Rockin' the Comstock: Exploring the Unlikely and Underappreciated Role of a Mid-Nineteenth Century Northern Nevada Ghost Town (Virginia City) in the Development of the 1960s Psychedelic Esthetic and "San Francisco Sound"
AuthorBarnett, Engrid Noel
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Virginia City, Nevada, epitomized and continues to epitomize a liminal community -- existing on the very limen of the civilized and uncivilized, legitimate and illegitimate, parochial frontier and cosmopolitan metropolis. Throughout a 150-year history, its theaters attracted performers of national and international acclaim who entertained a diverse civic population. Many Comstock performers found success through the promotion of their own `exoticism,' navigating the seductive ambiguity of cultural liminality. Virginia City historically represented a major crossroads of transformation and innovation defined by its: (1) multi-layered liminality; (2) community-building efforts (music, parades, and theater); (3) interconnectivity to San Francisco and associated amenities; (4) carefully cultivated place myths; and, (5) role as a tourist space for play and fantasy. A sophisticated nineteenth-century metropolis with a multicultural landscape and wide array of amenities, its twentieth-century shade represented the converse. The population nearly vanished along with any semblances of its former diversity. Amenities were spare: isolation, silence, and expansive vistas. Residents were drawn to the area by Comstock family lineage, the desire to languish in reclusiveness, and/or frontier myths propagated by Popular Culture and perpetuated by local proprietors. Among the latter were colorful Bohemians (e.g. Duncan Emrich, Lucius Beebe, and Charles Clegg) who stemmed the community's slide into decay while fabricating and performing a Wild West of their own styling. In the 1950s and 60s, Bonanza and Gunsmoke brought tourists; the area celebrated its first tangible economy since the mines and brothels closed in the early twentieth century. Tourism came at a cost, though, as the Bohemians -- increasingly alienated by crowds and kitsch -- fled for their eccentric lives. Comstock business owners, nonetheless, spun fabulous legends, independent of any facts, transforming their city and its history. In 1965, however, real legends arrived. Fifty long-haired Bay Area Hipsters came to explore the Comstock's multi-layered liminality, re-establish the area's role as San Francisco's exurb, build an alternate community through ritual and music, and perform their own frontier expectations. Hipsters coalescing around the Red Dog Saloon inadvertently developed many of the primary features of a Counterculture soon to take San Francisco by storm. The result? Virginia City's `Summer of Love.'