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American Heritage MagazineJune/July 2006    Volume 57, Issue 3
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History Now


 

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Wendover

Nevada’s Neon Colossus Winks Once Again

Boosters and neon-sign fanciers welcome Wendover Will back home.
Boosters and neon-sign fanciers welcome Wendover Will back home.
(Richard Menzies)

Almost every community has its monument, be it a historic building, a field gun in the park, or a bronze statue in the city square. In West Wendover, Nevada, it’s a 64-foot-tall sheet-metal cowboy named Will, who waves and winks at passersby from atop a pedestal planted on a safety island in the middle of Old Highway 40.

Until recently Will stood sentry in front of the State Line Casino, one finger pointing down at the stripe across the road that separates Utah from Nevada. He was named after William (“Bill”) Smith, an underemployed drifter who came to town on a freight train in the mid-1920s and saw potential where most travelers saw nothing but rocks and a vast saline prehistoric lakebed. With money saved up from a menial job at a nearby salt mine, Smith became part owner of a gas station and garage. Soon a café and tourist cabins were added, followed by a bar and finally slot machines. After his business partner died, Smith bought out the heirs and became sole owner of what would eventually become the State Line Hotel and Casino.

According to local folklore, it was Smith who introduced the concept of round-the-clock business hours to Wendover. In order to attract customers, the onetime hobo installed an electric light bulb atop a pole in front of his establishment. “Don’t anybody ever turn that light off,” he ordered. When he amassed sufficient capital to upgrade his light bulb on a pole, Smith commissioned the Young Electric Sign Company to build something on the order of the Pioneer Club’s Vegas Vic. Young Electric called on Vegas Vic’s creator, the graphic artist Pat Denner, who sat down and created Wendover Will.

Erected in 1952, Wendover Will was powered by a three-quarter-horsepower electric motor and outlined by 1,184 linear feet of neon tubing. His left eye continually winked, and a lit cigarette flickered up and down between his lips. High winds and heavy rain couldn’t put out his smoke, and not even a lightning strike could wipe the grin off his face. Indeed, the only thing that could bring Will down was a change of ownership. In 2002 the State Line Hotel and Casino was sold and renamed the Wendover Nugget. Soon afterward Will, with his come-hither wink and retro-Western garb, was taken down and put into storage.

In recent years the western side of town has grown much faster than the eastern side. With an economy fueled largely by recreation dollars, West Wendover now can claim, in addition to half a dozen casinos, its own city hall, fire station, high school, supermarket, convention center, water-treatment plant, and golf course. What it didn’t have was a central monument—that is, until someone suggested the recumbent Wendover Will.

The owners of the Wendover Nugget readily agreed to deed Will to the city of West Wendover, and Young Electric volunteered to refurbish him. A $50,000 grant was secured from the Nevada Commission on Tourism; another $40,000 came from merchandise sales and donations. It turns out the old electric cowboy has a great many friends, among them civic leaders, local merchants, and past managers and patrons of the State Line. One check came from a Texan who had never lived in Wendover but remembered standing in Will’s shadow when he was a boy of seven.

Last June a completely restored Wendover Will was dedicated. From his new perch, he overlooks a bustling community of approximately 5,000 souls.

“Wendover Will means so much in a variety of ways to so many people,” declared West Wendover’s mayor, Josephine Thaut. “When you were down, we knew how much we missed you. So we’re gathered here this morning to pay tribute to an old warrior, an icon that has endured the test of time and weathered many a storm.”

With that, six bottles of moderately priced champagne were simultaneously bashed against metal bollards at the base of Will’s pedestal. Two refused to break. One VIP sustained a laceration. Above it all, Will stood tall, grinned widely, and winked knowingly.Richard Menzies


 

The Buyable Past

Classic Hi-Fi Components

A McIntosh MC240 amplifier, from the last days of the tube era.
A McIntosh MC240 amplifier, from the last days of the tube era.
(McIntosh Laboratory)

After a 1946 Fortune magazine feature devoted 11 pages to a fledgling phenomenon called high fidelity, many music lovers were quick to purchase equipment made by Fisher, a little-known firm whose products were ranked “best … in price and performance.” Since most of the era’s prominent makers of radios and phonographs ignored distortion and neglected difficultto-capture treble frequencies and solid bass tones, their small, quality-conscious competitor prospered, so much so that its owner, Avery Fisher, later gave New York City’s Lincoln Center enough money to have a concert hall named for him.

Fisher and such men as Frank McIntosh, Sidney Harman, and Saul Marantz, whose surnames still appear on the nameplates of new audio components, built hardware that reproduced music as accurately as possible, and 40 or 50 years later many of those products still perform impressively enough to attract audiophile collectors. The vacuum-tube circuitry that vintage electronics use is a significant lure. Some audiophiles say tubes sound more mellow than the solid-state circuits that have almost universally replaced them.

Collectors do listen to their classic audio components, and last year Stereophile magazine began publishing new reviews of old models. The first one spotlighted Fisher’s 500-C stereo receiver from 1964. Vintage hardware, the writer explained, is “ideal for second systems” and represents “a respite from the spiraling expenses of new gear,” which at the high end commonly sells for fourand five-figure prices.

You’ll find a host of vintage hi-fi models selling for less than $1,000 —including the Fisher 500-C, now $600 or less depending on condition—but the very best cross that mark. A 40-watt McIntosh MC240 stereo amplifier, which sold for $288 when introduced in 1960, could cost as much as $3,500 today. In top shape, a Marantz 10B, the most coveted vintage stereo tuner, might bring $3,000 without the original wood enclosure, which would probably add a couple of hundred dollars to its price. To put those figures in perspective, compare the 1964 Fisher, apparently introduced at $369; the Marantz, unveiled the same year at $600 without cabinet (a figure that seems to have increased before long); and a car that made its debut at the 1964 World’s Fair, the Ford Mustang, which had a base price of $2,368.

Resources

Numerous vintage audio components, along with literature and spare parts, are available at Audio Classics (www.audioclassics.com / 607-766-3501), a Vestal, New York, firm that specializes in the category. Audiogon (www.audiogon.com) auctions off used hi-fi components online. Stereophile’s Fisher 500-C review appears on the publication’s Web site (www.stereophile.com/historical/605fisher/index.html).

—David Lander


 

Screenings

The Triumph of Capote

More than 40 years later, In Cold Blood seems as fresh and as horrifying as it did on publication. The book’s success and continued critical reputation have distorted Truman Capote’s image in American letters. In truth, before In Cold Blood he was seen in Manhattan literary circles as a colorful but minor celebrity better known for appearances at fashionable parties and on TV talk shows than for his books—with the sole exception of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, that charming bauble of a novella.

It isn’t so much that Capote’s oeuvre has not stood the test of time as that it scarcely existed in the first place. As Gore Vidal mercilessly and accurately observed, Capote’s early works were synthetic Southern gothic, pale golden reflections of Carson McCullers. Aside from the film script for John Huston’s Beat the Devil and a handful of sharply written New Yorker features (including a memorable sketch of Marlon Brando), there wasn’t much else to hang a legend on until Capote stumbled on the story of a farm family murdered in their home near a small Kansas town in 1959. He saw his chance to become America’s Dostoyevsky, at least for one book, and pursued the story with a ruthless singleness of purpose.

Taking its lead from Gerald Clarke’s 1988 biography, the remarkable film Capote, recently released on DVD, is directed by Bennett Miller in his feature debut. Miller shows how In Cold Blood came to be written and how it ultimately led to the disintegration of the author, who died of complications of alcoholism 19 years later without having written another long-form book. Miller had extraordinary luck: It’s doubtful that any other actor could have brought Capote to life with the vividness and compassion of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Those who recall Capote from TV appearances will gasp at the eerie approximation of his lisp and tremulous intonation, but these merely serve to draw the viewer in. Hoffman gets so deep inside Capote’s tortured psyche that one wonders if he was able to easily extricate himself when the production was over. His Truman is a sweet-mannered, self-destructive, self-absorbed monster, a man who means no one any harm but who cold-bloodedly—and no other term applies— sacrificed the subjects of his story to achieve literary success.

The subjects were Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the killers of the Clutter family, from whom Capote gleaned enough material to compose what he grandiosely announced to be “the first non-fiction novel.” In particular, the relationship between Capote and Smith (chillingly portrayed here by a soulful young actor, Clifton Collins, Jr.) is what’s missing from Richard Brooks’s well-made 1967 film version of In Cold Blood. Brooks’s film is intelligent and gets the nonfiction aspect of the book right, but except for a bravura performance by the young Robert Blake as Perry Smith, it never comes alive.

That Truman Capote came to regard Smith as a shadow image of himself almost seems like a literary conceit, but it’s one that Dan Futterman’s script justifies. Capote helped keep Smith and Hickock alive just long enough to write his book, then withdrew legal aid and abandoned them to their fate. With the executions, something of the artist in Capote died as well. For the remainder of his life he gave parties, appeared on television, and even popped up in small roles in movies, but he wrote almost nothing of lasting value. In taking the viewer to the dark heart of Truman Capote, Miller and Futterman have in some ways surpassed Capote’s own achievement and told the great story that he did not have the courage to tell himself.—Allen Barra


 

The Cannon Spa

How Gettysburg Keeps Its Guns Ready For You

Before and after: A weather-beaten Gettysburg cannon and another one fresh from rehab.
Before and after: A weather-beaten Gettysburg cannon and another one fresh from rehab.
Before and after: A weather-beaten Gettysburg cannon and another one fresh from rehab.
(Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg)

Where can you go to fix a 1,580-pound cast-iron cannon carriage? Well, if you’re near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, you can simply—or maybe not so simply—roll it to the repair shop behind 302 York Street.

There, on a typical day, you might find bronze gun tubes stacked up awaiting their carriages, like nineteenth-century society ladies after a ball. You can see a blacksmith forging by hand metal parts that have been machine-made for decades. And you can watch volunteers carefully painting carriages “cannon” green and black, just the way the originals would have looked in July 1863.

Like most American towns in the mid-nineteenth century, Gettysburg had a carriage shop. What’s unusual is that Gettysburg still has its carriage shop. Of course, Gettysburg still has its cannon too—410 of them spread out across the 5,990-acre Gettysburg National Military Park.

The Artillery Restoration Facility is one of the most unusual machine shops in the world. Since beginning operation in January 1999, it has restored more than 200 Gettysburg guns, with the rest to follow. The shop is the result of a unique public/private partnership. The National Park Service operates it and finances the restoration, but a nonprofit group, Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, pays the rent on the facility. A group of 10 to 20 volunteers from the Friends work there, alongside two full-time Park Service employees.

There were 653 Union and Confederate cannon of various types fighting at Gettysburg. They were dragged around on wooden carriages weighing about 900 pounds. Many of the cannon on the field today, only a few of which took part in the battle, were released to Gettysburg from federal arsenals in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Their cast-iron replica carriages were made to be immobile and anchored to mark significant locations on the field.

Over the last century the carriages deteriorated from exposure to the elements, along with too many close encounters with lawn mowers, cars, and climbing youngsters. But the real problem came from the layers of lead paint that were applied to the guns over the years. By the late 1970s it had to be removed for health reasons, but this could not be done on the battlefield. For years there were no repairs at all, and the carriages began to fall apart. In 1996 the Park Service embarked on the first complete cannon-carriage restoration program ever, contracting with a company in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, to sandblast and remove the lead paint.

After sandblasting in Mechanicsburg, the carriages must be repaired and repainted. Metal parts, such as elevating handles, chains, and implement hooks, often are missing and the castings are damaged. Since these items were originally made by hand, it would ruin the historical accuracy to replace them with mass-produced parts. For similar reasons, the carriages and gun tubes must be hand-painted. “It’s like an antique piece of furniture: You wouldn’t spray paint it,” says Victor C. Gavin, an exhibits specialist at the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Before the repair shop opened, the Park Service could work on only 12 cannon a year in its limited space. That number has jumped to 30 a year. According to Gavin, it takes about 130 hours of work to rehabilitate a cannon carriage. All the wrought-iron work is done in the shop.

The volunteers help with the painting, and it takes about half a day of training before they can start, which is why the Service seeks recruits who can give their time on a regular basis. On a typical day two or three are there.

“If not for the volunteers, we’d be in trouble,” Gavin says. “Painting these carriages is very, very time-consuming because of all the trim details.” In the 1860s, he notes, the cannon and carriage business took “a lot of labor and a lot of mules and horses.”

Those mules and horses are all that is missing from the Gettysburg shop today.Tom Callahan


 

Why Do We Say...?

Cocktail

A fetching flapper from a poster for the 1928 film Manhattan Cocktail.
A fetching flapper from a poster for the 1928 film Manhattan Cocktail.
(Keith Conlon)

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the invention of the cocktail, the United States Bartenders’ Guild was scheduled to join forces on May 13 with the Museum of the American Cocktail to present the first annual American Cocktail Awards—dubbed, almost inevitably, “The Olives”—at a ceremony in—again, almost inevitably—Las Vegas, Nevada.

The museum and the guild selected 2006 for their celebration on the basis of the appearance of the word cocktail in a Hudson, New York, newspaper, The Balance, on May 13, 1806: “Cock tail … is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling.” (The paper went on to inform its readers that the drink, similar to what is now called an old-fashioned, “is said also to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.”)

Dates of this sort are almost always provisional, however, and thanks to a recent discovery by David K. Barnhart, editor and publisher of The Barnhart Dictionary Companion, it turns out that the 200th anniversary of the cocktail was celebrated at least three years too late. Mr. Barnhart’s find comes from the April 28, 1803, issue of The Farmer’s Cabinet, a weekly that was published in Amherst, New Hampshire. Herewith, what is now the oldest-known example of the word in print, a journal entry that refers to the timeless effects of a mild hangover, complete with the original old-style s’s that look like f’s:

friday.—Waked at 7 by the bell—wonder what people mean by difturbing one fo early after an Affembly: turn’d and doz’d ’till 9: got up, and dreffed—felt queer; took a cup of coffee—no appetite.—10. Lounged to the Doctor’s—found Peter—talked of the girls—fmoked half a cigar—felt rather fqually: Van Hogan came in—quiz’d me for looking dull—great bore. 11. Drank a glafs of cocktail —excellent for the head.

Unfortunately, the early references do not shed light on the word’s origin. This has been lost in the mist—daze might be more appropriate in the context—of time. Perhaps 50 etymologies have been proposed, among them that cocktail derives from cock ale, a strong beer made by mixing the jelly or minced meat of a boiled cock in ale (and said to have an aphrodisiac effect, a quality rumored to be associated with the modern drink); from another kind of cock-ale (also called cock-bread), meaning a mixture of ale and bitters once given to fighting cocks; from cock-tail, referring both to a horse whose tail has been docked so as to stick up like that of a cock and to a horse of mixed breed (like a mixed drink?); from the practice of stirring drinks with the tail feathers of cocks; from coquetel, a drink of mixed wines, said to have been introduced to this country by French officers at the time of the American Revolution; and a corruption of coquetier, a large eggcup used around 1800 by Antoine Amédée Peychaud, a Creole apothecary in New Orleans, for serving a concoction of Sazerac brandy, sugar, water, bitters, and perhaps a dash of absinthe.

Arguing in favor of coquetier is the similarity of Peychaud’s recipe to that in the Hudson Balance as well as to the modern Sazerac cocktail, which features rye whiskey in place of the original brandy. The timing also is close. Peychaud is said to have come to New Orleans from Santo Domingo in 1795. He did not open Pharmacie Peychaud at 123 Royal Street until 1838, however, 35 years after the newfound reference in the Farmer’s Cabinet—a suspicious gap in time.

Perhaps a missing link remains to be discovered in the now soggy archives of New Orleans. Lexicographers of the world, aux armes! —Hugh Rawson


 
 
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