The Squaw Valley Olympics happened in excitement and are remembered in myth
What I remember best about the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960 is the statues. All over the valley there were huge marble-like white statues of figures in various events—skaters, skiers, hockey players. One of them was placed next to the Olympic hospitality center on Virginia Street in Reno, which was the official host city. The statues were very imposing and impressive, and when I got up close at Squaw Valley, it was somewhat disillusioning to find that they were made of plywood.
Our family was at the Olympics more than once during those two weeks, and my brother and I sold program books at the ice hockey games. This meant I didn’t see the hockey games, including the storied game between the United States and Russia. That’s just as well, because in spite of the talk about the Olympics being non-political, the news coverage of the games was plywood, too—jingoist, all us-against-them, which was unpleasant. (Russia won the Winter Olympics with more than twice the points of runner-up Sweden, a fact that U.S. press reports went to great lengths to obscure.)
There was a lot I missed, of course—I was only 11 then. In later years, it was interesting to hear from others some of the things I could not have known at the time. Columnist Guy Shipler told me that CBS mounted their cameras, which in those days were too heavy and bulky to move around, on the slopes before the games began and left them there for the two weeks. This meant the cameras could freeze at night, so bonfires were built around them each night.
Don Dondero, hired by the Olympic Committee to be official photographer and who was later a photographer here at the News & Review, was for years a source of historic photos of innumerable local events from his personal archive, but not many were of the Olympics. He had apparently been pretty scrupulous about turning over his photos to the Committee and did not shoot many for his own collection. Pumping Shipler, Dondero and others about their memories has been a popular activity here for 50 years. Here are some recollections.The promoter
Harry Spencer was a publicist at the Mapes Hotel and Casino in Reno. He recalls that after the Squaw Valley site was chosen, Mapes manager Walter Ramage, who had a lot of contacts—he had previously been San Francisco Press Club manager—soon made contact with Olympics publicist Pete Rozelle and arranged for the Mapes to be the headquarters in Reno for the Olympic press corps. It was dubbed the International Olympic Press Club, complete with a board of directors that included casino owner Charles Mapes as chairman and a world class list of writers—Red Smith, Jim Murray, Stan Delaplane, possibly Herb Caen—as board members.
A room just off the Sky Room showroom on the southeast corner of the top floor of the Mapes, previously called the Prospectors Club and the Indian Room, became the press club. It was outfitted with a bank of typewriters, United Press International and Associated Press tickers, closed circuit monitors of the Squaw Valley events and a bar. Debbie Reynolds, appearing with Mickey Rooney at the hotel during the two weeks, cut a teletype tape to officially open the room. Runners were provided to take grabs of copy to the Western Union telegraph office half a block away.
A reporter could cover the games without ever setting foot in Squaw Valley, though their housing was there, which guaranteed they would actually be there at times. “Most of them wanted to be there during the day to get the flavor,” Spencer said, “but I think a lot of them goofed off and covered it from the Sky Room, particularly when they were hungover. … The press club was never empty.”
Someone installed a huge old traffic light. “When the red light was on you had to pay for your drinks, and when the green light was on the bar was free.” Spencer removed the bulb from the red socket. “We had a little trouble convincing Mapes, but we said, ‘Look, the more free drinks, the more press the Mapes is going to get,’ so he went for it, you know,” he said.
Spencer said the appeal of the Mapes for the reporters, whose credentials did not admit them to “the high-end social stuff” at the Olympics, was enhanced by the limited places in Squaw Valley, mainly a bar called the Bear Pen.
Did all this effort get publicity for the Mapes?
“Oh, all over the world,” said Spencer. “Every night for the full 10 nights, [Walter] Cronkite was in the Sky Room watching the floor show and having a steak. … So we got a ton of publicity.” It was a big year for the Mapes, which later in 1960 would also host the crew and cast of The Misfits.
Spencer said that on one occasion during the Olympics, the Mapes hijacked the arriving Prince of Sweden at the airport and diverted him from the route to Squaw Valley to the Mapes long enough for publicity photos for UPI. It resulted in frantic calls from Reno’s sole FBI agent.
Nor did it stop with cultivating the press. The Mapes convinced Ford to provide six Lincoln sedans with which the casino ferried VIPs—Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Sammy Davis—and high rollers to Squaw Valley and back.
For the Mapes, it was the press. Other casinos were following other strategies to get their share of the business generated by the Olympics.The kid
A lot of school-age Renoites made it to the games. Lynnae Carpenter (now Hornbarger) of Verdi cut school at Central Junior High in Reno to go to the Olympics. It’s not as bad as it sounds. She had her parents’ permission, and things were more casual in those days. Parents could write a note to the school without giving a reason—“Lynnae was with me yesterday” would suffice—and schools did not dare try to police parents’ reasons.
“My father thought it was important enough to go twice,” she said. “And that was quite a commitment.” Though most of the individual events were free, there was a $25 admission charge to the Olympics. It cost $75 for the three Carpenters to enter the grounds. That’s $543.59 in 2009 dollars.
Carpenter, like many young girls, was bewitched by figure skating and really wanted to see Carol Heiss perform. It was a wish that went unfulfilled.
“I, of course, wanted to go to figure skating, and my father … He was like, “Oh, sissies. I want to see hockey!’ So we saw hockey.”
While this was the first winter Olympics televised live, Hornbarger says seeing it on television is not the best way to see the events.
“We watched so many ski jumpers, and in person, there is nothing like it. It’s not like what you see on TV because you just cannot believe how they fly and how they land, and they’re not killed when they land. And speed skating, standing at the edge of the rink, is like the fastest thing you’ve ever seen in your life.”
Hornbarger says one enduring benefit of the Squaw Valley games was that her home town of Verdi got television.
“But those were the first televised Olympics, and that’s why we have television in Verdi. There was no television in Verdi prior to that. That’s why I grew up with no television until I was 14.”
A prominent resident of Verdi arranged for a translator to bring the Reno TV signals into town. “And everybody in Verdi got a television set. Now, of course, we have cable, but for years I think we paid for our translator through our property tax.”The athlete
Lynnae Hornbarger’s father wasn’t the only one who looked at some of the winter events skeptically. The winter Olympics, then and later, suffered from a notion that they weren’t the “real” Olympics. When Ballantine Books published John Gromach’s book The Olympics 1960, it dealt solely with the summer games in Rome. One writer said the winter games were “in a brash young Western valley upholstered for the occasion, but the summer session will unfold against a backdrop that is redolent of ancient civilization and Roman days of derring-do.”
Dan Orlich had played a pretty tough game—football. He was a defensive end at the University of Nevada (it was not yet called UNR) and played three years with Green Bay. Then he returned to Reno and worked security for Harolds Club. When the Olympics came to Squaw Valley, he went up with a friend, another former pro-football player. They saw nothing to suggest the games were anything less than rough and challenging. Of the French figure skaters, Orlich said, “It took as much athletic ability as any sport there is,” though he excepted possibly one sport—water polo, with its strenuous effort to play while still staying afloat, which he considers the most difficult sport.
“I was born and raised in northern Minnesota,” Orlich said, his point being that he was never fooled—as some were—that winter sports do not require the toughness of other sports.
“Living up in northern Minnesota, I played a little hockey, and I did some skating and some skiing.” He and his friends skied on mine ore dumps because Minnesota didn’t have the kind of mountains needed.
“I thought the athletic events were superb. I mean, what could be rougher than hockey? … You watch these skiers come downhill and—if you think it’s a sissy sport, watch when they fall what happens. You know, they tumble for a hundred yards and break bones and everything. No, no, no, no—those winter sports, you have to know what you’re doing.”
Back at his Harolds Club job, Orlich learned that his casino felt it “was a big mistake” trying to ride the Olympic fever. Tourists preferred casinos at Lake Tahoe, they found.The star
Carol Heiss left the Squaw Valley Olympics hardly aware of the television coverage or Reno. Young and pretty, she had arrived for the games carrying a heavy burden of expectations. When asked about Reno, she said she had no impression of it: “I went straight to Squaw Valley and then trained for the Olympics because, actually, I was more nervous or intense about the Olympics because I had won the silver medal four years before and had been four-time world champion going into this … and everybody expected me to win the gold, and so I just felt there was a lot more pressure on me.”
That pressure and her focus on skating kept her from enjoying the setting. “No, I stayed in the village and I shared it with two other girls, the American figure skaters Barbara Roles—who did get the bronze medal that year—and Laurence Owen.” In 1961, Owen, described on the cover of Sports Illustrated as “America’s most exciting girl skater,” was killed in a Sabena Airlines crash in Brussels.
Not surprisingly, Heiss saw none of the television coverage. Many years later, CBS showed an interview that Walter Cronkite did with her at Squaw Valley and filmed her reaction as she watched. She had cracked up when she heard his sexist questions.
“Oh, I laughed so hard. Well, it was the first winter Olympics that they were televising live. Usually it was on Movietone, you had to go into the theatres to see the news. And so this was the first time it was live on television. I think they were only going to devote maybe a half hour a night to it. … And people kept wanting to see more—especially figure skating. It lends itself so well to television. And I remember Walter Cronkite asking me if didn’t I get cold in those short skirts out there. … But you know, that was the end of the ’50s, you know, we didn’t think anything about that at all. You had to think of the era of the ’50s of white gloves and everybody gets dressed up, and it was a different time. It was a wonderful time.”
If she had performed at a later Olympics, Carol Heiss would probably have made a fortune from her gold medal. But in 1960, turning Olympians like Peggy Fleming, Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps into one-person industries had not yet happened. A few Olympians—Sonja Henie, Esther Williams, Dick Button, Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe—had been successful in other fields, usually movies, but the kind of all-encompassing marketing and branding of Olympic celebrity was still in the future.
For Heiss, her first indication of her celebrity, and the first benefit she gained from it, was getting a seat at a Squaw Valley ice hockey game. “I couldn’t get in to see the gold medal U.S. win the Olympics gold.” But then a security guard spotted her and said, “Oh my gosh, it’s Carol Heiss.”
“And he got me a seat, and I sat right next to the barrier at the rink so I got to see that game, which was wonderful. I told the guard, ‘I guess it really was worthwhile winning an Olympic gold medal.’ ”
Heiss became and remains a skating coach in Ohio. She married 1956 figure skating gold medalist Hayes Jenkins. Her brother-in-law David Jenkins won the same medal at Squaw Valley. In 1985, Heiss and David Jenkins went back to Squaw Valley for the 25th anniversary celebration, so she saw it without the tension of the Olympics. “My brother-in-law and I went back, and it was fun to see in a relaxed atmosphere.”The myths
The Sacramento Bee last month reported, as have many others, that the Squaw Valley games featured “the first Olympic Village.”
Actually, the first Olympic village was at the 1906 Athens games, and many others were built before 1960. The Squaw Valley village was more elaborate than previous such facilities—four three-story apartment buildings, two of which are still in place as condo buildings—but that is true of every Olympics. In Seoul in 1988, the village was twenty-one 24-story buildings; in Sydney 2000, an entire town, Newington.
The Squaw Valley ice hockey event is usually portrayed as a major upset, the Soviet Union unexpectedly defeated. In fact, as one analyst points out, the Soviet Union was not a favorite: “Sweden had won the 1957 World Championship, with the U.S.S.R. second. Canada had won the 1958 and 1959 World Championships. With Czechoslovakia, it was thought that any one of four teams could have won the 1960 Olympic ice hockey gold medal. The Canadian team was again the [formidible] Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen, as the Allan Cup champions, the Whitby Dunlops, declined the invitation to skate in the Olympics.”
The Reno Gazette Journal this month reported that the Squaw Valley Olympics were the “first Olympic Games to be televised,” a claim commonly accepted and repeated by some of those in this story. Over a story last month about the Cortina d’Ampezzo games in Italy, the Summit Daily News in Colorado used this headline: “A look back: 1956—The first televised Winter Olympics.”
Actually, the first televised Olympics were the 1936 Berlin games, broadcast live by two German firms, Telefunken and Fernseh. Like the Olympic villages, TV coverage would become more elaborate, but it started there.
Contrary to some reports, Interstate 80 was not yet built in Nevada west of Reno. Only on the California side did it ease the Reno-to-Olympics drive.The aftermath
It’s hard to say whether the Squaw Valley Olympic games were a success in Reno—critics were given no voice in Reno’s boosterish journalism of the time, so there is no record. The closest the Reno Evening Gazette and Nevada State Journal came to allowing such voices to be heard was reporting anger over another portion of Powning Park—donated to the city on condition that it always be used as a park—being sliced away for an alpine-style A-frame building to be used as the city’s Olympics hospitality center. Criticism of the city’s role was simply outside the allowable circles of discourse, though it could be heard in cafés and barbershops. Those voices would emerge years later when a controlled growth movement developed and became too powerful to ignore, but even at the time they were present.
Indeed, every time proposals for bringing the Olympics back to Squaw Valley were floated, there was an undercurrent of unhappiness in the community—usually trivialized or ignored by journalists. Every one of Reno’s television stations and the Gazette-Journal have run stories about various launches of new efforts to lure the Olympics back that included only one side of the story.
Outside the state where those voices could not be muffled, the Squaw Valley Olympics were sometimes treated as a bad example. In 1972, after Denver was selected for the 1976 Winter Olympics, the people of Colorado defied the business community and voted in a landslide (59.4 percent) to prohibit the use of any public funds for the purpose, killing the Denver games. Part of the campaign debate involved the cost of the 1960 games in Squaw Valley, which Denver opponents said had cost 13 times what was originally estimated. On Nov. 8, the day after the Colorado election, efforts were announced to find another U.S. site, with Squaw Valley mentioned prominently, but they were moved to Innsbruck.
The most serious effort to revive the Squaw Valley Olympics came in the mid-1980s and stumbled quickly with truth-telling. When backers of the proposed games said sales taxes would be needed to support the effort, a vigorous opposition developed. Every proposal since then has avoided the issue of public funding or claimed it would not be needed, claims that were received skeptically.