Stars Over the Lake

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I stepped off the bus from Reno and looked at the biggest lake I had ever seen in my life, it was an ocean. I came to live with my family and go to high school here. I was sixteen and scared. I had flown from the East Coast and into a whole other universe. We had the Poconos at home and here were the Sierras, bumps verses mountains. Lake Tahoe was old and blue and deep. It straddled California and Nevada. It was a world class ski area and boasted world-class gambling. It was world-class excitement for a girl who came from a coal town where the biggest thrill was diving off the cliffs in the creek down past Nay Aug Park. It turned out to be the most amazing star-filled year of my life. I saw stars, lordy, I saw stars. You never saw such stars as you could from Heavenly Valley and also from inside the casinos. I also grew up a little bit and added a mile to my belt.

I saw that most residents worked the casinos, second and third generations of families. Kids worked around school and on vacations. You were safe and there was no stigma attached for working in such a place. The casinos loved our youthful energy and perkiness. It was simply a matter of going down to the Sheriff’s station and getting my working papers, I was fingerprinted and put into the system. It was a heady feeling, I felt grown up. My mother, who worked at the Sahara, knew lots of people and I soon landed a job at Harrah’s.

I was hired as a busgirl. That meant I was a helper to the waitstaff, we buskids set tables, cleaned tables, made soft drinks, made desserts and in general made a waitperson’s life easier so she could do her job better. The Pit Boss ran the casino floor and the Hostess ran the restaurant floor and the two were a well oiled machine. They know who you were, what you were and where you needed to be. All people were treated equally as far as courtesy and being given a pleasant experience at Harrah’s. The Hostess/Pit Boss know who the rich, famous, divine, and the movers were and they were made to feel very pleasant. I would marvel at how the hostesses would run everything with incredible beautiful precision, smile doing it, and never break a sweat.

A good busgirl/boy learned fast and made herself indispensable to her waitress. You knew you had arrived when the hostess would pair you up with a waitress who was taking care of special people. Only the best were approved to take care of the best. Unwritten rules were that you never let down your waitperson, never asked for an autograph, you smiled a lot, and worked your butt off. I learned quickly and became a favorite of the waitstaff and the hostess.

My first star was a famous guy who played a dad on TV. I was in awe as I bussed drinks helped out. I was in the back room, the private dining area for stars who wished privacy. One of the cooks said he liked to be stroked, liked to noticed and gushed over. So, I stepped up and said how much I enjoyed his show and blabbered on like an idiot. He screamed at me then screamed for my boss, my waitress was horrified. I cried and the cooks were laughing behind us. This man who personified Daddiness on TV was a mean bully. I was fired on the spot, apologies were made to mollify Mr. Bad Daddy and I ran through the back hall to get my clothes and leave in disgrace. My boss caught up to me and said I was not fired and said to work in the employee cafeteria for the two weeks Mr. Geniality was in house. He asked me if learned a lesson about cooks, rules and told me welcome to the world of bright stars and tarnished stars. I made no tips for my two week seclusion and when I came back to the main restaurant was reinstated to my previous status of being a favored busgirl.

I worked mainly graveyard shifts during school breaks and weekends and loved it. All the action happened after hours. Rendezvous’ took place then. Big stars and players came out after dark to play. Reno was glitzy and Vegas was super glitzy but Lake Tahoe had simple elegant class and the famous liked the feeling of it at times. I saw who was cavorting, who was naughty and nice, and who was just wanted to be left alone. Joey Bishop and some of his pack came in and they were fun. Mr. Bishop always ate in the main restaurant and flirted with ladies and smiled at everyone. Their bunch was a class act and their air may have been rarified but they let us breathe it in also. Petula Clark also ate with the public and was shy but polite, classy lady. Jim Nabors never ate in the restaurant but always made his way backstage through our back inner alleys and smiled and said hi to all the workers. That voice of his melted you and his eyes were friendly and the smiles were genuine.

Red Skelton was a mystery to me. He would put on a funny show and then he would come backstage and into the back hallways and his face and walk was so sad. This incredibly funny man was profoundly shy and at sixteen I did not understand how you could be so opposite from your public persona. Even what happened with my first star encounter did not prepare me for Mr. Skelton’s sadness.

I saw Elvis’ show once and I was thrilled, I was way in the back and could barely see him , but I DID see Elvis. That should go on my tombstone. By far, the best memory I have of the stars I met and saw was one man who still to this day, forty-two years later still lives in Technicolor in that memory box in the silky center of heart. It was a cold and blustery night, and the midnight shift was fast approaching. I was running late, no buses back in 1970 that ran to the casinos at that time of night, so the walk was long. The snow was coming sideways and on nights like this, the house is usually packed. Warm and cozy in the casino and time to eat and play. Safe and fun, come on in. I ran in the back door to the kitchens and the back inner hallways and the door slammed me in the back and threw me into a huge soft wall. I lay on the floor on my back and looked up into the face of a handsome bear. He was a big man with a fur coat on. He picked me up like I was a baby doll and said something soothing to the effect of “are you okay, darlin’?

I looked up at him and said that “you are . . . you are . . . “ and he chuckled and said that yes, he was. One thought upon another tumbled inside my addled brain. I just ran into Wayne Newton, he had to pick me up, he will be mad, I will be fired, I hit a star . . . what to do? But, wait, he asked how I was! He was nice to me, oh God, he was so handsome. I was brushed off by co-workers and whished off to get dressed. Next thing I know I am assigned to Mr. Newton’s party and I saw the beautiful exotic lady who sat by his side and could not tell you who the rest of his party was. I worked my butt off for my waitress and he smiled at me and talked to me like I was somebody. I kept my place and when I was done for the night I was smiling inside. I was tipped very handsomely money wise. Inside I was very rich indeed.

When the sun came up that next morning and my tired legs headed home, I realized that I had run into, been picked up by, and treated to an unforgettable night of wonder by a star that really did shine with class. Corny? You betcha. I am much older now and if I ran into Mr. Newton now I think I would still blush as only that long ago sixteen-year-old girl could do. It was heady stuff for a teenager, and still is for this fifty-seven year old. It just goes to show you, some stars shine on their own and some are just mirrors. Thank you Lake Tahoe and Mr. Newton.


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