The 1996 Grateful Deadhead and Chia Butthead Awards

This is an edition of the University Scandals 96-97 series, selected installments of which were submitted for Pulitzer Prize consideration. Click here to access the archive.

Every December, the same dilemma: how to come up with good guy and bad guy awards with room for ridicule not provided by real life. This year, fortunately, I didn't need any great inspiration. Hell, I didn't even have to work very hard. I just turned on the TV and there it was, the most ketchupy Christmastime kitsch since the pet rock or the cabbage patch doll. No, not the fuzzy muppet in red. Better. The Chia Head.

The gimmick is perfect, a pre-sold brand extension. Most folks already know about the ghastly Chia Pet. And most kids learned about Mr. Potatohead in school. (He grew up to become vice president of the United States, but that's another story.) Combine the two familiar gimmicks and you've got a sure winner. Marketing magic. The Chia Head awards. Better yet, the Chia Butthead Awards, in honor of the philosopher now most admired by our children. (My apologies to Beavis.) My potato got half-baked without any work at all.

Now, I just need to come up with a parallel universe, another top-of-mind awareness award consistent with the Chia cranial inane. There's only one answer. A goodhead is a deadhead. The good guys of 1996 will thus get Golden Grateful Deadhead Awards, in fond memory of that other Jerry's kids. The dorks get the Chia Heads. Vanna, the envelopes please...

THE STRICTLY FOR MEDICINAL PURPOSES Grateful Deadhead Award goes, of course, to the voters of Arizona and California, those Panama Red Heads who legalized prescription medicinal marijuana. The counterattack has been vicious by the same folks who, in another time, would have admonished against Coca Cola and aspirin because they lead to beer, which leads to heavy petting of the non-Chia variety. Chia Buttheads to the potophobic politicians who think the road to moral Valhalla lies paved with yellow bricks made from the banned noxious weed. Let them sow the seeds of suffering somewhere else.

THE AEROBIC SMOKING FITNESS AWARD goes to Nevada's own gambling-industrial complex. These guys also get the Corporate Propaganda Chia Butthead for promoting (they make it so easy) butts. The day before news broke about a major UNR study documenting the harm caused by exposing workers to secondhand cigarette smoke, the gamblers stepped on it with their own study. UNR Prof. John Dobra, fatly funded by corporate fronts, made the same old argument: jobs, jobs, jobs. "Study says state could lose 50,000 jobs over five years," read the Reno Kazoo-Journal headline. We must not ban smoking in casinos. It is necessary to kill the workers in order to save them.

I'll give the corporate weasels this much: at least they are now willing to admit that they exploit people with addictive personalities. Someone susceptible to one vice is usually susceptible to more. Cigarettes, coffee, booze, gambling. The power structure is infested with weasels and ostriches who spend most of their time where the sun never shines. The industry will not admit that it caters to addicts, and thus need not have any aggressive program to treat them. Contrast this to some Native American tribal casinos that not only ban smoking and drinking, but also have outreach programs to identify and help problem gamblers.

GAMBLING CORPORATE WEASEL OF THE YEAR. I'd like to retire this guy to the Chia Butthead hall of fame, but he just keeps going and going and going. Reno Hilton President FerenÁ Szony is hands down winner again this year. Just before Christmas, he notified his entire security staff they would be fired. The Hilton says it wants to save $562,000 a year in wages by hiring security officers through a temp firm. I think it's also revenge for daring to vote in favor of unionizing. (I was born in a union household and remain a union man today.) In a statement issued to KRNV radio last Friday, Szony said hotel guests could "rest assured" of their safety. The Reno Hilton houses the population of a small American city on any average day. They currently employ about 64 security guards, down from more than 140 in 1989. Rest in peace.

DOWNSIZE THIS! BUTTHEADS go to Wells Fargo Bank, the Virginian Hotel-Casino and Yellow-DeLuxe-Star taxicabs for firing workers just before Christmas. By contrast, Golden Grateful Deadheads go to the Reno Holiday Hotel, for keeping its workers during the slow season, and to Bently Nevada out in Minden. The world-class manufacturer of high-speed monitoring equipment recently declared more than $2 million in profit sharing, recognizing the value of the labor of those who get the job done.

THE PRACTICING WHAT YOU PREACH PRIZE ends in a three-way tie between Donald Barlett, James Steele and Michael Moore. The Philadelphia Inquirer's two-time Pulitzer Prize winners, Barlett and Steele, this year published the third book of their populist America trilogy. "America: Who Stole the Dream?" completed the picture of how corporate America, by buying your government and mine, has robbed us all of a substantial part of our future.

Michael Moore proved that there's life after cancellation and poetic justice to boot. Downsize This!, Moore's book about the light side of corporate greed (yes, he actually found one), hit the bestseller lists. His Emmy-winning but twice-canceled network show, TV Nation, is now a surprise hit on Comedy Central cable (Monday through Thursday, 7:30 and 11:30 p.m.).

I sent Jim Steele a copy of this column's review of his book. He sent back a gracious, two-page letter asking for additional information about an issue I've been investigating. Last week, Michael Moore personally e-mailed wishes of good luck to the Reno Hilton security guards. (Moore was recently banned from book signings at the Borders Book chain for supporting employees trying to unionize.)

These are busy and successful men who nonetheless care about what's happening to us little guys here in the Outback of the American Dream. They took the time to personally respond to Nevada. For giving us all renewed hope that we can provide for a better future if we keep working at it, Golden Grateful Deadheads to Barlett, Steele and Moore.

Big, fat, honorable mention to Al Franken for his book with the unspeakable title trashing Lush Rambo and the extreme right for their campaign of meanspirited class warfare and uncorrected lies.

TIE-DYED BUTTHEADS TO TIE MANUFACTURERS. When Rush Limbaugh started selling loud (what else) neckties, I figured give him enough rope and he'll hang himself. When they started selling Jerry Garcia ties, I had trouble breathing. When I saw that Garcia's ties were more conservative than Limbaugh's, I postponed a haircut for a couple of weeks in protest, sort of a self-satire of a self satire. Which reminds me.

THE SELF SATIRE CHIA BUTTHEAD goes to our own Gov. Bob Miller. Always willing to help out, the guv cut a TV spot for the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, wherein he starts out saying "there ought to be a law" against hunger. Well, yeah. And you're the guv. Go get one passed, dammit. And bring money.

GOLDEN GRATEFUL DEADHEAD WRITER OF THE YEAR is a man I'd like to meet. Mike Beesley lives in Reno. I know nothing else about him. He wrote the following to the Tribune: "I think the people of northern Nevada owe a debt of gratitude to FerenÁ Szony, president of the Reno Hilton, for his untiring work on behalf of the Food Bank of Northern Nevada. Recently, on the television program 'Face the State,' he described his selfless efforts to collect food for the needy during the holiday season. This is particularly noteworthy as Mr. Szony has probably done more than anyone else during the last few years to create this very need...Under his guidance, the two Hilton properties have violated federal labor laws, harassed and intimidated employees over not only labor problems but simple health problems, and essentially endeavored to keep the local standard of living at its incredibly low level...thanks for keeping the Food Bank going - and necessary."

THE DOUBLESPEAK BUTTHEAD goes to Ma Bell, for describing the amount I owe on my long distance bill as "True Offering Savings." Please don't what I've spent the amount I've saved. Unless you're in the car business.

CHIA BUTTHEAD GREEDY CORPORATION OF THE YEAR: none of the above. Even Hilton's greed pales by comparison to Big Oil. Led by ARCO, the major gasoline retailers concluded a very successful west coast pilot program of baiting up prices while simultaneously getting the media to believe it wasn't their fault. Even though there was no gas shortage, the media chose not to print the story.

The Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle never got close (I electronically searched both papers personally.) So, dishonorable mention goes to news media for running out of gas. There were two exceptions, The Sparks Tribune, which ran my six-part series. And the Las Vegas Sun, which once touched on the issue of monopoly cartel pricing.

SHUCK JIVE HUSTLE CHIA BUTTHEAD AWARD: to the promoters of the overly-hyped Palms Hotel-Casino in downtown Reno. The newsmedia recognized it as just the latest in an endless line of high-profile investor solicitations, but nonetheless treated it like the second coming. Brass Buttheads to those bringing up the rear: To departing convention authority boss Jay Milligan, for giving questionable raises to two subordinates, one of whom resigned under a cloud shortly thereafter. To Reno City Attorney Patricia Lynch and Washoe County Sheriff Dick Kirkland, for having their mouthpieces write threatening letters trying to keep critics quiet. To Washoe District Judge Connie Steinheimer, for a post-election fundraising mailer which amounted to no more than a shakedown of lawyers. To Lake Tahoe casinos for wanting to start their own county, to cut their own taxes, which pay for schools for their low paid workers' children, who will live in another county if the casinos are successful.

GRATEFUL DEADHEAD EDUCATOR OF THE YEAR: Clark County Community College math professor Frank Pelteson, who demonstrated to his students the worth of work. Everyone's pay, if you spend only 90 percent of it, is worth ten times its face value to the local economy, Pelteson calculated and publicized. Multiply your annual paycheck - or, if you've been downsized, your former paycheck - by 10, and you'll see what just one job means.

MENSCHES OF THE YEAR. "Mensch" is Yiddish for "whole man." It applies to people who enrich the lives of others. Herewith, my personal honorees, all of whom, I daresay, probably never thought they'd be honored as leaders.

THE WHOLLY MOSES AWARD goes to Tom Stoneburner, a Circus Circus security guard elected to lead his co-workers in the fight for better wages and working conditions. He and his little union did what no one else ever accomplished. They were the first security guards in Nevada history to win a hotel-casino election. Then, they won a strike against the Reno Hilton, something that hasn't happened at a northern Nevada hotel-casino since the Eisenhower administration. Honorable mention goes to former Citifare bus driver Lou Martino. Now business manager for Teamsters Local 533, he labored 'round the clock to avoid a Citifare bus strike but still protect his workers.

POLITICIAN OF THE YEAR: The Golden Grateful Deadhead goes to yet another professor, UNR art and cinema teacher Howard Rosenberg. He wanted to serve on the university board of regents to help his students. Instead, the university power structure is trying to force him out of his job of 29 years. Honorable intentions: to the small army of Rosenberg supporters who elected him and now labor to get him seated in January. Honorable II: Las Vegas Regent Nancy Price, who courageously stood alone for four years, warning of bigtime financial problems in the university system. The recently released legislative audit makes her look like Princess Cassandra telling the Trojans not to let that wooden horse through the gates.

HUMANITARIAN OF THE YEAR: thy name is legion. All one writer can do is choose a symbol of all those who work hard to feed the hungry. I'll choose Reno's Evelyn Mount as representative of all those like her

The winners above have probably never met, but work toward a common goal: a better life for those who come afterward. Better jobs mean better health care and better families. Better education means more productive people. But first, the kids need enough to eat and a decent place to live. All of the above honorees strive to make this morally obtuse mining camp boomtown livable for the little people. For that, they deserve our respect, our thanks and our support.

Be well. Raise hell.


Andrew Barbano is a Reno-based syndicated columnist and 28-year Nevadan.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Daily Sparks Tribune since 1988.
This column originally published 12/29/96. Copyright © 1996, 2005, 2010 Andrew Barbano

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