Jerry Buss dies at 80; slice of Mammoth history dies with him
Lakers owner built Rafters, Sierra Nevada Lodge
Well before Jerry Buss created “Showtime” in Los Angeles, people in Mammoth got a small taste of it on Old Mammoth Road.
Buss, the Los Angeles Lakers owner and real estate mogul who died of cancer on Monday, Feb. 18, at the age of 80, took a flier on Mammoth in 1967, building the Sierra Nevada Inn (now “Lodge”) and Rafters restaurant.
The construction was part of a larger scheme to establish a hotel empire in resort settings, said Bob Knox, a longtime business investor with Buss and who managed the property in its first glory years. Building a sports empire out of the Lakers, the Kings, the Forum, and professional tennis had not yet even occurred to Buss when he first came up the Sherwin Grade from Santa Monica.
But before people in Mammoth start to get all weepy over Buss’ legacy here, Knox offered a word of caution.
“Actually, Jerry didn’t even like Mammoth,” Knox said in an interview on the Tuesday after Buss’ death. “Every time he was here he’d always be in a bad mood.
“He saw Mammoth as a tool, and as a means for getting into the hotel business.”
Knox said Buss also regarded the high altitude here as a generally bad thing.
“He thought peoples’ brains up there were starved for oxygen,” Knox said.
But Mammoth intrigued him because it fit into a larger vision, according to Knox.
Buss’ vision was to put a hotel in the mountains for skiers, on the beach for the ocean crowd and in the desert, where he put hotels in Palm Desert and Phoenix, and briefly ran the Playboy Club in Phoenix.
The ski part was, arguably, the hardest part for him, Knox said.
At the time Buss first came to Mammoth, there was hardly anything here. The spot that is now occupied by the Mammoth Mall (The Good Life, Command Performance Skis, etc.) had donkeys grazing what little grass grew from the dirt; The Tavern occupied the corner of Old Mammoth Road and Main Street, and on the empty property up the road?
“There was nothing there,” Knox said. “Nothing.”
Buss bought the property on Old Mammoth Road, hired some top-drawer architects and went to work on the hotel, building it in three stages.
By 1972, when the construction on both the lodge and restaurant were complete, Rafters had established itself as the only “spot to be” in the then-fledgling ski town.
It was jammed almost every weekend night. Girls climbed into the rafters to leave mementoes (ahem) of their nights out; the music was loud; booze flowed freely; and it was an all-round high old time, generally.
“Yeah, some of those girls left some things behind in the rafters,” said longtime local Kathy Copeland, “like brain cells.”
The only thing missing from the whole scene was Buss himself.
“He was not visible in Mammoth then,” said John Eastman, the longtime Mammothite and Town Council member. “In fact, I’m not sure that I ever saw him at all in Mammoth.
“It was my impression that [Mammoth] was an investment. I got the sense that he put this together in a short time frame. That was a busy time in his life.”
Yet it was Buss who provided the environs for Mammoth’s Showtime of the era, just as the Forum became for L.A. in the late 70s as a palace for basketball—where the Hollywood set (Jack Nicholson, Dyan Cannon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Penny Marshall, Denzel Washington, Ice Cube, Andy Garcia, et al) sat courtside, and still do.
Meanwhile, on the floor, the Lakers reeled off 10 championships with Buss as the team owner, with players like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the rest.
It was a long way from here, but the memories, for those who were in Mammoth at the time, are invariably gilded when it comes to the lodge and the original Rafters, which was re-christened and remodeled by new owners Jim and Nancy Demetriades
Connie Moyer, Knox’s step daughter, said she remembers with fondness the summer days when the Sierra Nevada Inn bolstered a thriving tour bus business for seniors wishing to visit the mountains but who lacked the physical wherewithal to tackle the trails and lakes on their own.
“I spent my childhood at Sierra Nevada Inn with those seniors,” she said, noting that it would not have been possible without longtime Buss’ pal Knox and without the hotel and restaurant there.
All in all, and putting it into perspective, Moyer said she was glad the then-future owner of the Lakers was around.
“Jerry Buss had a very positive impact on this community.”