Spencer honored for role in Reno growth
Over a half century, Harry Spencer has seen first hand how Reno has transformed from a small community into a burgeoning city of the West.
He is also partly responsible for Reno’s widespread growth.
As a Reno public relations mogul, Spencer assisted in attracting top-name entertainers of the 1950s and 1960s to Reno.
In addition, he helped bring to life some special annual events to the area’s culture and continues to do so to this day.
For his active role in spurring Reno’s growth, Spencer was honored as the inaugural member of the Northern Nevada Chapter of the American Marketing Association Hall of Fame.
In a dual role running his own public relations firm in Reno and as a marketing/ public relations manager for the former Mapes Hotel, Spencer was instrumental in bringing in the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Milton Berle, Debbie Reynolds and Marilyn Monroe to perform in Reno.
Spencer humbly said that Reno and the Mapes, Nevada’s largest casino at the time, were a “great celebrity hangout.” To him, it made his job a little less stressful.
“Back then, we had great names to work with, so our jobs were a lot easier,” Spencer said.
The Mapes “was the center of town both geographically and socially.” A native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Spencer accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Nevada, Reno where he was a basketball standout for the Wolf Pack squad in the late 1940s.
Spencer’s academic studies were interrupted briefly for service in the
Army in 1946.
Just before his graduation from UNR in 1951, Spencer took a post at the Nevada Register, a Catholic publication and shortly thereafter, undertook another position at an entertainment newspaper called Reno This Week.
“At that time, I had two full-time jobs,” Spencer said.
During that time, Spencer began to understand what could be done to drive Reno’s economy and eventually set up his first special event.
The event, a synchronized swimming competition, was held at Lawton’s, a swimming and diving facility on Fourth Street in Reno.
Walter Ramage, the manager of Mapes, hired Spencer to do advertising and public relations for the hotel.
There, Spencer’s job consisted of booking shows and writing numerous press releases.
Spencer held this position for more than 20 years.
In 1957, Spencer left his journalism career behind to devote his duties to the hotel and started his public relations company with a very distinct name.
“I was pretty creative and called it Harry Spencer Advertising,” Spencer joked.
He operated his firm and ran the hotel’s public relations department out of the same office at Mapes.
Along with attracting such large-scale entertainment talent to Reno, Spencer was actively involved in establishing annual events in the region, such as the Virginia City Camel Races, the Reno Rodeo and the Reno Air Races.
“The most fun is creating special events and watching them grow,” Spencer said.
He recalls that in 1960, the two most important events publicity-wise came to the Sierra Nevada region.
First, there were the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley.
Then, the filming of the movie, “The Misfits”, starring Clark Cable, Montgomery Clift and Monroe that took place in Dayton.
“These events established Reno as a great destination,” Spencer said.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the filming of “The Misfits”, the camel races at Virginia City may never have existed.
Bored during a lull in shooting, the movie’s director John Huston challenged Billy Pierson a camel-racer involved with the film to a race.
Word of mouth spread, and the race turned to be one of the largest events ever held in Nevada.
A tradition was born.
“Huston called an animal farm back in Hollywood and had them send up two camels,” Spencer said.
“The race drew 35,000 minimum.
It was probably the richest event ever in Reno.”
Apparently, Spencer’s enthusiasm for events has yet to wane.
Even in his later years, he continues to promote with his partners, such events as the celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe and a variety of other events.
He also has returned to his professional roots as a columnist for the Sparks Tribune and the Wolf Pack Edge newspapers.
Over the years, Spencer has seen Reno’s image change as a gaming mecca to an adventurie destination.
He thinks Reno should find other economic outlets and quit thinking of itself as second-class city compared to Las Vegas.
“For three decades, Reno had an image and we lost that somehow,” Spencer said.
“Now we have to reinvent ourselves.”
“This is a highly relevant issue for Washoe County because casinos and bars are important establishments in the community,” says UNR’s Eric Crosbie.