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Don’t look for authenticity in pop culture

In June 1939, “Miss Boulder Dam” Bettina Norberg, who was a resident of Burlingame, California and had never actually seen the structure whose name she bore, arrived in Nevada during her royal term to tour the dam. She made the trip so that she could describe it during her duties as MBD.

It’s a tale that bears repeating in the wake of carpetbagging charges against the new “Miss USA,” who stepped up to that title from “Miss Nevada USA.” Nia Sanchez has lived in Clark County for a year and a half. On a radio program she was unable to name Nevada’s capital of Carson City, which together with her short residency fueled the carpetbagger charge.

Out of the 50 states and D.C., Nevada ranks 51 among the percentage of residents who are native born. Only 24 of every hundred Nevadans were born here. Ms. Sanchez is a perfect representative of the state – a transplant. And at any given moment, a big percentage of those transplants are NEW arrivals, many of whom would be unlikely to name the state capital.

More to the point, Sanchez didn’t run for office in Nevada. She was seeking a job. The Miss USA pageant is part of a corporation, much like the Las Vegas 51s or the Reno Aces. No one expects all the members of those teams to be from their team towns. Are they carpetbaggers?

Sanchez is now a year-long employee of the Miss USA Organization, which is owned by Miss Universe L.P., LLLP of New York. That company requires contestants to live in their home states for six months. The pageant winners represent the corporation, not their home states. Sanchez has one foot in pop culture and the other in her job. Should the public really look for authenticity in beauty pageants?

And if she doesn’t know Carson City’s name, let’s take a closer look at Carson City. There was a 1952 Randolph Scott movie, “Carson City,” that was made in Griffith Park in Los Angeles and on two California ranches. None of it was made in Carson City. Was this lack of authenticity some kind of a betrayal of the real Carson City? Numerous movies filmed elsewhere represent Nevada communities, and Nevada has played the role of many other places.

It was in Carson City where Nevada’s first U.S. senators were chosen. Those were the days when senators were appointed by state legislatures instead of elected by the public.

Most of Nevada’s 19th century senators were Californians. Rich people came to Carson City, took hotel rooms, and started bidding for the votes of state legislators. It was cheaper to buy a U.S. senate seat in Nevada than in other states, though bribes of Nevada legislators for their votes were usually in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

One of those who bought a U.S. Senate seat from the Nevada Legislature was William Sharon of San Francisco. After he was sworn in, he spent virtually his entire six-year term in San Francisco. I am not making this up.

In 1879, his fourth year in office (or not in office), Secretary of the Senate John Burch said that if Sharon tried to claim his salary then he, Burch, would submit the case to the U.S. Treasury controller.

Nevadans were only mildly put out by this kind of carpetbagging and lack of authenticity. Sharon not only ran for re-election but was a serious contender, losing but coming close to winning.

On the other hand, the alleged carpetbagging of an imitation queen of Nevada gets people worked up. Since World War Two, pop culture has seemed to outrank serious concerns in the lives of the people of the United States.

In the 1950s Nevada had one of the worst U.S. senators in the nation. Republican right-winger George Malone was once described by the conservative columnists Evans and Novak as the “most crashing bore in the Senate” and the New York Times said Malone was capable of clearing the Senate hall merely by rising to speak (President Eisenhower said Malone “has little place in the new Republican Party”).

At the same time that Malone was serving in the Senate, Nevada also had Eleanor and Jeanne Fulstone of Smith Valley, one of the sets of Toni twins. This was an advertising campaign for a home permanent kit and its slogan was, “Which twin has the Toni?” (It was Eleanor.)

I’ve often wondered whether Nevadans took more interest in their senator or their Toni twins.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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