A Morro Bay Love Story
by Louis Bartfield
The first time I saw Morro Bay, I was sure I had been there before.
“Clash by Night,” a 1952 *** movie, was about an Italian fisherman with a restless wife (Barbara Stanwyck) who has an affair with a cinema projection operator (Robert Ryan) with a roving eye. Meanwhile, the breadwinner (the Italian fisherman played by Paul Douglas) is bringing home the bacon (fish).
It was a good movie, but I fell in love more with the fishing village than with the movie. Where the fisherman docked his boat, it looked just like the docks in the estuary lagoon at Morro Bay. And I loved the choppy waters and the swooping and squawking gulls and pelicans and hard-working fisherman at their smelly, oily chores. And oh, the swaying boats on which I longed to sail away, into the South Seas of the Mutiny on the Bounty.
A hundred or so years after I saw the movie, a real estate broker who knew I owned two motels in the Santa Cruz area phoned to tell me about a good deal in a town called Morro Bay. Morro what? I hadn’t even seen it on a map, but the name made me nervous, it sounded so romantic.
What did Morro mean? Why did the word “Bay” make my stomach quiver? I suddenly had visions of that romantic movie buried somewhere deep inside me.
Not only had I never been near the place, but when I checked I found out that “Clash by Night” had been shot in Monterey. Oh, well, Monterey Bay. A bay is just a bay, isn’t it? Morro Bay is just another place on the ten-thousand-mile-long Pacific Coast. Right? Still, maybe it was a good business opportunity.
As I turned off 101 that first time and found myself on the beautiful curved road heading west through amazing hills on the unimaginatively labeled Highway 41, my heart was under control and I hoped the Hotel wouldn’t be a dog (expression for bad real estate – I really like dogs).
Then the last glide down, and the three smoke stacks of Duke Energy hove into view, which, contrary to political correctness, I rather like as an expression of modern art and our human ability to transform the world, for better or for worse.
Then, the hills seemed to open up and I saw Morro Rock; my heart stopped and I’m sure I gripped the steering wheel tightly. I saw the Bay and the fishing boats rocking peacefully, waiting for their time to go to work, waiting patiently for their skippers.
Seabirds were gliding gracefully and maliciously on their forever hunt for those poor vulnerable fish too stupid to stay near the bottom, and in my head I saw sea otters and Moby Dick, the whale. And suddenly, in my overheated imagination, I was in the great southern seas, Tahiti, Solomon Islands, Pelau, and all those dangerous and wonderful seas that Jack London and the Sea Wolf and Mutiny on the Bounty had engraved in the worlds of my twelve-year-old brain. I was surrounded by sharks and friendly, innocent people and sandy shores and palm trees.
Morro Rock rose up before me like a tower from the famous poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a sacred pleasure dome decree ...”, and the amazing rock rising from the ocean was like the island of King Kong appearing magically from the fog. Or maybe it was the island of Innisfree, a famous poem by William Butler Yeats. I had visions like DeQuincy writing of what he saw in his "Confessions of an Opium Eater" way back in the romantic nineteenth century, a city of alabaster domes and silver spires of diamond and gold and stars illuminated with the colors of all the gemstones.
And so I confess I am a victim and lover of poetry and the visions of the makers of film that glory in imagination, who see the real in the unreal, so when I first saw Morro Bay, I saw the heaven in the dreams and poetry of all of us that we try so hard to suppress inside the selves we think of as living in the real world. Whichever one that is.
Of course when I saw the Best Western San Marcos Inn, it was not a castle in Spain but a nice-looking, well-located, basic lodging with: Great views from many of the rooms of the Rock and the Bay and the ocean. So I bought the Best Western, and prayed it would make a buck, but a dreamer never stops dreaming. And so I envisaged a great spa, big as the Hearst Castle swimming pool (well, quite a bit smaller); there on the corner of the property; if the City of Morro Bay would let us move the parking.
Soon the Best Western San Marcos Inn had a splendid spa pool with grand arched windows through which Morro Rock, the bird-friendly Bay, and the great estuary, marshlands, kayakers and boats and the great ocean beyond were visible to a lazily soaking human being.
It all came out of dreams and fantasies, or maybe even a vision out of Vincent Price and Edgar Allen Poe, or some opium user who couldn't or wouldn't shake the habit.
It all didn’t matter: the real Morro Bay was better than the fantasies. But business is business, and the hospitality business isn’t Tim Burton’s dreamland, so we made the San Marcos into one hell of a good place to stay. Big emphasis on cleanliness, thanks to our cleaning staff, and with really good mattresses, even Tempurpedics in some rooms.
Since that first amazing day that I saw the place, many things happened that extend far beyond the dreams of that dreamer in his dreamland. Although I’m a bit of a nature lover, an incompetent bird watcher although quite bird-friendly, and an eater of fish three times a week, I once broke the law in Morro Bay. I’m hoping the Statute of Limitations has elapsed, because it was unintentional, even if that is not a legal excuse.
Here is what happened:
A photographer/real-estate friend by the name of Michael and I were strolling the beach somewhat north of the town when we noticed some flapping of wings and bird noises to the east of us up some rocky crags, so we decided to investigate. We clambered up the big stones and found ourselves on the edge of what looked like a forest, so we wandered in.
Forest? No! It was a primeval jungle right out of the “The Lost World,” with fallen logs that seemed to have century-old deposits of green-white bird lime that petrified them, and leaves of other trees that surrounded us like ancient veils that might have clothed the Queen of Sheba.
Huge angry Herons charged down upon us, screeching and threatening us like the Furies, angry women-goddesses out of the Greek mythologies, pecking at us, while from above, their babies in their nests cried out in fear. We had inadvertently invaded their homes shortly after the birthing time, and we were like crooks breaking into a hospital nursery. We left, stepping carefully, backwards, reluctant to leave because of the miracle we were witnessing, yet we knew we had to go. We had crossed a sacred boundary.
I don’t even believe Michael took any photographs.
I confess. I am sorry. Oh, Lord, forgive me. Oh, state authorities, pardon me this one time. Honest, I didn't know it was the Heron Bird Preserve.
I will never forget what I saw. Sorry for squealing, Michael, I hope they don't extradite.
The next great drama in my love affair with Morro Bay was the creation of the Masterpiece Motel. Every great love story produces offspring, and this was the second one, a beautiful one, perhaps the Masterpiece is a female.
A few years later:
Again, I received a phone call from a marriage broker (well, he was a real estate broker) and this time the story was:
A lovely couple had owned the El Morro Hotel at 1206 Main Street in Morro Bay, and it had burned to the ground. I did not receive all the pathetic details and I have no idea whether insurance was involved. But the couple, the gentleman of which was a decorator, rebuilt the building with an exquisite design, Spanish-Moorish architecture, and when I saw a picture of the building I fell in love with it. Bad real estate practice: never fall in love with a property. Anthony and Cleopatra died because they fell in love with Egyptian real estate.
Nonetheless, I had to see it, and again I took beautiful, winding Highway 41, carefully modulating my speed and anxiety, and then again, the three magnificent smoke stacks and the incredible rock came into view, and again I felt as though I were coming home.
The El Morro in person was stunning- the curves, the sinuous cylindrical design, were indeed seductive, and there was no doubt it was female. I have always had a weakness for a good-looking lady. The interior had the mysterious corridors and blank wall after blank wall that I knew I wanted to inscribe with love and caring. It seems to me now as if the inspiration for it to become the Masterpiece was whispered to me by the building itself, for I have no idea where the idea for its new identity came from.
Of course there was some negotiation, but it appears the owning couple had rebuilt the burned-down building, and had run out of money before they could properly furnish it. And financial stress always leads to marital stress.
And so it was that I was able to purchase the El Morro at the right price with funds left over for the re-furnishing and the decoration.
In a matter of days we closed escrow, and then it was time to re-imagine the motel, for it was not then a successful operation.
It gradually came to me that the building was a work of art, and to this day, I have no idea who the architect was; but it slowly dawned upon me that it was to me to complete the work. It was a kiss or a voice from God. From whence came the notion of calling it the Masterpiece Hotel, I have no idea. Doesn't sound like much, does it? But… it was pure inspiration.
Immediately I researched the name and applied for a copyright.
Then, everything fell into place: do the walls and rooms with reproductions of great masterpieces of art from all periods (I'd love originals like Steve Wynn has at the Bellagio in Vegas, then again he went broke a couple of times). So I contacted a friend of mine, Del Crawford of Mulberry Galleries in Santa Cruz, and we picked out the pieces, one by one, and he framed them, and I picked the spots where they were to be hung, and I was very fussy about every one of them.
Poor, long-suffering wife and daughter back in Santa Cruz missed me (I hope). Oh, and we got to decorate the rooms, mucho dinero. Of course a masterpiece needed $2500 mattresses. Next came the Roman Spa, more expensive than any in Hearst Castle. Almost.
There were two spare parking spaces under the building and it must have come out of another dream, why not a Roman spa--elegant, luxurious, even decadent. If it was good enough for the Romans, it would be good enough for our customers.
Where did the idea for the sign come from? It had to be Van Gogh, of course, with his easel and before he cut off one of his ears. I had a wonderful artist design it and we got some resistance about the lush colors from the Morro Bay City Council, but we persevered and they decided to humor us
I don't think they ever regretted it, especially since we received a Morro Bay Beautiful award, presented to us by Elaine LaLanne, Jack's wife. Yes, they live in Morro Bay, so we added a workout room with a couple of Jack’s autographed photos. There it is, a minor masterpiece. As Benjamin Franklin or someone once said, inspiration and perspiration. So enjoy the Masterpiece Hotel--your comfort… and pleasure, and a good night's sleep, are the purposes behind its creation.
Someday, I will tell the story of La Serena Inn, now known also as The Bird Friends Inn of Morro Bay, but that is a work in progress, and it is too early yet to understand it completely. But, a great place to stay at right now.