Pine Nuts: Mark Twain’s return to Virginia City 30 summers ago |

Pine Nuts: Mark Twain’s return to Virginia City 30 summers ago

Billy Varga was perhaps the last hard rock miner on the Lode. He worked alone in a tunnel over by Devil’s Gate. Nobody else would go there. Billy was one tough hombre.

One Saturday afternoon Billy was driving down C Street when for no good reason a fellow driving toward Billy popped a finger up into the air. Billy stopped his truck, jumped out, chased the guy down, pulled his arm out the window, grabbed the finger, and suggested, “Say you’re sorry!”

I was standing on the boardwalk in my white suit, witnessing this scintillating scene as it unfolded. What did the guy who angered Billy Varga do? He said he was sorry in a couple different languages and begged for mercy. One tough hombre that Billy Varga.

In the sensational local play of that summer, “Culture on the Comstock,” Billy burst onto the stage at Piper’s Opera House in a tutu and danced to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, creating a tsunami of laughter. Billy Varga — just one of the lovable characters I remember from that summer of ‘88.

Our Sheriff was Bob Delcarlo, and he wasn’t too sure about the ghost Mark Twain. I used to walk the boardwalk with my unlit cigar between shows at Piper’s and direct tourists to public restrooms when there weren’t any. One afternoon Bob stopped me and said, “Sam, if I see you pointing to the Opera House with your cigar I’m going to have to run you in.” A few of the merchants were afraid I was taking business away from C Street, so they resurrected a pandering law that was still on the books from the days of Julia Bulette, and applied that law to me.

It took four months of summer for merchants to warm up, but when Mac III was born in September, one of the vigilante members came out of his shop with a small pair of moccasins, handed me those moccasins, and said with a genuine smile, “These are for your son.”

We were between shows at Piper’s when I got the call from Washoe Med that Mac III was about to arrive. So I skipped the three o’clock matinee and headed down Geiger Grade at a pretty good clip. Sheriff Delcarlo was parked alongside the road and I slowed down enough to shout, “Hey Sheriff, my son is about to be born at Washoe Med … try and catch me!” That was the first time I ever saw Bob smile.

Macadoo, meanwhile, would not be ready for this world until 3 a.m., so I had the luxury of watching 16-year-old Andre Agassi knock 36-year-old Jimmy Connors out of the U.S. Open on television. I assured the other onlookers that in 16 years my son would be knocking 36-year-old Andre Agassi out of the U.S. Open and we could all watch it together right there at Washoe Med. Ah, that never happened.

Thirty summers and 4,000 Twain programs later I am more convinced than ever that Mark Twain speaks to us today with an immediacy that transcends the ages. I treasure those first 200 shows at Piper’s. Thank you for that, Virginia City … thank you over the moon!

Learn more about McAvoy Layne at

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