Soul on the tracks: ‘Fun Train’ boogies on up to Reno

Peggy Hauser of Roseville is a Reno Fun Train regular. She shows off her buttons from previous trips as she waits at the Sacramento Amtrak station.
Peggy Hauser of Roseville is a Reno Fun Train regular. She shows off her buttons from previous trips as she waits at the Sacramento Amtrak station.

Right on time, the “Soul Train” rolls into the Sacramento Amtrak station at 1 o’clock, its groove already on and most assuredly bringing the funk, having left Emeryville nearly three hours earlier on its righteous and stone-cold chillin’ way to Reno.

Actually, it’s the Reno Fun Train, which most Fridays in winter carries hedonistic revelers and, yeah, slightly more sedate folks, too, over the Sierra and down into the Biggest Little City in the World, where they will spend the better part of the weekend doing what people do in Reno before locomoting back to Northern California and relative normality in the harsh, cold light of Sunday morning.

Thematically, this Friday’s excursion is dedicated to soul and disco music of the 1970s and ’80s, the 15 passenger cars chartered by Key Holidays burning up the tracks with up-tempo, throbbing, amphetaminic anthems in concussive 4:4 time signature. If you don’t find yourself, whatever your background or ethnicity, getting down and shaking your money maker, then someone needs to check you for a pulse, so help me Don Cornelius.

And the Sacramento “Soul Train” contingent, braving the brunt of the so-called Atmospheric River storm while waiting on Track 5 for the hiss of the pneumatic doors to let them gain entry to the party train, did nothing to dampen the vibe.

Peggy Hauser, 85, of Roseville, and Rose Marie Luther, 74, of Fair Oaks, leaders of a group of 11 seniors mostly from the Maidu Walkers club, held their tickets in one hand and had the other clamped on their heads, keeping the wind gusts from sweeping their way-cool black afro wigs clean off their heads and halfway to West Sac.

“We’re trying to dress like soul, like that TV show,” says Hauser, a 20-year veteran of Reno Fun Trains, but this being her debut as a Soul Sister. “I didn’t know any of that (culture).”

“Yeah,” jokes Luther, “you were just a young girl at the time.”

“No, I was a homemaker, and I didn’t do any soul.”

She need not worry, for if this incarnation of the Reno Fun Train will prove anything, it will show that it’s never too late to channel your inner Marvin Gaye or Donna Summer.

Down the platform a ways, the funked-up 30ish triad of Ryan Maguire and George Lingonis, both of San Mateo, and Matt White of San Francisco are having a helluva time getting their fake ’fros to maximum fluffiness. White’s wielding the Aquanet with impunity, crop-spraying the crowd waiting for the doors to open. They are part of a group of 15 friends, but they’re late to the party, the dozen others boarding at Emeryville and, presumably, way ahead of them on the partying continuum.

“Wait, you’ve got a little bit of the white showing,” Lingonis says to Maguire, whose fire-engine red fright ’fro is a bit askew. Lingonis tucks a lock in and adjusts the tilt a bit.

“There,” he says.

“Thanks, man.”

At last, the doors open, and a mad scramble of roll-away luggage and clop of platform heels ensues, since only five hours of partying remains until the train is scheduled to arrive in Reno at 6:15 p.m.

1:18 p.m.: Pimpin’ the ride in Car No. 6

Still in Sacramento. Word is, the chicken pot pies from KFC, to be served to the “silver level” passengers (“gold level” customers get a white-tablecloth, sit-down meal with multiple entree options), are late in arriving.

No one seems to mind, though the perpetual smile of Jade Chapman, the president of Key Holidays, looks a little strained at the delay.

During this lull, you can hear, several cars away, the faint thrum of disco coming from the Dance Car, where the Bay Area-boarded passengers continue flailing their limbs in syncopation to the beat. But not Kenneth Pratt. He and his lovely ladies take up nearly the entire back third of Car No. 6. Pratt, dressed in a long purple fuzzy coat with white zebra-striped lapels, matching broad-brimmed hat and a silver-handled cane for good measure, looks like a younger, slimmer Issac Hayes. He’s got a boom box set up in one corner, and he’s shuffling CD jewel cases in his hands like a casino dealer showing off.

KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” segues into Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star,” while at the other end of the car another boom box is blaring Lou Rawl’s “You’ll Never Find,” causing an odd cacophonous collision of funk.

Melvina Hill, resplendent in a glittery red-and-gold gown, rounds up her “ladies” (Barbara Brown, Donna Merrida and Jackie Wiley) for a group selfie, with Pratt smiling broadly in the center and holding his cane like a sceptor. He is such a boss.

“It’s all about the music,” Pratt says. “You hear a song. You can identify it with what what you were doing. Takes you to a moment of time or a particular situation.”

1:45: Blue-eyed soul

Train moving east now, you stumble and sway along the narrow aisle and lean shoulders on doors between cars, the Dance Car your ultimate destination, when who should appear but an Elvis impersonator. This was a shock. Wouldn’t a Marvin Gaye impersonator have been more thematic?

Little matter. Just go with it. Elvis (a.k.a. Dennis Thornberry, of Cripple Creek, Colo.) has a full-time gig on the Reno Fun Train, so here he is, donning a rhinestone-studded blue jumpsuit, the front unzipped nearly to his navel, showing an impressive forest of black chest hair.

“There are some themes that Elvis doesn’t really work with,” he says, in his own voice, not Elvis’. “But it doesn’t matter. It could be soul if you really had to, because ‘Soul Train’ was on in ’70s and Elvis was making his comeback. … Last year, they had the Johnny Cash Fun Train, and they made me turn into Johnny Cash.”

Here, Thornberry breaks into the opening lines of “Folsom Prison Blues,” sounding like Johnny Cash with a head cold. You change the subject, so he’ll stop. You ask if he’s got some juicy stories to tell after five years in this gig.

“Oh, yeah,” he says, “but nothing I can tell you.”

2:22: Hegemony of the Dancing Sentry

There’s a pile-up farther down in Car No. 6. A woman, ample in her width and with margaritas sloshing in each outstretched hand because she’s dancing to the Temptations, blocks the aisle leading to the Piano Lounge and Dance Car, the main attractions.

One by one, people squeeze by, but she makes them boogie with her before allowing them to pass. She does a hip bump with an older woman to whom a hip fracture is not an abstract worry. When you pass by, she makes you do a little shimmy and asks, teasingly, “Who’s your mama?”

2:30: Piano Man takes five

Silence from the Piano Lounge. John Lee Sanders, a 14-year veteran of the Fun Train, departs from his keyboards and bends over a chicken pot pie. His tip jug – more than a jar; this thing is huge – is half full of bills, so he feels safe getting some sustenance.

“You know, I do write my own music,” he says, and mentions his website. “But in this gig, they just want me to play covers and stuff. I’m fine with it.”

2:35: Getting down

A lull at the Dance Car, as well. Chicken pot pies, apparently, hold some magical allure. But the pies and cole slaw – don’t forget the killer cole slaw – don’t tempt the foursome of Maurice and Shellie Mack, and Tony Beville and Robin Noble, all of Danville. DJ Brian Welch, who must risk epileptic seizures working in front of two pulsing strobe lights, has abandoned the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” and now spins Kool & The Gang’s “Get Down On It.”

And the couples heed Kool’s wise words, juking on the laminated hardwood dance floor, Maurice already so sweaty he’s completely unbuttoned his shirt and rivulets of sweat running down the cleavage of Shellie’s earth-toned one-piece jumpsuit. Beville and Noble are not quite so animated, maybe because Robin’s gold lame pants are so tight that it’s hard to move.

“Shellie’s a big advocate of theme stuff in whatever we do,” Maurice says. “So here we are. But talk to (Beville and Noble), they were featured in a Fun Train commercial.”

It’s true. Beville and Noble adds a measure of refracted celebrity to all others in the Dance Car, filling up again now that, train-wide, pot pies have been reduced to fragmented crusts.

3:21: White table-cloth service

You are “Pullman Gold Level,” so no pot pies for you. You wait patiently in the upstairs Dome Car, where wide windows would’ve afforded great views of the foothills and parts of the Sierra, if only the Atmospheric River hadn’t hit. It’s 20 degrees colder in the Dome Car, for some reason – maybe all the windows – but it keeps the drinks the white-coated waiters ply you with nicely chilled.

Downstairs, you opt for the goat cheese salad, herb roasted chicken with wild rice and mushroom-sherry cream sauce, and before the first forkful can be stabbed, the train stops. And it stays stopped through all three courses, Key Lime pie being the go-to dessert in your dinner seating. A neighboring diner asks the white-coated waitress the reason for the delay, and she says a tree with a 3-foot trunk has fallen on the tracks, no doubt thanks to the Atmospheric River.

Chapman pops in. She, like the train, stops. She chats you up, and her Key Holidays enthusiasm for all things Fun Train is as sweet as the Key Lime.

“This is the only train like this probably in the world,” she says. “Well, just say the country. I know there’s no other smoking car in the country. I know that for certain.”

Yes, the Fun Train has the distinction of being the only form of public transportation that allows smoking. Quite impressive, but it would take an act of journalistic will you don’t possess to visit the Carcinogenic Car up front.

“The boomers and younger (people) have not experienced train travel like this,” Chapman continues. “We make it a real party atmosphere and have a tradition of BYOB. Even in first class, they can bring champagne. No corkage like at a resort charges. It’s KFC in coach. The reason we feed them (in coach) is that there’s a lot of drinking going on.”

4:57: Moveable feast

Moving once more. A 6:15 arrival is wishful thinking. “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” wafts from Pratt’s boom box in Car No. 6, but most of his ladies have wandered off. (Rumor is, Elvis is doing a set in the Dance Car.) But not Hill, 59. She fusses over an elaborate spread on a counter near the car’s door. Not only has she BHOB, but a whole potluck picnic, too. Impressive.

“Drinks on one side, food on the other,” Hill says. “See, I’m the mother here. They wouldn’t let me set it up just right. But they left (for) the Blues Car, Dance Car, whatever. Now I can get busy.”

4:59: Dancing Sentry, redux

“Gotta dance your way past,” she says, smiling maniacally.

You do a few lame head shucks, wave your arms spasmodically, turn sideways and shuffle by. She – what the …? – gooses you. You feel so violated.

5:16: Burnin’ love

Far as we know, Elvis never recorded a soul album. No matter. The crowd in the Dance Car is rapt as he plows through the Sun Records songbook. Right there by the raised platform are Hauser and Luther, the afroed ladies from the Maidu Walkers. They move with a grace that makes you think everyone should take up volkssporting.

Hauser looks overheated, but no way she’s taking off her sweatshirt. On it, she proudly displays no fewer than 14 buttons from previous Fun Train adventures. Elvis makes eye contact with her during “Burning Love,” and she beams. Five minutes later, Elvis and Hauser have left the Dance Car – not together. Elvis, who went a little heavy on the Old Spice, is sweaty and needs a break, and Hauser and Luther repair to the Piano Lounge, where Sanders is in mid-set.

5:45: Twistin’ the night away

It’s supposed to be more subdued in the Piano Lounge. Twice during the trip, Sanders will croon “Tiny Dancer,” and other mid-tempo ditties. But his Chubby Checker cover has four of the Maidu Walkers bending knees and shaking booty. You get a whiff of, you think, perfume. Smells suspiciously like Mentholatum ointment.

People plop down when Sanders next plays “A Rainy Night in Georgia.”

6:01: Dancing Sentry meets Elvis

“Hey, Elvis, all these ladies want to see you naked.”

Car No. 6 is agog.

Elvis: “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

For the record, Elvis does not disrobe, and the Dancing Sentry lets him by with a blown kiss.

6:45: Partying Like the Donners

The train is way late. It’s just passing Donner Summit, according to a worker. (It’s too dark outside to see anything.) Word is, the train is slowed by a freight train ahead.

Windows in the Dance Car are steamed up. There’s a frenzy on the floor. “Shout” blares, and five guys from Santa Rosa dressed as the Village People hold court. Eddie Ortega, wearing a red leisure suit and a faux gold chain with “DISCO” in 3-inch letters, is about to pull girlfriend Lorennah Alanid onto the dance floor. But first, you ask him if he’s having fun yet on the Fun Train.

“F– yeah,” he shouts. “I work with a bunch of older guys, right? And they always say this is on their bucket list, but they never do it. I didn’t want to be one of those guys.”

Someone slips on the dance floor. The combination of more than six hours of drinking and the lurch and sway of the train has led to several Exxon Valdez-type of spillages, and a few comic pratfalls. Over in Car No. 5, a woman fell in the bathroom, and just stayed down for 10 minutes. “Just one more minute,” she slurs, seemingly nearing a blackout.

People aren’t just tipsy; they are sloshed. Tipsy was back in Auburn. Tipsy turned to blotto by Emigrant Gap. Now it’s nearing full debauch, and few seem to notice the train has stopped again.

7:37: Gradual loss of cruising altitude

As the train passes through Truckee, heading steadily closer to Reno, the raucousness has peaked. The Dance Car thins out. Hauser and Luther return to their seats in Car No. 5. The Dancing Sentry stands there, hands on ever-widening hips, telling you simply to “Suck in that gut to get by.” Pratt is still inspecting CD cases and has a mellower instrumental playing. Several people in Car No. 7 are either asleep or passed out, potato chip bags on their laps. Sanders finishes the last notes of “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and a woman raises her head from her stupor and says, “Hey, John, sing ‘Reno Bound.’”

“Wish I knew that one,” he says. “Who does it?”


8:30: Gold-level conversation

Woman No. 1, waiting for the restroom: “Nine hours! We could be in New York by now.”

Woman No. 2, behind her: “Thank God for the alcohol. Only way to survive.”

9:04: “Hear That Train A-Comin’”

Arrive in Reno, a slow slog to the hotel courtesy vans, some passengers seemingly in a fugue.

Sunday, 10 a.m.: The return trip

Just two words: “Bloody Mary.”

OK, a third: “Mimosa.”

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.


What: The Reno Fun Train, offered by Key Holidays, runs weekends (Friday through Sunday) through March 13. Upcoming theme trains: Feb. 27 (Rock ’n’ Roll Chocolate and wine tasting); March 6 (Country and Western); March 13 (St. Patrick’s Day beer tasting).

Cost: Train alone is $250; add $150 for gold level; combined with Reno hotel stay, $320-$394.

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