No matter how beautiful the standard hot-air balloon is, no matter how many colors are present or in what pattern they are distributed, it is inevitable that most of the audience's attention is directed toward those with special shapes a Noah's Ark balloon, for example, or a flying stagecoach.
This year's Great Reno Balloon Race, which takes place today through Sunday, will bring back popular shapes from the past, such as Darth Vader surrounded by his Imperial Stormtroopers, and Smokey Bear. A few new ones have been added, including Pencil Boy (a balloon created to promote literacy), a giant soccer ball, a strawberry, a shark, Party Panda and planet Earth.
The Darth Vader balloon comes from Belgium and is making its second Reno flight. The shark, along with a balloon called Sushi, will stay tethered for Reno's Children's Cabinet so at-risk kids can experience the joy of flight.
The Reno Great Balloon Race is the country's largest such event that is free to attend. It began in 1982 with 20 balloons; today it features more than 100.
It attracts about 150,000 people and its location, Rancho San Rafael Park, is one of the area's largest, most accessible and beautiful parks.
On Saturday and Sunday, the event begins at 5 a.m. with a "glow show" of balloons still tethered but brightly lit from within. At 5:30, many of the lighted balloons take off into the predawn sky for the "dawn patrol." The "mass ascension" takes place at 6:45 a.m. each day. There is a first-time evening glow show tonight, just after dark, with more than 30 balloons participating.
The pilots, from several nations, actually are racing to reach certain targets and achieve certain tasks. But most of the audience pays little heed to those matters. The thrill of Olympic races is in the finish. The thrill of a balloon race is in the start.
Balloon Boulevard, a row of booths full of crafts, souvenirs, food and drink, will be expanded this year to more than 80 vendors. The Cloud 9 VIP Club will have its first year with indoor and outdoor seating, in a clear tent with excellent views, along with a breakfast catered by the Eldorado and VIP parking passes ($75, $50 ages 10 and younger; www.renoballoon.com).
A few tips:
Parking is limited, so it is best to use the north lots of the University of Nevada, Reno, campus, across from the park. Cars parked there must be moved by 10 a.m.; bus shuttle service is available from the downtown Reno station at Fourth and Lake streets.
Rancho San Rafael Park is about a 1.5-mile walk from downtown Reno that will take you past the university. A stroll through the grounds is highly recommended on the way back (the tree-filled quad has been featured in several films).
Dress in layers, as September mornings can be chilly.
Pets often are spooked by the sounds and sights of inflating balloons; they are not allowed at the event.
The park is at the corner of North McCarran Boulevard and North Virginia Street, so take the West McCarran Boulevard exit off Interstate 80 east. The park is also the location of an arboretum and the May Museum.
A grander Grand Sierra
Reno's Grand Sierra Resort and Casino has had a long, spotty history. Opened in 1978 as the opulent MGM Grand, it became Bally's Reno; later, the Reno Hilton.
Now, the new owners have expressed a great deal of optimism for its success and have reinforced that success with cash. A grand opening last week revealed a beautifully redecorated casino floor (once the country's largest, the size of a football field), remodeled suites on the top floors (more to follow), a new restaurant, Cantina, and bar and lounge renovations.
Other renovations are in the works. The showroom, which retains its full acre of workable stage, also has seen an increase in bookings, including Saturday's "Pretty Lights," a combination of hip-hop and lighting effects ($30, $75; www. grandsierraresort.com), and upcoming concerts by Wilco on Sept. 23, Rise Against on Oct. 2 and Alice Cooper on Nov. 25).
Out and about
"Wild and Free" is Ziggy Marley's fourth solo album and includes special touches, such as a guest appearance by Woody Harrelson on the title track, a duet with the recently departed Heavy D, and a guest rap by Ziggy's son Daniel. Marley, whose music continues to show the influence of his father, Bob, appears in support of the album Saturday at Cache Creek. (8 p.m.; $59 seated, $45 standing; www.cachecreek.com or 800-225-2277)
Described with alliterative creativity as "the project of the prolific purple-paisley prophet, Prince," Morris Day and the Time were born as a Prince side project. Day himself was a singer in Prince's first band, Grand Central, and, inspired by photos of his grandfather in zoot suits, always has had a flair for fashion.
The Time originally was created by Prince as an outlet for his streetwise-funk sensibilities, in contrast with his soulful R&B. The movie "Purple Rain" followed, as did hits like "Get It Up," "Cool" and "Girl." Morris Day and the Time will be joined tonight at Thunder Valley by the S.O.S. Band, Midnight Star, and Kurtis Blow. (7 p.m.; $29.50, $39.50, $49.50, $59.50, $69.50; Ticketmaster.com or www.thundervalleyresort .com)
B-52s are bombers.
They were also affectionate names for beehive hairdos of a couple decades ago.
It was the latter that inspired the name of the popular B-52's, singers of "Love Shack." Unlike bands of their era that are defunct or playing purely nostalgic sets, the B-52's have retained popularity in live performance because they remain one of the best party bands around. They play Harrah's Tahoe on Saturday (7:30 p.m.; $22; Ticketmaster.com).
Steel Breeze plays mostly Top 40 from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. today and Saturday at Red Hawk; Michael Beck brings his band Gone Country in Sunday from 7 p.m. to midnight; and California Malibus offers R&B and Motown 7 p.m. to midnight Tuesday through Thursday (free).
Carson Valley Inn Cabaret Lounge: After Dark, today-Saturday; George Pickard, Tuesday-Wednesday; Decoy, Thursday-Sept. 15. (775) 782-9711.
Eldorado, Reno Showroom: "Jersey Nights," through Nov. 13. (800) 648-5966.
Harrah's Reno Sammy's Showroom: "Persuasion," Thursdays-Sundays. (800) 427-7247.
Harrah's Lake Tahoe South Shore Room: The B-52's, Saturday (800) 427-7247.
Harveys, Lake Tahoe Improv: Dennis Regan, Marc Price, through Sunday; Judy Gold, Alex Koll, Wednesday-Sept. 16. (800) 427-8397.
Horizon, Lake Tahoe Illusion Fusion starring Alex Ramon, Thursdays-Tuesdays. (775) 588-6211.
MontBleu Resort - MontBleu Theatre: Matis- yahu with the Dirty Heads, Sept. 27. (888) 829-7630.
Silver Legacy, Reno Grande Exposition Hall: Olivia Newton-John, next Friday; George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Sept. 21; Joe Walsh, Sept. 28. Jeff Foxworthy, Sept. 29; Kathy Griffin, Oct. 5; Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience, Oct. 6. Reno Events Center: Big Time Rush, Sept. 20; Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Sept. 22; Train, Sept. 27; Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sept. 29; Carrie Underwood, Oct. 12. (800) 687-8733.