The four-letter word which froze Hot August Nights


Years ago, I produced a lot of commercials with a KTVN TV-2 cameraman named Doug. He rode a big motorcycle, sported long blonde hair and rarely showed a smile behind intense cowboy eyes.

If you were a fan of the TV series "Northern Exposure," my friend Doug could have been the prototype for Chris Stevens, the philosopher disc jockey of mythical Cicely, Alaska, played by actor John Corbett..

By the late 1970s, Doug had had enough of this town. He fired up his green Honda and headed north to Alaska. Occasionally when I watched Northern Exposure, I got this hunch that Doug had found a real-life Cicely somewhere in the wilds of the 49th state.

Doug came back to Reno once in 1984. I saw him at the Operating Engineers Local 3 annual picnic at Deer Park in Sparks.

I was surprised.

"Have you moved back here?"

"No, just passing through. I'm going back to Alaska today," he said.

Doug and I chatted awhile and he handed me a twenty-dollar bill as his contribution to my congressional campaign.

It came with valuable advice: "There's something wrong with this country, a four-letter word: more."

Doug the frontiersman thus foreshadowed the Hot August Nights riot of '98.

Americans are quick to assume that if something's good, more of it must be better. Combine that with the greed upon which a casino town is built and you end up with Hot August Fright Night.

I was present at the rock 'n' roll revival event's creation in 1986 when it premiered as a fun time for Nevadans and not just another way to vacuum tourist pockets.

Locals launched it, staffed it and worked it for free. We saved it from bankruptcy by showing up in droves.

Not many people know the story, but HAN-1 was $105,000 in the red on opening day. Board members were in despair.

Only an explosion of interest saved it. Once in a great while, Reno surprises show promoters. Word of mouth spreads like a rangefire and people come from miles around.

At a packed prom night '86, I inherited the sad task of locking doors in the faces of people who had driven all the way from Tonopah in full 50's drag to see the Shirelles, the Righteous Brothers and Jan & Dean. The fire marshall would have shut down the event and cleared the Reno-Sparks Convention Center if any more superannuated teens had been allowed in.

It was a hit, and it was our hit. But not for long.

The next year, Hot August Nights managers were absolutely, cocksure full of themselves. They thought they could do no wrong and forgot who had saved their asses. They overbooked overpaid rock 'n' roll dinosaurs and once again placed the show seriously into the red zone.

They could not sell enough tickets to bail themselves out this time. So our tax money did it for them. Not that we had much choice. The gambling industry saw how the nostalgiafest brought cash to the tables.

When the clubs want to extract public funds to subsidize private enterprise, local government rolls over and says "how much?"

Once the original event disappeared down the black hole of gambling greed, it was only a matter of time before riots in the streets.

That's what happens when those in charge feel that too much is never enough.

No one in authority has come forth and said we should look at simply folding the event before somebody gets killed.

I'm saying it now. One man already died during a downtown Reno New Year's Eve riot a few years back, so we've been warned.

In order that we may look back upon it with favor and not horror, we should let Hot August Nights fade gently back into one summer night when we fell in love.

It is now painfully obvious that the happening has just grown too large for the limited resources of this little valley.

Matters have gotten totally beyond our capacity to control while the gambling industry continues to extract more and more in public subsidies to enrich itself at our expense.

The riot came as no surprise. Law enforcement saw a bad moon on the rise. New Reno Police Chief Jerry Hoover's solution involved forcing liquor stores to close early. He might as well have hired soothsayers.

Casinos still served booze unabated. The drunks still rioted. The gangs knew Saturday night's the night for fighting and insisted on their bloodsport.

I've long avoided downtown on big holiday weekends because I fear just what happened on August 8.

Despite all the hand-wringing and soul-searching, no one has offered any concrete solutions to maintain order among drunks stuffed into a small area like rats in a maze.

I don't think we will find any answers other than crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.

Next year, another patch will be placed on the blowout and the rickety '57 Chevy will ride the freeway at high speed once again.

I don't think that tire will hold no matter how much tourism hot air the chambers of commerce blow into it.

After 13 years of trying, we must conclude that once upon a time will never come again.

No more.

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of CWA Local 9413. He is a Reno-based syndicated columnist, a 29-year Nevadan, editor of U-News and campaign manager for Democratic candidate for Governor, State Senator Joe Neal.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 8/16/98.