What’s in a name?
Appeal Staff Writer
A bar by any other name will get you drunk just the same.
An establishment that has occupied 76 North C Street in Virginia City for almost 150 years has had three names through most of its history – The Comstock House Hotel, Kitty’s Longbranch, and the Red Dog Saloon.
Except for a brief period when the large, three-story brick building housed two gift stores and a pizza joint, it has been one of those three businesses; a hotel/bar/restaurant, then later just a bar/restaurant.
Now, after being closed for three and a half years, with sprinklers installed and much restoration done, a business with a familiar name is operating again.
Kitty’s Longbranch opened Friday with a new tin-type ceiling, new owners and a new mascot – a large wooden camel.
“This building can’t figure out what it wants to be,” said Gary Jackson, who with his wife, Diane, is opening the bar with Linda Del Carlo.
The Jacksons and Del Carlo have been the promoters for the Virginia City Camel Races the last few years, say Kitty’s Longbranch will be Camel Race Central, with camel race trophies already displayed.
The Jacksons own the Nevada Camel Company and provide the camels for the races, along with other events in the region. Del Carlo helped them with some of their other events and got them involved in the bar.
The first day showed the camel to be the main attraction as tourists hurried to take their photos in front of it.
Jackson said the bar had its first customer about 10:30 a.m. Friday.
“We sold them a couple of beers and a water,” he said. “Then more wanted to use our brand-new restrooms, and they ended up staying.”
Even more people kept coming in to see the camel and take photos.
“I tell them it’s my favorite camel because I don’t have to feed it or clean up after it,” Jackson said.
Kitty’s Longbranch is just a bar now, but it will be a restaurant that will offer pizza, hot wings and sandwiches as soon as they can get the renovation work completed.
Though the name, taken from the old Western series, “Gunsmoke,” brings visions of cowboys and gamblers, Gary Jackson said it’s not just going to be all cowboy and camels.
Virginia City’s reputation in the 1860s-70s as the richest place on earth was behind the decor of the Comstock House, according to Lucius Beebe, editor of the Territorial Enterprise in the 1950, who described it as “an amazement of marquetry, ormolu and other VIctorian splendors.”
Del Carlo said a story from the Comstock House era tells of a little girl that was killed back of the building on B Street, after being run over by a carriage in the late 1800s, and her ghost still haunts the building.
Around 1960, when “Gunsmoke” was the most-watched show on the small screen, the Comstock House ended its hotel operations and became Kitty’s Longbranch, which it remained until 1965, when a group of hippies from San Francisco turned it into their haven, the Red Dog Saloon.
Mark Unobsky bought the Comstock House building and the Red Dog was born.
The experience of the Red Dog, chronicled in Don and Mary Works’ film “Life and Times of the Red Dog Saloon,” was the actual beginning of the San Francisco music scene, with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Charlatans among the many bands that performed there before becoming famous.
Chandler Laughlin, of Silver City, was one of the Red Dog denizens, who described his time there as a group of hippies who dressed up in period costume and acted out roles.
“We had six women in period costume and the theory of the Red Dog was, when your feet hit the floor in the morning, you were in a B Western movie. And the Red Dog was the saloon at the end of the street where the outlaws hung out, waiting to rustle the cattle of a starving widow lady.
A few dozen people from San Francisco moved to Virginia City and helped open the Red Dog on July 29, 1965, with the Charlatans as the house band.
One of the many stories about the Red Dog Saloon of the mid 1960s was when Sheriff Bob Del Carlo came in and, honoring a Western tradition that said men should check their firearms at the bar, he handed the bartender his gun and said, “Check my gun?”
Don Works allegedly took the gun, spun the chamber and fired two shots into the floor. “Work’s fine, sheriff,” he said as he handed it back.
Del Carlo could not be reached to verify that story, but it is one of many that swirl around the Red Dog Saloon of the hippie era.
Apparently the hippies were better actors than business owners, because the Red Dog only lasted three years before it once again became Kitty’s Longbranch, which it remained until the mid 1990s, when Richard and Mary Harris reopened it as the Red Dog.
Locals entertainer Bobby Kittle worked Kitty’s Longbranch from 1985 to 1990, seven days a week, in the afternoons and then for awhile in the evenings.
“For the most part, it was a hard place to get the tourists to come in the door,” he said. “That end of town is that end of town and for some reason they didn’t come in.”
He said that Kitty’s in those days had good food, ribs and steaks, with bands on weekends and his show during the week.
“Back then Ray Loper had Solid Muldoon’s, which was a local hangout, and (Rick) Hoover had the Union Brewery and they had the trifecta where the locals hang out at that end of town,” he said.
Once the Harrises took over, they turned it back into the Red Dog and ran a pizza parlor on one side, bar on the other. It was the place to be for live music, with Harry Callahan’s Monday Night Acoustic Jam, bringing musicians Danny Greco, Mississippi Mitch, Kittle and more joining in. Sometimes tourists would get up and sing, and party with the locals.
The Harrises closed the bar in 2003 and moved away, and Robert Villegos was one of three partners to open it again. He put in a great deal of work, renovating the kitchen, building a large stage and adding slot machines, but it didn’t last. The hippie movement was over, at least in Virginia City.
Now it’s Kitty’s Longbranch again, which ironically it was when Jackson first went there in 1987, where he said he met his third wife.
Why did he take his shot at running the bar now? “Lack of intelligence, same as the camels,” he joked.
Though the bar is open now, Jackson is looking to have his grand opening on July 4. “Give people a reason to stay after the fireworks,” he said.
He said he and Del Carlo had a lot of plans, but will start with the bar, then go into a restaurant that will offer pizzas, sandwiches, hot wings and comparable fare.
“We’ll try to do a special Bloody Mary, where we’ll have different kinds of hot sauce and people can build their own Bloody Mary,” he said.
One thing it won’t have is slot machines.
“When we open the restaurant, we want this to be a family friendly building, and I don’t think slots adds to that,” he said, adding that he hoped to have the kitchen open by Camel Races, the second week of September. By then, he said, the courtyard will be available for smokers and bands will have dedicated the stage in the corner. They plan to have live music on weekends, and Jackson thinks it will be a combination of rock ‘n’ roll and country.
Though it won’t be the Red Dog, Jackson said he would like to honor that part of the building’s history by putting together a pamphlet telling the Red Dog story, as well as information about the Comstock House and previous versions of Kitty’s Longbranch.
But for now folks can stop by, have a drink, listen to the music and take their picture with the camel, and the bar will grow with its customers.
“We don’t know what will work for us, so we’ll try it all,” he said.
• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at email@example.com or call 881-7351.