Classic Cars and Comedy
Jay Leno talks about Nevada moments and his passion for cars.
BY ANN HENDERSON | JULY/AUGUST 2007
The 57-year-old Leno has a contract with NBC through 2009. He performs in Nevada frequently and writes a column for Popular Mechanics.
Californians often see him commuting from his Big Dog Garage in Burbank to the studio driving restored automobiles, such as his 1906 Stanley Steamer. Leno owns more than 90 cars spanning 100 years and is familiar with Reno’s Hot August Nights, which attracts thousands of gearheads annually. Leno shares their passion for cars.
The comedian says he doesn’t have a “collection,” just a bunch of drivable cars that are housed in a complex of three warehouses. The garage is equipped with a machine shop and all the equipment needed to fabricate parts—and in the gourmet kitchen, Leno dabbles in the culinary arts.
Leno’s first car, a 1955 Buick Roadster, doubled as his apartment during his leaner years and has since been modified with a big-block engine and Corvette suspension. Other unusual vehicles include a 250-mph gas turbine-powered motorcycle and The Tank Car, a 21-foot-long, aluminum-bodied roadster powered by a M47 Patton tank engine.
Leno talked about cars and performing in Nevada with Ann Henderson, Nevada Magazine’s events and entertainment editor.
NM: You perform at the Mirage in Las Vegas about two weekends a month. When and where did you first appear in Nevada?
JL: It was in the ’70s. I used to open for John Denver at Harrah’s Tahoe. In 1976, at Caesars Palace, I asked why they built the hotel in the middle of nowhere. I was 26 years old, just starting out. At that time they had dinner shows and would put the comic on to entertain between the clanging and banging of dinner and complaints of, “I didn’t order this.” Just to get through a show was a big deal, but I loved playing Vegas.
NM: What other memories stand out?
JL: I was very naïve. After opening for Tom Jones at Caesars Palace, as I was leaving the showroom, a woman said, “Good show,” and asked where I was going. When I told her, “The coffee shop,” she asked if she could join me. We had a cup of coffee, and after about 20 minutes, she said, “I don’t have all night, I’m working.” I realized she hadn’t seen the show—she was a hooker. I had no idea what was going on.
I had another situation on stage, again with Tom Jones. I was getting to the end of my allotted 20 minutes when they gave me a cue to stretch. Evidently Tom had split his pants and they were frantically searching for another pair. When 20 minutes turned into 30 minutes, then 40, the audience knew something was wrong.
During one stay in Reno, my wife, Mavis, and I were hitting all the pawnshops, and decided to pick up something for my mom. The shop was full of guns and the clerk tried to sell me a pearl-handled derringer. When I said my mother really wasn’t the type to shoot a gun, he suggested she wear it on a chain around her neck!
One time on the South Shore at Tahoe, Johnny Ray, who was elderly at the time, had a problem with his hearing aids. When they went dead and Ray opened his mouth to sing, nothing came out. It was very odd.
I must say the great thing about playing Nevada is the hotels have the best sound systems and professional stagehands. If a show doesn’t work, it’s your fault. Problems rarely happen in Vegas because they are pros. It’s not like playing a function room at a Holiday Inn where the microphone screeches every time you speak.
NM: What about your April appearance in Wendover?
JL: I thought it was terrific. I come from a small town and rural area, so I’m not a snob. Hip people are not just in Vegas. [The Wendover] audience was extremely appreciative, polite, and paid attention. In Atlantic City, people drift in around 8:20 p.m. In Wendover they were in place, ready to go, before 8 p.m. I hope to play there again, if they ask me. I also had fun with some car guys. In all, it was a great place to hang out.
NM: How do you fill your off-hours in Nevada when you are not performing
JL: I don’t gamble, smoke, or drink. I visit car collections—Imperial Palace (Las Vegas) and Harrah’s (Reno). Yes, I saw Bill Harrah’s collection when it filled warehouse after warehouse in Sparks. I knew Harrah. He was always very nice to me. I played Reno one year during Hot August Nights. It was a lot of fun.
NM: During your show at the Mirage, you talk about your family. As a teenager, what was Sunday dinner like at your house?
JL: Noisy. Sundays were a big deal, and we always ate at 2:30 p.m. My mother made all three meals from scratch, going through three ovens in 15 years. I was 13 before I realized the pilgrims and Indians didn’t have lasagna.
My mother was Scottish, my father Italian, two completely diverse cultures pulling me in different directions. At my aunt and uncle’s house they would have a five-gallon pot of sauce on the stove. The Scottish side was aghast at the number of meatballs and considered a stale scone and a warm Coke a treat. It was all very funny.
NM: Do you have a favorite car other than the 1955 Buick?
JL: I tend to like really odd cars like the Doble steamer, which was built in 1925. Not many people have heard of it, but it is high-tech and functions well. Some of my cars are considered valuable, others are old, and others I just happen to like. I don’t think of it as a car collection. You buy what you like, and if they happen to appreciate, fine. Otherwise, it is not about making money. I don’t intend to sell my cars unless it’s dire circumstances. I’d probably sell my house first.
NM: You performed at the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix in April, and you sponsor Bernard Juchli, the Big Dog Garage mechanical genius. Juchli also is a racer who drove his 1976 Chevron to four championships in the Vintage Auto Racing Association circuit. Any desire to compete yourself?
JL: I’ve never competed. It’s not something you fall into just because you can afford it. Race car drivers are athletes. Their hand-eye coordination has to be the best.
NM: Is there any possibility in the future you may put your cars on public display?
JL: I can’t. There are too many restrictions, such as handicap accessibility, and the garage is not meant to be a museum. I drive my cars, often. If they sit more than three or four months, the gas gets bad. I have a Web site, jaylenosgarage.com for car enthusiasts.
NM: For now, then, you hang out at the garage, doing the “guy-thing?”
JL: You got it, babe.
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NEVADA CAR SHOWS
(Call ahead to confirm dates)
Wells Fun Run Car Show
Silver Dollar Car Classic
Hot August Nights
Hot August Nights Poker Run
White Pine Rodders Car Show
Main Street Event
Las Vegas Corvette Club Roulette
Aug. 31-Sept. 2
Cool September Days Car Show
Horizon Casino, Stateline
Super Run Car Show
’50s Car Show
Oct. (dates TBA)
Las Vegas Bug-In
Laughlin International Rally
& Motorsports Festival
Nov. (dates TBA)
Boulder City Spring Jamboree
May (dates TBA)
Cars, Stars, & Guitars Festival
May (dates TBA)
Big Mama’s Show & Shine
May (dates TBA)
May (dates TBA)
’50s Rockathon Car Show & Swap Meet
May (dates TBA)
Rappin’ to Minden
In-line powered vehicles
Run What Cha Brung
June (dates TBA)
Koyote Kruisers Car Show
June (dates TBA)
LENO’S SHOW SCHEDULE
Jay Leno will be appearing at the Silver Legacy in Reno on June 30 (silverlegacy.com, 800-687-8733), and at the Mirage in Las Vegas (mirage.com, 702-792-7777) on July 13-14, 27-28, August 3-4, 24-25, September 7-8, 28-29, October 5-6, 19-20, and November 2-3, 9-10.
NEVADA CAR MUSEUMS
National Automobile Museum
(The Harrah Collection)
Imperial Palace Auto Collection
Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort