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BIGGEST little City
by Harry Spencer

The Paul Anderson Story 

Harry Spencer
Harry Spencer

The time was April of 1957, some sixty years ago, when Reno was to receive its most spectacular appearance on television.

The occasion was to occur in the Sky Room of the Mapes Hotel when strong man Paul Anderson would make a three or four minute live appearance on the famous Ed Sullivan Show. As reported in the Press, the popular Sullivan Show had an audience of 40,000,000 viewers.

The back story to this event is an interesting one and it began when owner Charles Mapes invited me to accompany him to meet the aforementioned Anderson in LA. He explained on the way down that Anderson had won Olympic Gold in the heavyweight division of lifting in the 1956 Olympics.

I queried Mapes as to what such an individual could do to entertain show patrons. He replied that we could figure out a number of spectacular “lifts” that no one else could duplicate. I wondered to myself whether or not dinner show patrons would be interested in watching a herculean strong man sweat as they were dining on the Mapes fine cuisine.

When we arrived we were met by one Pierre Cossette, who was the talent booking agent for the Mapes. As we drove away from the airport, Mapes commented on the age of Cossette’s car. Cossette replied, “Well, at least it’s a Mercedes Benz!”

We motored to a very modest house in Watts and entered to meet Anderson and his manager. In person the Olympic weight-lifter was a shade under six feet and weighed some three hundred pounds. His manager was a rather gruff individual who reminded me of a carny barker.

Our group went to the heavily-weeded backyard where Anderson proposed to show us his amazing ability. In one corner of the yard was a rusty set of railroad wheels attached to a train axle. With almost consummate ease, Anderson did a number of lifts with the heavy object. It was enough of a show to have Mapes immediately book him.

Returning to Reno, the next task was to figure out the best way to present Anderson to a nightclub audience. It was decided that well-known comic Dave Barry would act as emcee and string the whole production together. In addition to Anderson and Barry, the show would feature the chorus line — The Mapes Skylettes, dancer Sonny Howe, singer Joe Kirchen and the orchestra of Eddie Fitzpatrick.

At a meeting in Mapes office, I asked him (Mapes) what he thought the maximum weight was that Anderson could lift. Mapes replied, “Somewhere around nine hundred pounds.” I mentioned to Mapes that I knew a bag of one thousand silver dollars weighed sixty pounds and that possibly we could get enough bags of the coins to total nine hundred pounds. It would represent a $15,000 “lift” that we could offer to the person that could match Anderson’s lifting. Mapes was intrigued by the idea and we subsequently had Tripp Plastics assemble two large plastic boxes, one on each end of a long bar. This instrument was placed in the lobby of the hotel during the daytime hours with a sign attached touting the “Mapes $15,000 Challenge”.

For the twice-a-night show it would take four men to muscle the silvery barbell up to the Sky Room. At each performance, we would make sure that we had a couple of muscular gentlemen as “plants” in the audience, who would come on stage and attempt to lift a 300lb. standard barbell in order to qualify to attempt the heavier lift. Needless to say, none of them was ever successful.

Towards the end of Anderson’s two-week engagement, Mapes called me in and said he had good news for me. When I asked what that would be, he replied, “The Anderson Show has been so popular, I’ve decided to book him for another two weeks.” This did not come as very exciting news to me since I had sweated almost as much as Anderson to fill his thirty shows in the initial two weeks.

During this conversation, Cossette happened to be in the office with us and when Mapes asked me what we could do to increase interest in Anderson’s continuing performance, I suggested that the host of the most popular show on television was Ed Sullivan. Since he (Sullivan) had been a sports writer prior to his TV career, perhaps we could get Anderson a live spot on his New York show. At this juncture, Cossette spoke up and said he was leaving for New York the next day. He had a good friend who was an assistant director on the Ed Sullivan Show and he would see what he could do to promote such an event.

True to his word, Cossette called us the next day and said that not only was Sullivan interested, but instead of Anderson making the trip east, he wanted to do a live shot from Reno.

Mapes was overjoyed at the prospect of turning the Sky Room into a TV station. His joy diminished, however, when I mentioned that there was a three-hour difference between New York and Reno and that we would have to fill the Sky Room with an audience at 5 p.m.

Paul Anderson
Most spectacular feat that appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show was strong man Paul Anderson hoisting more than a dozen of Reno’s most comely females. Anderson served as the pillar of a circular swing set that carried the beauties.

Since we could not expect to get a full house at that early hour, I suggested to Mapes that we invite the first 150 members of the Prospectors’ Club and their ladies to be Mapes’ guests for the occasion. Mapes was a little taken aback by such a thought, but he concurred when I said we could charge the audience for drinks but give them a free dinner.

When the date for the Sunday show approached, the networks sent out three television cameras, a director and full crew and the show went on as scheduled.

It remains Reno’s greatest television exposure.