee."

The exhibited mural is partly original paint, partly flakes of paint that were reattached solidly and partly "in-painting", new but removable paint covering areas that had been utterly destroyed. The restored mural looks pretty ratty in places, but it was still nice to be able to view it. (The picture of the mural shows its three panels, the center one restored. Image copyright Alma Gilbert, Inc.)

Parrish - damaged Du Pont mural.jpg Du Pont Mural

(Many Parrish paintings are badly yellowed thanks to the way certain varnishes and perhaps other ingredients aged. Worse, not all can be restored because Parrish sometimes painted a coat of varnish on top of each layer of glazing (oil paint plus thinning medium) he applied atop the base monochrome grisaille layer. Normally, varnish is the top layer of an oil painting and can be removed and replaced with a non-yellowing modern substitute. But interleaved layers of varnishing make this task virtually impossible.)

My Blowhards essay on flair in painting mentions and shows Parrish’s unfinished "Dreaming / October". It gives us an understanding of how his glazing was set up. This painting was displayed in Reno.

The remaining mural, is "Interlude" (1922), commissioned for the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. The lower part was reproduced as a lithographic print titled "Lute Players". One of the models was Kitty Owen, grand-daughter of three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

Parrish - Interlude.jpg Interlude

The exhibit has a lot more than murals. There are many paintings, lithographs (including a number of his G.E. Mazda light bulb calendar series), illustrations and photos of poses by Parrish, his daughter Jean and the ever-present (in the paintings) Sue Lewin.

All-in-all, it was well worth the five hour drive from The Fiancée’s house.

The Automobile Museum

A few blocks east of the art museum is the National Automobile Museum which houses the remnants of the huge Harrah Collection that used to be located in the city of Sparks, just east of Reno. If I remember correctly, the Harrah collection was housed in three or so warehouse-like structures plus a fancier main building that also contained the restoration shop where on weekdays you could watch craftsmen working their magic on Bill Harrah's latest purchases.

(Harrah, by the way, owned a casino that was the source of his fortune. Two years after his 1978 death, the car collection and his casino properties were sold to a corporation that -- bowing to public pressure -- donated 175 cars to the newly-organized museum. The remaining 200-plus cars were sold, and the museum has added about 50 cars since its founding.)

The word "collection" in Harrah Collection is apt, because some of the car-purchasing was done systematically. To my mind, a "collector" is ideally someone who gathers things according to a plan or system -- otherwise, one is a mere gatherer (yes, I know this doesn't conform to dictionary definitions).

For example, I have a gathering of old road maps issued by gasoline companies, some dating to the early 1930s. All of these were (1) handed down from my family, (2) personally grabbed by me at filling stations over the years, or (3) gifts from friends. But there was no system to it unlike stamp collectors who collect, say, all three-cent U.S. postage stamps issued in the Twentieth Century. In Harrah's case, he had an example of a Packard from (nearly?) every model-year from the early 1900s to the demise of the marque in the 1950s as well as Fords for roughly the same period. Well, that's the impression I got when touring those warehouses.

The present museum is housed in a modern-style building intended to evoke sleek automobile styling, or so claims their Web page. The internal layout has "streets" (hallways) with "period" storefronts and populated by cars from three eras. Nearby are display halls for each era plus one hall for special exhibits.

On the way from the ticket counter to the main exhibits was a small display dealing with Reno's history as a divorce mill. The car connection was in the form of two DeSotos, one a 1936 Airstream taxi and the other a 1947 Suburban (a limousine-bodied car with roof-rack and folding rear seatback to allow for transporting large objects; a boyhood chum's dad sold TV sets and owned the 1948 Chrysler variant) -- the concept being that folks arriving in Nevada for their residency-waiting period used vehicles such as these to get from the airport or train station to their hotel or dude ranch.

Part of the display included 1947-vintage photos of women passing the time at dude ranches. Those gals were real babes, and I found myself wondering if they had married in haste during World War 2 and, post-war, discovered that their husbands either weren't the men they thought they had married or that the husbands had been changed by their war experiences.

Missing from the original collection were several Duesenbergs and Bugattis, not to mention a lot of the aforementioned Fords and Packards. To keep this posting's length halfway reasonable, I'll simply note some cars that struck me as being rare enough to justify a visit. Let me add that I'm not much interested in cars built before 1930, so any gems from that era are ignored in what follows.

One extremely rare car is the 1934 Dymaxion designed by famed visionary R. Buckminster Fuller and constructed by noted yacht-builder Starling Burgess. The Dymaxion is teardrop-shaped and rides on only three wheels. The layout is similar to that of a Volkswagen Microbus, with the driver at the front, a general-purpose area in the middle and the motor (and the third wheel) to the rear. Three Dymaxions were built and were ultra-futuristic in their day. The Dymaxion in Reno, the second one built, is the only survivor. It is displayed with its windows covered because it lacks interior furnishings.

Dymaxion No 2.jpg Dymaxion No. 2

A car not often found in your local Wal-Mart parking lot is the 1948 Tucker, a controversial rear-engine sedan with flashy styling. Well, most of the controversy had to do with Preston Tucker and whether he genuinely attempted to produce a radical post-war car or was simply a swindler, scooping money from prospective dealers. He was the subject of the 1988 Francis Ford Coppola movie "Tucker: The Man and His Dream". I remember the Tucker car from childhood, thinking that it looked really "hot" and being disappointed when it failed to materialize. Only about 50 were assembled, and the museum has an example.

Tuckers.jpg Tuckers

Then there was the 1952 Allstate, a car you could order at your local Sears, Roebuck store. It actually was a Henry J, a compact car built by Kaiser-Frazer in the early 50s, but with a different badge and trim details. The example in the museum even lacks a trunk lid: you had to toss stuff in after folding down the rear seat-back. Only a couple thousand were sold.

52 Allstate.jpg 1952 Allstate

Another Kaiser-Frazer rarity is the 1951 Frazer four-door convertible. The 1951 Kaiser got a slinky new body, but the Frazer only had a major face-lift; the two makes shared the same body during their first years of production. What was odd was the fact that K-F even bothered with the Frazer face-lift because it was the last year the make was built. Even more interesting is the fact that the face-lift was extensive and clever enough that it looked like a new design and not a rehab. As an 11-year-old kid, I got suckered in to the idea that the car was all-new. At any rate, post-war four-door convertibles are a rare body type; the only other American example I can think of offhand is the Lincoln of the early 60s (John Kennedy was assassinated in one).

51 Frazer convertible.jpg 1951 Frazer 4-door convertible

The museum also has one of the six 1941 Chrysler Newports. The Newport, designed by Ralph Roberts, is a semi-dream car / experimental car; I say "semi" because more than one example was made. It is an odd combination of advanced (for 1941) features such as the rounded body and sweeping, blended fenders and a traditional (by ’41, old-fashioned) body style, the dual-cowl phaeton.

41 Chrysler Newport.jpg 1941 Chrysler Newport

Perhaps the car that will seal your Reno trip deal if you're an automobile freak is the 1938 Phantom Corsair. This was a one-off designed and financed by Rust Heinz of the 57-varieties clan. Basically it is a Cord with a custom body -- but what a body! Very advanced for its time, it featured a "teardrop" streamlined "envelope" (no separate fenders) shape.

Phantom Corsair - rear.jpg Phantom Corsair -- rear view

But it didn't fall into the 30s blob-streamliner cliché category. Instead, it has really nice surface detailing over its rear 2/3rds; note especially the three-pronged effect of the main body and vestigial rear fenders at the very rear -- these particular shapes are first-rate. On the other hand, the front of the car is rather ugly, featuring odd, vertical headlights of late 20s vintage and a curious, slotted grille that admits almost no air to the radiator. The windows are little more than slits and vision to the rear is almost non-existent. All-in-all, an impractical, yet stunning car.

Phantom Corsair - front.jpg Phantom Corsair -- front view

Since every car-fan has his own priorities, go to the museum's Web site and click on the "Collection" link at the bottom of the page for a list of their cars.

To summarize...

The Fiancée gets annoyed with my tendency to categorize places to visit as "a one-day town", "a four-day town", and so forth. Ignoring nearby Virginia City, Truckee, Lake Tahoe and other potential attractions, we spent one day in Reno. And that was just right.



posted by Donald at September 29, 2005


Nice bit of travelog.

I live about two hours from Reno, about the same distance as to San Francisco, but with a vastly superior drive. (Except during those months when Donner Pass is busy being, well, what it's named for.) So Reno/Tahoe is about as common a place as the Bay Area for me to catch concerts, or just to "get away" during the day. I'm not one at all for the kinds of floor show or singing act that Vegas is famous for, but Reno has also gotten very good at providing for the small-venue singer-songwritery types. At such events, Northern Californians and locals predominate.

Your stay wasn't long enough to survey the restaurants, but Reno will keep a gourmet busy for a long time, once you get to the areas where locals conduct their lives. Without unneccessary pretense or expense, La Vecchia (near the Atlantis) is one of my two favorite Italian restaurants. There are at least three truly excellent Indian places. And, if you're at all like me, the breweries in the area are worth a tour.

Posted by: J. Goard on September 30, 2005 1:30 AM

You, sir, need to return to Las Vegas to check out the Auto Collection at the Imperial Palace. Last time I was there they had an entire ROOM of Duesenbergs.

Here's an article about it. Here's a recent partial inventory.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on September 30, 2005 4:58 AM

To tie together two of your postings, if I were to go to the auto museum there'd be no doubt regarding my viewing style - I'd look at everything!

Posted by: Peter on September 30, 2005 10:01 PM

That was one damn long post. Not that that's a bad thing, just darned long.

I confess, I don't drive so you kinda lost me on the Automobile Museum stuff, but I am very interested in Vegas, and Nevada generally and how they've evolved over the years. And the post was very engaging for that.

I keep saying I'm going to hit Vegas. I've a friend who goes several times a year and I vaguely know someone who works there. More to the point, my parents drilled me with their personal recollections of the older Las Vegas and, while I know it's nothing like that now, I still feel an obligation to pay it a visit. (For that matter, my brother use to work there.)

I think I may keep putting it off because I'm lost in the gulf between what it's imagined to be and what it is. And those prices give me the willies.

Posted by: Bill on October 1, 2005 12:53 AM

Maxfield Parrish had a big show in New York at the Brooklyn Museum 5 years ago. That show originated at the PA Academy of Fine Arts. B'lyn Museum should still have copies of the catalogue.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 1, 2005 8:24 PM

It is a rare artist who defines a literary genre. Parrish was one such artist. Even today the memes and tropes of fantasy are shaped by the images he put down on paper. We think of fantasy as ethereal and high falutin thanks to him, and it's only been a short time since people started presenting different views.

Then there's that color he created. :)

Of course, the fact it took a one time insurance adjuster to change our ideas about fantasy is interesting too. :)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on October 2, 2005 5:50 AM

One reason for the four-door Frazer convertible was financial: Kaiser-Frazer had basically only one full-sized body shell (and one compact, used for the Henry J/Allstate), and there was never enough money in the bank to develop another one. So K-F resorted to some clever/desperate (choose one) trickery to expand their product lines; one of my favorites was the Vagabond sort-of-wagon, which was actually the regular four-door sedan with the back end converted to a full hatch, usually fitted with a "Continental" outside-mounted spare tire. These proved popular enough to work into both the senior K-F cars and the Henry J.

Posted by: CGHill on October 2, 2005 1:20 PM

Reno is Keno (Parrish the Thought)?!

I'm not sure whether to pinch your little cheek for that headline or salute.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 2, 2005 5:25 PM

J. Goard -- Thanks for the dining tips!

Glen -- I'll be in Vegas Thanksgiving week and will try to remember to check out the Imperial Palace collection. For one reason or another (shopping for those expensive Italian sweaters in Caeser's Forum?) the Imperial Palace was never on my radar -- I had no idea they even had such a collection. Thanks.

Winnifer -- True. And for all I know, the current Parrish road show was intended for smaller places and folks who can't/don't parachute into NYC regularly.

Alan -- I haven't paid a lot of attention to fantasy art as a genre, so I've always assumed that the more fanciful Parrish stuff was simply "in the air" back around 1900. Having read you comment, I see that I need to study this more closely.

C.G. -- ...And Kaiser had its version, the Traveler. As a pre-teen kid, I didn't think in terms of practicality, so I dismissed the Vagabond and Traveler as oddball cars. For what it's worth, I remember the spare being inside the car, mounted vertically on the left-hand inside of the body, probably to the rear of the wheel-well.

Friedrich -- Like a lemming leaping over a cliff, sometimes I just can't restrain myself.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 2, 2005 8:00 PM

The Present, The Moody Blues.

The cover artists are simply listed as The Studio. They do tender all apologies to Maxfield Parrish. :)

Where fantasy art as a genre is concerned, Maxfield Parrish and his inspiration, Hannes Bok did pretty much set the tone. It was a time when fantasy was not taken seriously. At least not by the literati. Fairy tales and dreams and not to be taken seriously by mature adults. At one time there was an attempt by academics to remove the fantastic from fantasy, and so make it a respectable field of study.

Professor Tolkien's work in the field was pretty much in reaction to this. Not just The Lord of the Rings, but in his defense of the necessity of Grendal in Beowulf as well. Can't recall the essay's title off-hand, but you should be able to find it mentioned in most any website dealing with Tolkien seriously.

The Lord of the Rings changed everything where fantasy was concerned. People such as Parrish, Bok, Dunsany, Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and James Branch Cabell were rediscovered. New artists and authors came on the scene when the demand made new fantasies necessary. And while the craze lasted a new thing came on the scene, the roleplaying game.

Dungeons & Dragons was the first of a great many. And all needed art. All inspired art, as much as LotR did. Most of it crap at first. But the art got better. Visit Paizo Publishing and take a look at the covers for back issues of Dragon. The art ranges in quality, but for the most part exhibits a certain flair if you would. Should you ever find yourself in a game store that sells Dragon take a look inside. And keep in mind that this is a monthly publication.

Then you have artists such as Larry Elmore and Todd Lockwood. Todd's illustration of a dragon taking flight can be seen here.

To tell you the truth, most of the fantasy art being done today, and by far the great majority of the best fantasy art, is being done for D&D from Wizards of the Coast. You get right down to it, Wizards uses more fantasy art in a single book than most publishers use in the course of a year.

Then you add in publishers such a Green Ronin, Atlas Games, Eden Studios and White Wolf Publishing among numerous others, and it soon becomes apparent that fantasy art is, in one way or another, going through something of a golden age right now. Possibly the largest overlooked art movement in history.

You get right down to it, each and every hardback from Wizards of the Coast is first and foremost an art book, and the art establishment knows nothing about it.

Last, but certainly not least, you have the preview website for Ptolus (pronounced tah-lus or toh-lus). A book the author, Monte Cook, is pulling out all the stops for.

To paraphrase an English chap, there is more to the field of art than is exhibited on museum walls.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on October 6, 2005 3:04 AM

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