Doors are locked. Lights extinguished. The world belongs to the nocturnal creatures, the ocean, the breeze, and a trickle of night people. Time is irrelevant. The past, the present, and the future assume the same dimension.
Men in tuxedos. Trousers rolled up and shoes cast aside. Ladies in fashionable evening dresses, held up to their knees, laughing and playing, chasing grunion at the water’s edge. They had played their games of chance in the casino of the Hotel Playas Ensenada until the wee hours of the morning and then rushed out to the beach to become children again.
It is the late 1930’s. Prohibition has been repealed. Hotel Playas Ensenada has vacillated between its glittering star-studded opening and times when it had little to offer but its elegance and an escape to a world of tranquility.
The hotel opened on Halloween, October 31, l930. Chauffeured imported limousines bearing Hollywood celebrities negotiated the long, narrow, serpentine road from Tijuana to Ensenada which had replaced the wagon trail. During opening week there were as many as six “cabin airplanes” at one time on the small landing field. The riding lights of private yachts twinkled in Todos Santos Bay. At anchor were passenger liners from Los Angeles and San Diego.
In an era that made heroes of its athletes, Jack Dempsey, the ex-heavyweight champion of the world, was the greatest of the superstars. He was the titular head of the hotel and one of its greatest drawing cards.
Xavier Cugat and his orchestra drove down from Los Angeles by way of the Ensenada highway. Celebrities, all in superb evening dress, danced to Cugat’s “Ensenada Rhythm”. Bing Crosby is said to have been the band singer. The band stayed on for several months. Mexico’s president, as well as the governor of Baja, were honoured guests at the opening.
By 1937 the economy was on the rebound, Hollywood was experiencing its “Golden Age”, and Playas Ensenada was becoming known as a retreat for movie stars. It appears that it was even fashionable to be married there. Ann Sheridan, Myrna Loy and Brian Donlevy were among those who tied the knot. Celebrities abound at the hotel casino. Prince Aly Khan turned up with actress Gene Tierney. (“His parties were the beginning of the jet set.”) Humphrey Bogart , a participant in the Newport to Ensenada Yacht Race signed the hotel register. This whole story for some reason brings to mind Richard Burton and his role in “The Night of the Iguana”, which was filmed in or near Puerto Vallarta, before it became a fashionable place to live or visit. “In 1938 fiery Mexican film star Lupe Velez, then married to the screen’s greatest Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, announced that the couple was taking over the Dempsey house, although it had been vandalized, its furniture stolen and windows smashed. Then there was Rudolph Valentino, the Matinee Idol of Hollywood’s Golden Era.
“The fortunes of the hotel proceeded like a roller-coaster, through the depression and through periods of prosperity before and after World War II. Its final year of operation was l962.” During the early 80’s I made friends in Ensenada and visited often. I occasionally wondered about the fascinating old building across the boulevard from the beach. It was years later that I actually ran across its history.
The following comments were made about Hotel Playas Ensenada during one of its slumps:
“Two large suites were always kept available for occupancy. Immaculate linens, everything. We used to take these rooms, my wife and I, often together with Loretta Young’s older sister or with Mona Rica. (Mona Rica was a Mexican film star whose brief Hollywood career peaked when she played opposite John Barrymore in “Eternal Love”.)
“Although the hotel had lovely sheets, there was no hot water. The girls put cream on their faces to wash. The only way we could heat water was by going down in the yard and building a fire.”
“We went to the hotel many times. Often we had not only the hotel to ourselves but, it seemed, the whole town. But, I think my happiest memories are of the times we would go to the market and shop, and then barbeque out in the hotel patio, which had the necessary grill. We would sit there, alone, in another world. It was utterly beautiful – Palm trees bending in the stiff ocean breeze, and off in the darkness – the pounding of the surf, waves breaking and rolling in over a dark wet sandy beach, the smell of the sea, the sparkling night stars.