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'Reno Was Keno'

A Choreographer's Personal Reflection on a Pageant Experience

by Dean Speer

Published November 2008

The Washington edition of the Mrs. American Pageant recently performed the author's "Freedom's Song" dance, first done in 1995, which reminded him that...

My father fell in love.  With a state.  Specifically Mrs. Utah.  Leaving his local harem at his Senior Citizens Center, he accompanied me, as the choreographer of the "entertainment" portions of the Mrs. America pageant in 1996.  Most of the performers in my two pieces were from Washington, so we left together from Sea-Tac Airport; an exuberant group.

Two hours after arriving in town, we had an on-stage rehearsal to stage and adapt the numbers for the shows to the specific performance space/venue.  One of my first reactions on seeing the space was an internal gasp, as the level of the stage was divided into two, plus a runway extending into what was to become the audience seating area – making for a T-shaped stage on two different levels.  Our concern then became to keep the choreography in its original form as much as possible, yet while allowing for the safety of the dancers, who had to leap and turn and quickly go from level to level, particularly in the high-energy piece (set as a tribute to the 1940s to the Big Band Sound of Glenn Miller) – "In the Mood."  I was pleased that with only some very minor adjustments, this was accomplished, and both dances looked as if they were made for this particular stage configuration.

The afternoon of our second day in town was the first of the two shows of the Pageant; the preliminary.  Both shows are virtually the same:  an opening production number with all of the contestants, followed by introductions, then a modeling of the contestants' choice of aerobic or fitness wear, followed by the "entertainment" number (us), and finally, a showing of the contestants wearing their evening gowns.  The thing that was new for the evening show was that the each contestant introduced herself (as opposed to the emcee), and the 12 semi-finalists were announced.  These finalists had to answer an on-stage question from the emcee that they had never heard before.  For example, "What do you think the role of women in the 90s is?" and, "If you could change any law, what would it be?"  (Mrs. Utah got that one, and she said that she'd change the tax code -- throw it out entirely and start all over again with a flat tax.   Did I mention that my father was quite smitten with her?)

Mrs. Utah was a trained model, and always held her arms in low 5th position and slightly behind her, as this accentuated and showed off her rather nice lines.  Subsequently, when my ballet students have held arms too close to their torsos or even behind, I like to tell them of meeting Mrs. Utah and yes, of how gorgeous she was, but to keep their arms forward and where they need to be – unless they are in a pageant!

At the start of each show, the producer (who was amazingly and perpetually perky and cheerful)welcomed the audience and said that because each show was being video-taped for television, if a mistake was made or if they felt they needed to do something over, they would.  And, that meant that for us in the audience, we had to applaud again; as if we were seeing it for the first time.

The afternoon show went without a hitch, but during the evening and final show, one of the two microphones went out as Mrs. Hawaii was introducing herself.  So, following intermission, this segment was re-done, as was the introduction of one of the judges – which had to be re-done several times as the emcee kept mispronouncing a few key words (which actually became rather funny).  And at the start of my piece, one of the worst possible things happened – the music tape went dead.  The performers kept going for a few seconds, but when it became obvious that the tape was not going to re-sound, they stopped and the number was done over again from the beginning.  (The "professional" technician had put it in the wrong cassette slot.)  While this may have been potentially one of the worst things to have happened, it became one of the best, as the performers became totally relaxed and it galvanized the audience; both were focused.  My pieces were well received, and some audience members even hummed or sang along with the number that was performed for the evening, or final, show.

It was clear to me that each woman who participated as a contestant in the pageant did so for quite different reasons.  Some for self-esteem, others to win the prizes, some to perhaps further careers.  Many are professional women and owners of their own businesses.  One, in fact, is an elected representative to her home state legislature (Mrs. Massachusetts).  One (Mrs. Utah) has two grown children.  They ranged in age from early 20s to about 50.  One was in a wheelchair – but walked around the stage during her solo introductions unaided.

The contestants are at the hotel for a full week, as they have to learn two complete production numbers (which opened each show), and then learn the group patterns for walking during the introductions and modeling segments.  Most were not dancers, nor did they have much movement training.  I was not the choreographer for this, but the one who was did an amazing job of making sure each woman got to the front of the stage and that all were on different parts of the stage at different times (so they could all be seen) and, most impressively, at the conclusion, how they all ended – lined up alphabetically in order of state in front of the microphones.

I had to admire each for the good that they'd gain from the process.  At all levels of the process – local, regional, state, and national – the women work with staff on how best to walk, dress, groom, talk, and present themselves.  All are looked upon as role models by their communities, and many work with young people and teens in various capacities and make appearances doing charity work.  State and national winners make appearances in their respective official capacities for a year.  1995's Mrs. USA was Mrs. Connecticut.

During the periods when I wasn't working, I took my father to see Reno and the area.  One evening after our cast dinner, we went to the Hilton (formerly the MGM Grand) to see an extravaganza show called, "Splash."  This production had everything:  Peking Acrobats, ice skaters, a water ballet, motorcycles that leapt over ramps and zoomed around in a ball (three of them in at once!), dancers (who were actually quite good), a comedian/magician, spectacular special effects including two running waterfalls onstage and fountains, a 747 airplane, and the latest in contemporary pop music.  This was a really impressive show.  The Hilton is impressive unto itself; the place is just plain HUGE.  Even from miles away in the high Nevada desert, you can see this building.

As we had all day off Friday, we had made plans to tour the region.  At the car rental agency, another perpetually perky person cheerfully told me that they had given us a free upgrade.  Instead of the usually conservative and square rental car, they had given us a brand-new Ford Mustang convertible!  With the top down, my dad and I drove south of town to take Highway 431, which goes up a winding, two-lane mountain pass for nearly 5,000 feet (we were already about at that height in Reno).  From the top of the pass on Mount Rose (8,900 feet) we descended to beautiful Lake Tahoe. 

For me, Virginia City was one of the highlights of the tour.  An authentic place, it's an old mining ghost town, left over from the days of the Wild West.  Founded in 1858, its population once grew to 40,000 and is now about 450.  North and east of Carson City, Virginia City is sited on the side of a mountain and is at an elevation of about 7,000 feet.  Mark Twain was a reporter and editor here for two years – before he was thrown out of town by the menfolks for insulting the society matrons in print.  Mining fairly much ceased about 1923, but the town still has many of its original buildings intact (many are also gone).  Most are along the main road through the center of town, and almost all are crooked and out-of-kilter.  The sidewalks are board and the streets are now asphalt-paved, but were most likely dirt or brick.

A special treat was being able to tour the Piper Opera House.  We totally lucked out on this one, as the volunteer guide only had it open for two hours that particular day, and they never post hours.  This building is the third opera house to have been in Virginia City and the second on that site, the first having burned down.  It has many unique features such as a "sprung" floor and has railroad coils underneath it to allow it to "give."  This is because the floor was installed with dancing in mind.  (The floor where the audience sits, not the stage.  And, it's flat; level, not "raked.")  The total seating capacity is 800, including 300 in the balcony.  Seating is with church pews in the balcony and with portable chairs on the main floor. 

Over the years, every kind of event has played there: opera, recitals, plays, boxing matches, concerts, even roller skating and basketball!  The good news is that the week that we were there, the Nevada State Legislature approved appropriations of nearly $500,000 to buy the building.  They are then to give it to the Comstock Historic Society, which has grants and plans to restore and upgrade the building back to a top-notch facility.  A new cement foundation has already been placed under the entire building; raising one side up one inch and the other one foot!

It's hard to imagine it now, but Virginia City was at one time immensely wealthy.  The city's buildings were equipped with the latest and the best.  A few persons even had their horses shod with silver horseshoes.  It's still serviced in the summer by the train that used to come all the way from Carson City and up the mountain.  This train now takes tourists from Virginia City to Gold City (two miles down the mountain to the south) and back.  We were fortunate and pleased with our visit.  The weather was clear and sunny for our foray into the Old West.  In mid-November, there's often snow.

In addition to the historic charm and interest of the area and town, the view is also one to elicit plenty of "ohhs" and ahhs."  From the middle of town, the view is unobstructed and it's possible to look east directly to the Nevada desert 3,000 feet below.  We were able to find a restaurant on the right side of street that had a balcony (the only one in town, it turns out), so we were able to enjoy this view and the warm sun while basking in the delight of good food (including a huge chocolate milkshake) and the special setting.

In the Sierra, it's free-range for the animals – no fences.  While driving north back to Reno and the airport, we saw three horses frisking together; beautiful beasts looking happy and free.  I think we also felt like this too, as we wended our way down the mountain in our Mustang convertible – feeling the wind and sun and thinking like we had a day of play and enrichment, and that Reno had indeed been "Keno."

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