Hotel del Coronado, established in 1888 as San Diego’s Pacific landmark luxury beach resort, has enjoyed a long relationship with Hollywood. Almost from its earliest days, moviemakers have sought The Del’s spectacular location, as have Hollywood stars, who have long enjoyed the Coronado Island retreat as a Los Angeles getaway.
Stage actress Lillie Langtry (1853-1929) may have been The Del’s first celebrity vacationer. During her 1888 stay, Langtry said of The Del, “Its immensity astonishes me, and its perfect beauty delights me.”
The first movies filmed at The Del were short “documentaries” produced in the late 1890s by none other than the Edison Moving Picture Company. These included simple films such as Dogs Playing in Surf and Ferryboat Entering Coronado Slip. At that time, Hollywood was still a rural community, but in a very few years, it would emerge as the filmmaking capital of the world, with The Del well situated to become a permanent part of its history.
Southern California’s near-perfect climate was ideal for the fledgling industry since all filming had to be done outside, using daylight (without advancements in electricity, even interior scenes were created out-of-doors). Endless days of California sunshine, without heat or humidity, were perfectly suited to early filmmaking requirements.
This probably explains why some of the world’s greatest producers and directors have been drawn to The Del, including legendary filmmakers Frank Capra, Hal Roach, and Daryl Zanuck.
Maiden and Men is thought to be the first feature film shot at The Del. Directed by Allan Dwan, the resort romance was referenced in Motion Picture World, which noted the movie’s “bewildering array of settings, whose equal have certainly never before been seen in motion pictures.”
In 1915, Siegmund Lubin, a motion picture giant in his day, established Lubin Studios in Coronado. Hotel owner John D. Spreckels – who wanted to encourage the community’s commercial development – offered Lubin an expansive piece of property along San Diego Bay in exchange for a $1-a-year rental fee. Lubin, in turn, invested $10,000 to build a studio – complete with extensive storage facilities, repair shops, dressing rooms, garages, etc. – all surrounded by a dramatic castle-like wall. Although Lubin’s tenure was short-lived, his studio made more than twenty movies in Coronado, including Billy Joins the Navy.
By 1915, movies were also being filmed at Coronado’s Naval Air Station North Island, with stars such as Mary Pickford housed at The Del.
In 1916, director Harry Pollard, along with actress-wife Margarita Fischer, took a fancy to Coronado, casting the hotel’s garden patio as a South Sea island in Miss Jackie of the Navy. That same year, the Pollards filmed Pearl of Paradise at The Del.
Actress Mae Murray was featured in Princess Virtue in 1917, using The Del’s nearby Tent City setting [PHOTO AVAILABLE]; and in 1918 Rudolph Valentino starred in The Married Virgin as a dashing social climber who marries his lover’s daughter to gain cess to the family’s fortune. Now available on DVD, this silent film showcases the hotel’s gardens and beaches.
Rudolph Valentino returned to The Del in 1922 with Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks, the story of a bride who falls in love with someone else during her Del honeymoon. Swanson acted at the hotel again in 1925, playing a young heiress in The Coast of Folly. These early films helped establish Hotel del Coronado as a seaside retreat for America’s wealthy.
In 1924, My Husband’s Wives was filmed at The Del, starring Bryant Washburn and Shirley Mason [PHOTOS AVAILABLE], followed by The Flying Fleet in 1929 with Ramon Navarro and Anita Page [PHOTO AVAILABLE], who fell in love with a Navy officer during her stay, eventually marrying and settling in Coronado.
In 1935, Coronado actor Johnny Downs (from the Our Gang comedies) was featured in Coronado, the story of a rich hotel guest who falls in love with a Tent City singer. This film, which also starred Jack Haley and Andy Devine, once again cast The Del as a playground for the wealthy. Yours for the Asking with Dolores Costello, George Raft, and Ida Lupino was filmed at the hotel in 1936.
Although the 1920s and 1930s produced the Great Depression (1929-1941), Hollywood seemed immune to the nation’s financial setbacks, and moneyed celebrities continued to frequent The Del, including Charlie Chaplin (he enjoyed playing polo), Douglas Fairbanks, Al Jolson, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Rita Hayworth, Helen Hayes, Ruby Keeler, Stan Laurel, Anthony Quinn, George Raft, Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson, Will Rogers, and James Stewart.
During Prohibition (1920-1933), The Del was a favored SoCal destination for Hollywood celebrities, who preferred it as home base for daytrips into Mexico, where they could enjoy cocktails and horseracing. And, in 1938, when legendary crooner Bing Crosby established Del Mar Racetrack, The Del became even more attractive for Hollywood’s horseracing set.
Meanwhile, with war raging in Europe in the 1930s, Naval Air Station North Island was the setting for many military-themed movies, including Hell Divers (1931), Devil Dogs of the Air (1935), Wings Over Honolulu (1937), Flight Command (c. 1938), and Dive Bomber (1941). These, in turn, drew additional celebrities to The Del, including Clark Gable (he later married actress Kay Williams, the former daughter-in-law of hotel owner John D. Spreckels), Wallace Beery, Conrad Nagel, James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Ray Milland, George Brent, Olivia de Havilland, Robert Taylor, Walter Pidgeon, Red Skelton, Errol Flynn, Fred MacMurray, Ralph Bellamy, and Alexis Smith.
World War II and the 1940s
Throughout World War II, Hotel del Coronado was San Diego’s premier watering hole for 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 his 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, as well as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. And, in 1946, America’s premier dance instructor, Arthur Murray, established a studio at The Del.
An interesting Hollywood postscript: According to a guest from the hotel’s World War II years, women with black eyes were all the rage. It turned out The Del had become a not-so-private retreat for actresses recovering from facelift surgery.
Movie stars – and now, television stars – flocked to The Del throughout the 1950s and ’60s, with visits from Doris Day, Joan Crawford, Walt Disney, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Donna Reed, Dinah Shore, and Loretta Young, just to name a few.
The hotel was also instrumental in helping to launch the careers of some television giants. 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 hotel 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, I Love Lucy. In one episode, “Lucy and Ricky Ricardo” stay at Hotel del Coronado 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 that fateful night, Liberace’s audience was so small the hotel told him he could cancel his performance. Liberace declined, and lucky for him he did. In the audience that night was a television producer who – recognizing Liberace’s ability to connect with a small audience – realized the pianist would be perfect for the immediacy and intimacy of the “small screen.” And the rest, as they say, is Hollywood history!
In 1957, Ronald Reagan filmed Hellcats of the Navy at Naval Air Station North Island, becoming a frequent visitor during his years in Hollywood. He continued to visit The Del when he was Governor of California and later as President
1958 Some Like It Hot
Hollywood history was again made at The Del in 1958, when Some Like It Hot was shot at the hotel starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon [PHOTOS AVAILABLE]. Although the stars were well known at the time and the movie received rave reviews, few could have predicted the film’s staying power – 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. The film’s 25th anniversary in 1984 brought Lemmon, Curtis, and famed director Billy Wilder back to The Del for a special celebration [PHOTOS AVAILABLE].
Additional Some Like It Hot celebrations at the hotel have included the 1995 Marilyn Monroe stamp dedication sponsored by the United States Postal Service and a Some Like It Hot 50th anniversary weekend in 2009, where Tony Curtis was honored at a Crown Room dinner, with the “girls in the band” in attendance.
In 2012, a U.S. postage stamp was issued with a likeness of Billy Wilder, along with a ukulele-strumming Marilyn Monroe (her character in Some Like It Hot) and The Del’s iconic turret.
Hotel del Coronado 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. During the filming in 1977, the hotel’s exterior was altered and then “blown up” as part of the story line [PHOTOS AVAILABLE]. Director Richard Rush and cast members reunited at The Del in 2002 to produce a documentary about the film entitled The Sinister Saga of Making “The Stunt Man.”
Other movies from the 1970s and 1980s include Wicked, Wicked; $ with Goldie Hawn; Loving Couples with Shirley MacLaine, Susan Sarandon, and James Coburn [PHOTOS AVAILABLE]; K-9 starring Jim Belushi; and Steve Martin’s My Blue Heaven with Rick Moranis and Joan Cusack.
Many television shows and made-for-TV movies were also filmed at The Del during the 1970s and ‘80s, including 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; as well as Hunter; Hart to Hart with Robert Wagner; Simon & Simon; and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
1988 Centennial Celebration
In 1988, the famous California hotel celebrated its 100th birthday, and some of America’s biggest stars joined the festivities including Mary Martin, Donald O’Connor, and Frank Sinatra, as well as some of the original munchkins from The Wizard of Oz.
In 1995, the movie Mr. Wrong was filmed at the hotel, starring Ellen DeGeneres. Television shows/movies included Ladies on Sweet Street with Helen Hayes; Baywatch (this two-part episode focused on the hotel’s ghost); Garth Brooks Live; and Silk Stalkings. The hotel continues to be a popular subject for television programs such as Today Show, Historic Hotels, America’s Castles, California and the Dream Seekers, Weddings of a Lifetime, and True Mysteries.
Today, historic Hotel del Coronado continues to attract celebrity A-listers thanks, in large part, to the exclusivity and privacy of Beach Village at The Del. The ultra-luxe oceanfront cottages and vacation rentals ensure that The Del’s glittering Hollywood history will continue uninterrupted for generations to come. Recent celebrity visits include Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Seth Rogen, Robert Downey Jr., Eva Mendes, Will Farrell, Shakira, Al Pacino, Jennifer Garner, Kevin Costner, Jack Nicholson, Oprah Winfrey, Julia-Louis-Dreyfus, Whoopie Goldberg, and Steven Spielberg.