Shutter closes on life of longtime celebrity photographer
June 1, 2003
As a boy Donald Dondero hid with his friends in the Capitol’s flower beds. In 1932, after hearing a rumor that former president Herbert Hoover would be in town the 12-year-old ran home and grabbed his camera. He shot one frame of the former president, not wanting to waste film, and thus began a career that would one day make him famous.
This memory is recorded in his book “Dateline Reno,” where he said “film came with eight exposures to the roll in those days, and I wasn’t about to waste any, I took only this one shot of him.”
The man whose photos appeared in the Nevada Appeal and around the world went on to build a career as a photographer that spanned a half century. He died Friday at his Reno home at the age of 83 a few weeks after his wife’s death. Dondero married his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth Franks, who died May 16. The couple are survived by three daughters.
Among those photographed by Dondero were John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and John Wayne.
His photos appeared in Life magazine and other national publications, and illustrated Reno’s heyday as the nation’s gambling, entertainment and divorce capital in the 1950s and 1960s.
Born Jan. 21, 1920 in Ely, Dondero grew up in Carson City and graduated from Carson High School in 1937. In 1951 Dondero had returned to the U.S. Navy. During WWII he had served as a fighter pilot and was shot down. He and his gunner drifted at sea for several days until the reached the Phillipines where they lived with guerrillas for more
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One of his most famous photos was of Sinatra and Monroe in the early 1960s at the Cal Neva casino on Lake Tahoe’s north shore.
State Archivist Guy Rocha said he has a copy of the famous photo from Dondero and that the photo always ran cropped.
“He always cropped that photograph,” Rocha said. “Marilyn’s husband, Arthur Miller, is in the shot and looking in a way that he’s not altogether happy.”
“Don’s photos went all over the world,” said Harry Spencer, a veteran Reno public relations executive. “(The shot of Sinatra and Monroe) has been bringing him royalties since 1960.”
When Dondero opened his own photography business after World War II, Reno was the divorce capital of the world and photos of celebrities in town to get “the cure” were in high demand.
In addition, the Mapes, Riverside and other Reno hotel-casinos were bringing in top-name entertainment.
“Everybody lost a friend on this one,” said Neal Cobb, a longtime friend of Dondero’s. “He was right up there with Ty Cobb and Rolan Melton. We’re running out of these pillars of society that represent the best of times.”
Neal described Dondero’s character as part philanthropist, local character and top-notch professional.
“You’re really mixing water and oil to get his character,” Cobb said. “Everything he did revolved around his family and his community. It is a big deal to know who and what you are and he knew. We just lost a large piece of this community when Don passed away.”
Despite his success, Dondero remained an easygoing guy who always had something funny to say, said Jean Stoess, who worked with him on the book. “He was a real pleasure to be around.”
Cobb said Dondero got his big start and his reputation for getting the job done no matter what after photographing the origins the 1957 gas explosion in downtown Reno.
The tunnels below the city had filled with gas. When it ignited it blew up all these buildings on Sierra and First streets, Cobb said. “It was this terrible, terrible explosion. He was hired to document where the source of this came from and he was down in the tunnels with the flash equipment. The guy was fearless.”
He continued to take photographs until about six months before his death, said his daughter, Debora Dondero.
As a Navy pilot during World War II, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for sinking a Japanese ship.
A memorial service celebrating the couple’s lives will be held from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Friday at the California Building at Reno’s Idlewild Park.
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