Saddle-sore actors' hotel has an unbridled charm

October 28, 1990|By Paul Weingarten | Paul Weingarten,Chicago Tribune

GALLUP, N.M. -- Amid a garish strip of pawn shops, cheap motels, bars and Indian gift shops, the El Rancho Hotel shimmers into view like an outrageous mirage, a rambling, rustic hunting lodge in this sun-blasted high desert outpost.

From the dust of fabled Route 66 it looms, a whitewashed relic of a time when Hollywood came calling, when the painted desert, vermillion cliffs and towering needle-rock sentinels nearby provided the backdrop for scores of movie Westerns.

John Wayne slept here, as did Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney, Ronald Reagan, Alan Ladd, Rosalind Russell, Errol Flynn, Maureen O'Hara, Spencer Tracy, Kirk Douglas, Jimmy Stewart and a slew of other stars who braved sun and saddle here in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. Their names are now emblazoned over the rooms they once occupied, as close as the hotel's owner can determine.

The Spanish-Tudor style El Rancho was built by Hollywood mogul R. E. Griffith in 1937 and, like Gallup itself, the hotel ran full throttle in its early years. The illegal casino gambling never stopped. The bars never closed. And the movie stars kept coming.

Once, after a grueling day of shooting, John Wayne rode his horse through the side door of the Andalusian Room, a waitress who was there recalls, and bellied up to the bar, still on horseback.

"Gimme a beer," he bellowed, "and give my horse one, too."

This was also whispered to be the place where certain Hollywood luminaries would come, far from prying eyes, to bask in the heat and dry out. For some starlets, it may have been a place to drop out of sight for an illegal abortion.

Some who worked at the hotel recall stars being hustled to their rooms directly from the Santa Fe Railroad station a mile away. They would barricade themselves in their rooms for days before venturing forth.

"They'd come in and for three days you wouldn't see them," recalls Barbara Stanley, a former Chamber of Commerce executive director, who, as a teen-ager, was a waitress at the hotel in the early 1950s. "You'd just pass the trays through the door to their helpers."

Some locals wondered why Mr.Griffith, the brother of legendary movie director D. W., would build a luxury hotel in Gallup.

"It just seemed strange," Ms. Stanley said. "And I wondered why these people came here. If you were rich and very good-looking, you would go someplace more fun, not get on a train and come to Gallup."

The town then was a raw, violent, exuberantly lawless place where bootlegging and gambling ran wild and Navajo Indians -- forbidden by federal law from drinking -- nonetheless staggered down sidewalks at all hours.

The illegal hotel casino was widely tolerated by the authorities, who, in those days, totaled exactly one state trooper for a 500-square-mile area, including Gallup.

Movies did get made here. Some of the more prominent were "Ace in the Hole," with Kirk Douglas; "Pursued," starring Robert Mitchum; and "The Streets of Laredo," with William Holden.

Ronald Reagan -- who reportedly met first wife Jane Wyman in Gallup -- enjoyed the hotel so much while filming "The Bad Man" in 1940 that he returned several times.

But the stars stopped coming when Westerns faded in the early 1960s and the interstate highway diverted travelers who used to stop overnight in Gallup on their way east or west. The hotel passed through several owners before it went bankrupt in 1987.

The 75-room hotel was auctioned for $586,000 to a prominent local Indian goods merchant, Armand Ortega, who poured another $1.3 million into refurbishments before it reopened in May 1988.

Even though its neon marquee promises "The Charm of Yesterday . . . The Convenience of Tomorrow," the hotel delivers more of the former. The rooms run toward the modest, with clunky wagon-wheel-motif furniture and 1950s-era kitchens in a few suites. Each room, however, has Navajo rugs, paintings and vases that are not nailed down. And the price is right: the most expensive digs -- the Ronald Reagan Suite -- are $65 a night.

Even with its star power, however, the future of the hotel remains questionable. Mr. Ortega says business is good, but he also faces sharp competition from the newer chains. He doesn't seem to mind, though.

"If I never did make any money off the business," he said. "I figured I could shut it down and I'd have the largest homestead in New Mexico."

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