Having Hoped in Vain for a Chunk of Howard Hughes's Cash, Melvin Dummar Is Now Slinging Hash

updated 09/29/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1986 01:00AM

If you've gambled it all and lost it all, Gabbs, Nev. is as good a place to be as any. The creaky little desert mining town fries in its own heat about 140 miles east of Reno. There are about 850 people there, and you have to get through 65 miles of desolation before you get to the next town. So it comes as no surprise to find Melvin Dummar in Gabbs, playing out his string in the small cafe he owns. But Dummar is still singing—like he says he once sang to Howard Hughes—and he still has big dreams, just like he always did.

Dummar's big roll of the dice came in 1976, when a will surfaced stating Howard Hughes had left him Vie of his fortune because of an act of kindness Dummar had performed in 1967. According to Melvin's story, he was driving along a desert highway when he spotted a disheveled old man lying by the roadside. Dummar picked him up and drove him to Las Vegas, singing to him to pass the time. Dummar said the old man turned out to be Hughes, though Melvin professed to be surprised at the bequest. The courts eventually ruled that someone other than Hughes had written the will, and Dummar came up empty. But his story became famous, famous enough to be the basis for a 1980 movie called Melvin and Howard, about the incident in the desert that may or may not have happened.

The would-be multimillionaire, now 42, is flat broke. "I had about $200,000 in real estate but had to sell it at a loss to pay expenses during the trial," he says. "I don't get jobs because of who I am. People either think I'm rich or a crook." Dummar took over the cafe last February from his brother Ray "for nothing down, nothing a month." Business fell off by 50 percent, when many employees of the local mining company left after completing a construction project. Dummar laughs as he tells you this, then laughs some more when he tells you how his telephone service was temporarily cut off because he couldn't pay the bill.

"I want to make this work," says Dummar, who does some of the cooking while his 21-year-old daughter, Darcy, waits on tables. Then, he says, "If I had my way, I'd be singing and making enough money so I could go hunting." His second wife, Bonnie, who spends most of her time in West Point, Utah because she can't take the isolation in Gabbs, says, "I'd like to see him get a million dollars and get us out of this. Even now, I don't doubt Melvin. He can do anything he sets his mind to."

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