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‘Every entertainer knew who he was’: Casino reviewer and storyteller Mel Shields dies at 73

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‘Every entertainer knew who he was’: Casino reviewer and storyteller Mel Shields dies at 73

Mel Shields, the authoritative voice of Northern Nevada casino entertainment for 46 years, died Sept. 21 in Reno of complications from surgery. He was 73. At his insistence, there will be no funeral service.

The former high school English teacher was a correspondent for the show-business trade magazine Variety in the early 1970s until it ceased its casino-show coverage. He then wrote for the Nevada entertainment magazine Showtime, and debuted a weekly entertainment column in the Sacramento Bee in mid-1976, which ran until last Aug. 17. It appeared in various sections of the newspaper over the years before finding a permanent home in the Friday Ticket section.

“Before he retired from teaching (in 2002), he would go out and cover a show, drive home at midnight, write the review, get it off and be in his classroom by 7 that morning,” said his brother, Lonnie Shields, a retired elementary school principal and former legislative lobbyist.

The brothers grew up in rural Miles City, Mont., the sons of a railroad man who worked for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, which maintained a large depot in their hometown.

Shields loved everything about trains. His first stop whenever he visited Sacramento to meet with his Bee editor was the California State Railroad Museum, where he would spend hours wandering among the locomotives, reminiscing about his boyhood.

In high school, his English teacher recommended him to the University of Chicago’s “small town scholarship” program. Shields won a five-year full scholarship to the school, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature.

He got a teaching job at a high school in a Chicago suburb, but grew restless and sent his resume to high schools in Reno, where his brother and one of their aunts had settled.

“In 1969, the principal of Reno High School read his resume, called Mel and said, ‘I don’t want to interview you, I want to hire you – period,’” Lonnie Shields recalled.

Shields taught English there for 13 years, then transferred to the newly opened McQueen High School in 1982, where he taught for 20 more years.

Shields was revered by his students and “influenced a lot of young people in very positive ways,” said Harrah’s Tahoe public relations chief John Packer. For instance, Shields often invited former students – by that time, adults in their 30s and 40s – and their spouses as his guests when he reviewed shows in Harrah’s South Shore Room.

“When Mel would leave our booth to go backstage to interview the headliner, (the former students) would always say things like, ‘Mr. Mel changed the direction of my life.’ They were devoted to him.”

Also, whenever Shields was out in public, it was common for a grinning stranger to rush up to him and loudly say, “Mr. Shields! Do you remember me? I was in your English class!”

Even though Shields taught thousands of students, he always knew the person’s name and spent a few minutes chatting. The encounters invariably ended with the former students thanking him for making a profound difference in who they turned out to be.

It’s counterintuitive to think of someone working as a teacher by day and a reviewer-about-town by night, but Shields was a person of many contradictions who “was always enthralled by the arts,” Lonnie Shields said.

His big break came in 1971 at a post-show after-party in Reno, where he happened to meet Foster Church, the entertainment writer for the Nevada State Journal and a correspondent for Variety.

Church was about to be promoted at the Journal and his boss wanted him to end the extracurricular Variety gig. He asked if Shields was interested in applying for it. Shields was ecstatic. “Write a review of tonight’s show and we’ll see what happens,” Church told the young teacher. When Church read the review the next day, he made the call to Variety and Shields got the job.

In the golden age of casino entertainment – the 1960s through the 1980s – no expense was spared to bring A-list headliners to Lake Tahoe and Reno. The casinos brought in thousands of acts over the decades, and Shields reviewed and interviewed many of the biggest stars of the ‘70s and ‘80s, including Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Dionne Warwick, Billy Crystal, John Denver, Joan Rivers, Dolly Parton and a who’s who of others. He became personal friends with many of them, including Robin Williams, Debbie Reynolds and Tony Orlando.

“Mel was really very influential,” Packer recalled “Every entertainer knew who he was and wanted to be in his column. They respected him.”

“I sat in a booth with Mel many times at Sammy’s Showroom at Harrah’s Reno and listened to him talk about the entertainers he got to know and the friendships he made,” said Kerri Garcia, formerly a communications officer for the hotel-casino and now director of communications for the University of Nevada, Reno. “The thing I loved best about Mel was that he had a heart of gold, but he didn’t mince words. You could rely on him to tell it like it was.”

As he did the night he reviewed a particularly boring magician, turning to a companion and saying sotto voce, “The best trick this guy could do is disappear.”

Ten years ago, his health became a concern at the same time that many big acts were outgrowing the showrooms and moving to larger venues, including outdoor arenas. Consequently, Shields relied more on press-release announcements for his columns than expansive first-hand reviewing, though he was always quick to do phone interviews.

Two years ago he became involved with programs at the University of Nevada, Reno, recording oral histories (including “The Cultural Side of Reno”) and reminiscing about his career to audiences of seniors.

Shields was a masterful storyteller with a self-effacing wit who could hold his friends spellbound with anecdotes about celebrities past and present. Such as the time he interviewed Raquel Welch in her dressing room and couldn’t figure out why she kept giggling. It was only when they were saying goodbye that she told him his zipper was down.

Or the time in the late 1970s, when reporters flooded Red Skelton’s dressing room for post-show interviews, ignoring the woman who sat alone on a nearby chair, looking abandoned. Feeling badly for her, Shields left the media crush, pulled up a chair and struck up a conversation with her. When the room emptied, Shields learned he’d been talking with Skelton’s wife, Lothian.

“Red was very grateful because I was the only one in the room to even acknowledge her,” Shields said when telling the story. “He told me he would always be indebted and to call him if I ever needed anything.”

One of his best-told stories was when he reviewed Liberace’s opening night at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in the 1980s.

Bertha, the resident elephant, was a big attraction at the Nugget for decades, often performing in the Celebrity Showroom. When the curtains opened on this night, the audience gasped as Bertha lumbered onto the stage carrying Liberace in her trunk, high above her head.

“The crowd went berserk,” Shields would recall. “Lee was flashing that huge smile and waving to the audience. He was wearing his signature floor-length white ermine coat and so much diamond jewelry that he glittered in the lights.”

Bertha gently knelt on her forelegs, lowering Liberace to the stage. The showman threw his arms wide to the cheering audience, then bowed to Bertha. Bertha bowed back, and her trainer led her away to deafening applause.

At his point in his story, Shields would do an eerily accurate imitation of Liberace’s voice. “Wasn’t that just spectacular!” Liberace shouted to the audience. “Wasn’t that simply fantastic!”

Then he paused to let the clapping subside, and added, “And did you happen to notice the elephant?”

Shields loved all the arts, especially film and literature. His favorite poem was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, because, he explained, “It’s the saddest poem ever written in the English language. It appeals to the melancholy in me.” He would recite it on request, and even included the word “prufrock” in his email address.

One stanza near the end of the poem is this:

“I grow old, I grow old,

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.”

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