Disappearing history

As the manner of recording news changes, film of major Nevada events is being destroyed

If not for a film preservation project by the Nevada Broadcasters Association, older footage, like from the 1994 Crystal Peak fire, could be lost. <p></p>

If not for a film preservation project by the Nevada Broadcasters Association, older footage, like from the 1994 Crystal Peak fire, could be lost.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Information on the project can be obtained at RDFNBA@aol.com.

In the mid-1980s, Bob Stoldal arrived at work one day at the Las Vegas television station KLAS. While passing the station’s trash Dumpster, he noticed a pile of cans of motion picture film.

“I looked in, and it was all of our news film,” he says. “The production department decided to clean out the prop room and just threw all the film away.” The station had discontinued shooting with film when videotape came along.

Stoldal arranged to retrieve the film. “I went diving and asked if I could donate to the museum. … The film covers the time period of 1968 to 1978 [and] some stuff before 1968 that I scraped together.”

It was donated to Las Vegas’ Nevada State Museum and Historical Society.

The unusual part of this tale is Stoldal’s saving the film. The normal part is the junking of news archives, which is routine in the broadcasting industry.

There are signs that Nevada broadcasting is ready to start taking its responsibility to history more seriously. The Nevada Broadcasters Association has established a program to save news materials and record the memories of Nevada journalists.

Historians, documentary makers and other scholars looking for footage of Nevada’s great historic events would face a difficult search. Miles of film and tape over the last half-century have been trashed. Even today, long-term planning by radio and television stations for their tape archives is nonexistent. Older tapes tend to get put in the back of the building and eventually thrown away.

Radio recordings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s February 1950 red-baiting appearances at the Mapes Hotel in Reno and Flamingo in Las Vegas (RN&R, Feb. 24, 2000) are long gone, as is any recording of Vice President Richard Nixon’s radio speech attacking 1954 Nevada Democratic Senate nominee Thomas Mechling.

News footage of the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics and its impact on Reno as host city, Frank Sinatra being stripped of his gambling license for entertaining a mob figure at his Lake Tahoe casino, Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s visit to Las Vegas (the town he targeted and wiretapped in his war against the mob) in 1962, the landing in Reno of D. B. Cooper’s hijacked plane, the burning down of Joe Conforte’s brothel by District Attorney William Raggio, Greg LeMond’s participation in local races and many others are all difficult, if not impossible, to locate.

Even footage of more recent events, such as the construction of the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Reno, the bombing of Harvey’s Casino at Lake Tahoe, the MGM hotel fire in Las Vegas, and the Galaxy Airlines crash in Reno are difficult to obtain—and usually available only in third- or fourth-generation copies. Only a few minutes of stock footage of the MGM fire, for instance, is normally made available to requests, though hours were shot.

In fact, it is sometimes easier to find footage of pre-television news events in Nevada. Footage of the 1910 “great white hope” championship fight in Reno is easily obtainable. So is footage of a prizefight in Carson City in 1897.

Sometimes the television networks have saved more footage of Nevada news than Nevada stations have. CBS, for instance, has several minutes of Harry Reid campaigning during his first U.S. Senate race in 1974, which is several minutes more than any Nevada television station has from that campaign.

Some of the loss of material resulted from the best of intentions. In November 1971, when D. B. Cooper’s plane landed in Reno (RN&R, Dec. 4, 1996), KTVN went live from the airport as the plane was landing, its first on-the-scene live broadcast. Afterward, the Salt Lake City CBS affiliate asked for the tape so it could use some of the footage. News Director Ed Pearce, who had anchored the live newscast, shipped the tape off to Salt Lake. No good deed ever goes unpunished: When the tape arrived back at KTVN, a concert had been recorded over the broadcast.

The broadcasters’ association has funded a staff of people to interview veteran and retired Nevada broadcasters on their careers, gather original equipment and memorabilia, and save film, tape and still photographs. The focus is not just on news but also on all locally produced programming. In northern Nevada, for instance, 1950s-'70s movie host Betty Stoddard has completed interviews with the project’s Adrienne Abbott. The broadcasting association is aiming at a permanent home for the association that would house a Nevada Museum of Broadcasting.

One problem involved in recording the memories of veteran broadcasters is that most of them have left the state. Reno and Las Vegas are job jumpers’ markets—reporters and photographers tend to come to Nevada and get a couple of years’ experience and then move on to larger markets. Allen Prell, a high-profile Reno radio host in the late 1960s—his outspokenness attracted a following and an opposition, he started a newspaper (the Reno Citizen) and ran for office, and his car was bombed—was last heard from as a radio host at WBAL in Baltimore.

And of those who did stay in Nevada, many are now aging. In both northern and southern Nevada, intended interviews with broadcasting pioneers failed to materialize. In one case, the subject’s "memory had failed her, to the point that it would be impossible to film an interview," according to the broadcasting association’s Bob Fisher. In another case, hopes of interviewing former Reno radio station owner Lorraine Arms were frustrated by her death.