Hollywood Comes to Call
Coronado’s close proximity to Los Angeles has made the Hotel del Coronado a popular celebrity destination for more than one hundred years. Not only have Hollywood’s elite retreated here for vacations, they’ve also made movies here.
The first movie made at The Del was Knights of Pythias Camp, filmed in 1901 by the Edison Moving Picture Company. Hollywood was still a rural community at that point, but in a very few years, it would emerge – and remain – the filmmaking capital of the world.
Southern California’s near-perfect climate was ideal for the fledgling industry since, at that time, all filming had to be done outside, using daylight (even “interior” scenes were created out-of-doors). Endless days of California sunshine – without heat or humidity – were perfectly suited for the filmmaking requirements of the early 1900s.
Cinema and Celebrities
The hotel has attracted Hollywood royalty since it opened its doors in 1888, including some of the world’s greatest producers and directors such as Frank Capra, Hal Roach, Daryl Zanuck, and Stephen Spielberg. But, it has always been the movie stars themselves that have attracted the most attention.
Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), a stage actress, may have been The Del’s very first big name entertainer. During her 1888 visit, Langtry said of The Del, “Its immensity astonishes me and its perfect beauty delights me. It is in every way so different from any hotel I have ever seen. It has a new surprise wherever I turn. It is so fresh and nice, it gives such a feeling of pleasing repose, and altogether it has a delightful influence on one.”
Knights of Pythias Camp and Tent City, the first two movies made in Coronado, were shot at The Del and thought to have been documentaries about the hotel.
In 1915, the movie Pearl of the Pacific was filmed at The Del.
Also in 1915, Siegemund Lubin – a motion picture giant in his day – established Lubin Studios in Coronado. Hotel owner John D. Spreckels – known for his dedication to community – offered Lubin a $1 a year lease for an extensive piece of property on the San Diego Bay. Lubin, in turn, invested $10,000 to build a studio, stage, film plant, storage facilities, repair shops, dressing rooms, and garages (all surrounded by a dramatic castle-like wall). The studio made as many as twenty movies in Coronado, including The Power of Salim Bey and Billy Joins the Navy.
By 1920, Hollywood was well established as the movie metropolis. Even with the worldwide Depression (which lasted from 1929 to 1941), Hollywood never faltered; in fact, historians agree that it was the only industry in America unaffected by financial collapse. And movie-going – an inexpensive diversion for millions of Americans trapped by the Depression – became the country’s favorite pastime.
The Hotel del Coronado, in turn, held a special attraction for Tinseltown’s party-goers, thanks to its close proximity to Mexico, which offered horse-racing and liquor (Prohibition made liquor illegal in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933). As an added incentive, crooner Bing Crosby and other Hollywood investors, opened nearby Del Mar Racetrack in 1938.
Not surprisingly, with all it had to offer, famous celebrities at The Del became commonplace, including superstars like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Al Jolson, Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Mae West, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Helen Hayes, Ruby Keeler, Stan Laurel, Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland, Dick Powell, Anthony Quinn, George Raft, Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson, Will Rogers, and James Stewart.
In 1924, My Husband’s Wives was filmed at The Del, starring Bryant Washburn and Lois Wilson. Another movie shot in the 1920s was The Flying Fleet (1929) with Ramon Novarro and Anita Page. In 1935, Coronado actor Johnny Downs was featured in the movie Coronado, which also starred Jack Haley and Andy Devine. Yours for the Asking (sometimes titled Moon Over Miami), with Dolores Costello, George Raft, Ida Lupino, Edward Kennedy, and John Barrymore was filmed at The Del in 1936. And, in 1939, the movie Dive Bomber, starring Errol Flynn, Fred MacMurray, and Alexis Smith, included shots of the hotel.
World War II and the 1940s
Throughout World War II, the hotel was San Diego’s premier watering hole for the military personnel stationed in the area. One guest – the wife of a Navy officer herself – remembers seeing actor Robert Montgomery at The Del. “He walked through the lobby in Navy uniform. He was very popular in those days and gorgeous!”
But, not all celebrities at The Del were in the armed forces. During the war years, the hotel also played host to Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Judy Garland, Maureen O’Hara, Mickey Rooney, Lana Turner, and Rudy Vallee.
After the war, celebrity sightings included George Sanders, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall. And, in 1946, America’s premier dance instructor, Arthur Murray, established a dance studio at The Del.
Movie stars – and now, television stars – flocked to The Del throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with visits from Doris Day, Joan Crawford, Walt Disney, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Walter Pidgeon, Donna Reed, Dinah Shore, and Loretta Young, just to name a few.
Movies made at The Del during this period included Cry for Happy, with Glenn Ford and Donald O’Connor, and The Easy Way with Jane Fonda and Lana Turner.
The hotel was also instrumental in helping to launch the careers of some television giants. In fact, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz retreated to The Del in 1950 to polish their comedy routine under the direction of “Pepito the Spanish Clown,” a renowned vaudeville performer. They stayed at The Del for a couple of weeks, where they also developed their “Ricky and Lucy” personas (he the serious Cuban bandleader; she his zany star-struck wife). They then took their show on the road, eventually landing their own television program shortly after their stay. In fact, during one episode of I Love Lucy, “Lucy and Ricky” stayed at The Del with their friends, “Fred and Ethel Mertz.”
Liberace, the undisputed king of keys and candelabras, was playing piano at The Del when he was discovered in 1950. On one fateful night, Liberace’s audience was so small the hotel told him he could cancel his performance if he wanted to. Liberace declined – and lucky for him he did. In the audience that night was a television producer, who recognized that Liberace’s ability to connect with a small audience would be perfect for the intimacy and the immediacy of the “small screen.” And the rest (as they say) is Hollywood history!
1958 Some Like it Hot
Hollywood history was again made at The Del in 1958, when Some Like It Hot was shot here, starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis. Although the stars were well known at the time, and the movie received rave reviews, few could have predicted the film’s staying power. Nearly fifty years later, the movie was recently heralded by the American Film Institute as the best comedy of all time. It is also the Marilyn Monroe movie most shown on television today.
This extraordinary film has never lost its luster; on the contrary, as the years go by, it becomes more and more popular and more and more revered. The film’s 25th anniversary in 1984 brought Lemmon, Curtis, and famed director Billy Wilder back to The Del for a special celebration.
The Del has always had the ability to attract Hollywood “royalty,” as well as its newest superstars. In the 1970s and 1980s, The Del played host to mega-celebrities such as Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and Burt Lancaster, as well as Goldie Hawn, Sylvester Stallone, and Renee Russo.
A variety of movies were filmed at the hotel in the 1970s, including the cult classic, The Stunt Man. Starring Peter O’Toole and Barbara Hershey, this feature film is scheduled for re-release in 2001. During the filming in 1977, the hotel’s exterior was altered and then “blown up” as part of the story line.
Other movies from the 1970s and 1980s include Wicked, Wicked, $ with Goldie Hawn, K-9 starring Jim Belushi, and Steve Martin’s My Blue Heaven.
Many, many television shows and made-for-TV movies were also filmed at The Del during the 1970s and 1980s, including Loving Couples with Shirley MacLaine, Susan Sarandon, and James Coburn; Space with James Garner, Michael York, Blair Brown, Beau Bridges, Harry Hamlin, and Bruce Dern; Ghost Story with Sebastian Cabot, Gena Rowland, and Karen Black; The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything; Captains and Kings with Henry Fonda, Ray Bolger, and Patty Duke; Rich Man, Poor Man with Nick Nolte, Dorothy McGuire, Ed Asner, and Susan Blakely; Hunter; Hart to Hart; Simon & Simon; and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
1988 Centennial Celebration
In 1988, the hotel celebrated its 100th birthday, and some of America’s biggest stars showed up for the festivities including Mary Martin, Donald O’Connor, Frank Sinatra, and John Wayne, as well as some of the original munchkins from The Wizard of Oz.
1990 to Present
The hotel continues to be a favorite spot for movie and television filming. In 1995, the movie Mr. Wrong was filmed at the hotel, starring Ellen DeGeneres. Television shows/movies have included Ladies on Sweet Street with Helen Hayes, Baywatch (this two-part episode focused on the hotel’s very real ghost), Garth Brooks Live, and Silk Stalkings. The hotel continues to be a popular subject for television programs such as the Today Show, Historic Hotels, America’s Castles, California and the Dream Seekers, Weddings of a Lifetime, and True Mysteries.
Additional celebrity sightings in the recent past include Jason Alexander, Kim Basinger, Kevin Costner, Richard Dreyfus, Jodie Foster, Whoopie Goldberg, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Kelsey Grammar; Gene Hackman, George Harrison, Charlton Heston, Dustin Hoffman, Harvey Keitel, Larry King, David Letterman, Heather Locklear, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brad Pitt, Madonna, Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson, Gregory Peck, Sharon Stone, Barbara Streisand, Bruce Willis, and Oprah Winfrey.
Del Hollywood Trivia
During Will Rogers’ visit in 1927 (he was here to honor aviator Charles Lindbergh after Lindbergh’s successful transatlantic flight), Lindbergh, who had munched on sandwiches during the long trip, was chided by Rogers for being the only man in history to take sandwiches to Paris.
Beautiful Anita Page, who starred in The Flying Fleet in 1929, fell in love with a Navy officer during her stay, and they eventually married and settled in Coronado.
George Raft, who visited the hotel in the 1930s, was also featured in the 1958 movie Some Like It Hot, although none of his scenes were shot at The Del.
Baseball great Joe DiMaggio and new wife, actress Dorothy Arnold, spent their honeymoon at The Del in 1939. Years later DiMaggio would wed Marilyn Monroe, who had also had a Del connection.
One Coronadan – as a young teenager during World War II – remembers seeing women sitting around the hotel’s pool, all with black eyes. She eventually found out that they were Hollywood celebrities recovering from facelift surgery. The young girl’s father was deathly afraid of polio, and he did not allow her to go into any movie theaters. Consequently, she didn’t know any of the celebrities.
Actress Kay Williams divorced from Adolph Spreckels, son of hotel owner John D. Spreckels, eventually married Clark Gable, and she was married to him at the time of his death.