Tourists untrapped

Behind the T-Shirt Curtain

Historian and folklorist Ron James tours Virginia City in this clip from the documentary <i>Behind the T-Shirt Curtain</i>.

Historian and folklorist Ron James tours Virginia City in this clip from the documentary Behind the T-Shirt Curtain.

Courtesy Of Gwendolyn Clancy

Ever wondered about those little bits and shards found in archaeological sites? Can a chunk of glass that’s scuffed beyond a layperson’s recognition actually reveal something about history? Take, for example, the oldest known bottle of Tabasco, which dates to around 1869, unearthed during the 2000 excavation of Virginia City’s Boston Saloon.

“The African-American saloon had the best food,” concludes Nevada State Preservation Officer Ron James. Sounds like conjecture, maybe, but his assertion is bolstered by evidence that someone at the Boston Saloon had the wherewithal to acquire some pepper sauce. The McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana, has no record of having shipped Tabasco this far west until much later.

Remnants like the Tabasco bottle and places like the Boston Saloon site (behind the still-existing Bucket of Blood Saloon) and the stories (or myths) they represent are the focus of filmmaker Gwendolyn Clancy’s video documentary, Behind the T-Shirt Curtain. It’s been aired on public-access cable and will be screened next week at the Wilbur May Museum in Rancho San Rafael Park. James, who will speak at the Reno premiere, also hosts the video.

He tours Virginia City’s back streets, eager to peek behind the main-drag souvenir shops. He stops at ornate public buildings and unassuming houses to delve into stories of great civic deeds and disastrous human foibles alike. Like the one about entrepreneurial New Yorker and dynamite importer Jacob Van Bokkelen, who trusted so entirely in the safety of his merchandise that he stored it in his apartment—until he and 10 innocent bystanders met their demise in a midnight blast in 1873. The dynamite explosion is usually attributed to the curiosity of Van Bokkelen’s pet monkey. The monkey didn’t live to tell its story, so its culpability, like much of “history,” isn’t certain.

But if the border between fact and fiction is fluid, that seems to be no problem for James, a historian also trained as a folklorist. He’s into busting Old West stereotypes, but he appreciates the charm of local legends. In front of the Storey County Courthouse, he points to a statue of Justice. Locals claim it’s one of only three Justices in the country depicted without a blindfold.

“I’ve found 30,” says James, without irony or judgment. “But that’s not going to inhibit the folklore.”

Behind the T-Shirt Curtain is one in a series of Clancy’s “Exploring Nevada” videos. It gives equal billing to accomplishments, such as the restoration of Piper’s Opera House, as to rather gossipy tidbits, such as how James Finney, the “Old Virginny” for whom the town was named, signed documents with an “X” because of his illiteracy.

For viewers used to cinematic slickness, the video’s wavering sound quality and almost static imagery will require patience. But for anyone who shows up with an inkling that history could be cool, James’ enthusiasm for Nevada sites and stories is as compelling as his ultra-dry, mildly existential wit.

The video works as an approachable, annotated list of access points for anyone seeking more information about Virginia City history. All the while, James maintains a learned fascination over Virginia City’s stories, places and objects. That includes the Tabasco bottle, which, for the time being, will stay in the state museum. But James will bring a resin replica along to the screening.