by Brian Kerstetter
MADONNA AND THE MAIDENS
Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on Highway 101 there’s a curious place to spend the night called The Madonna Inn. One of California’s most famous landmarks, it is neither a shrine to the Virgin Mary nor a roadside homage to the pop star Madonna. In fact, the Madonna Inn is the life’s work of a cowboy developer named Alex Madonna and his wife Phyllis. One of the world’s most eccentric hotels, it is a Pepto-Bismol pink color with an 8-foot tall waterfall urinal in the men’s room.
Honeymooners and retirees celebrating their 50th anniversary have made the 108-room Madonna Hotel their Graceland. Elvis would have loved this monument to kitsch with its Swiss country and gingerbread fairy motif and its oddball suites. The suites are done in pinks, reds, greens and blues. People come from around the world for the thrill of luxuriating in its luscious pinkness. The Old Mill Room contains a 3-foot mill wheel with dancing Bavarian figurines. One room features a replica of a moonshiner’s still. Another, the Caveman Room, is done up mostly in natural rock and features a waterfall shower.
Old ladies smelling like grandmothers with big pink hair come to the Inn’s Copper Café & Pastry Shop for Sunday breakfast. The men that accompany them wear tight jeans and cowboy boots, just like Alex Madonna in one of the photographs on the walls of him posing with the actors John Wayne and Ronald Reagan. At one time, Mr. Madonna was a ranching partner with the actor John Wayne. There are a few young couples who must have been advised by their grandparents on where to go for a romantic weekend getaway. They always have a look of disbelief in their eyes. Occasionally there are the curious Europeans who check in with their mouths wide open, you can’t see anything like this in Europe. The taste of the entire place is way too questionable.
It is no coincidence that we felt at home in the Madonna Inn. Alex Madonna’s grandparents on both sides married in Switzerland then traveled to join the first Swiss immigrants farming the central coast area of California. In this tradition, we arrived to film a few scenes in two of the wacky Madonna Inn suites – one night in the Pony Room “equipped with two king size beds and a real live wooden pony” and four nights in the Traveler’s Suite “fit for kings and queens,” with a wall-length stone fireplace and a single, long-burning, easy-lighting, smell-and-smoke-free “log”. We quickly closed the curtains in the Pony Room, afraid the others guests would think we were using the pony to shoot a porno movie. It would be difficult to make a porno with this pony, it was made of wood and never reacted to anything. I kicked the horse in the arse, strangled it a while, and heaped insults on him, but he never so much as swished his tail. It would be a very boring dirty movie, the girl would have to work really hard and for very little result. A lot like my acting, for example.
Mr. Madonna died in April 2004 at the age of 85. We liked the guy, he had a laugh a minute and seemed like a pleasant old fellow. We saw him every morning in the Copper Café doing the accounts and drinking coffee in the corner. He acknowledged us with a nod when we entered. We must have been a sight he didn’t see much in his hotel – two straight guys hanging out in Mr. Madonna’s bubble gum and cotton candy hotel for 5 days. We liked to watch him greet the diners and chat with the townspeople who made weekly pilgrimages from San Luis Obispo.
After a few days we noticed something odd about the cafe: all the waitresses looked same. Mr. Madonna clearly knew what he was looking for when hiring a waitress. They were all blond and young with pink, fresh faces, like they had just come down from a morning of milking the cows up in the chilled air of the Swiss Alps. They exuded health, full girls that you might not notice on the street but whose presence you couldn’t deny in a café full of senior citizens. Mr. Madonna had them dressed in identical outfits that were a cross between a mountain maiden and pioneering settler. The mixture of youth, innocence and old-fashion dress made these otherwise non-descript girls into curiously enticing maidens.
Each morning we saw Madonna in his special “Gold Booth” at the inn’s restaurant, where he joked with ‘his girls.’ He talked to the girls sweetly, like a grandfather, and made them smile. Perhaps it was the setting of the Copper Café that helped make these healthy California girls so exotic. Senior citizens from the community sat around doing crossword puzzles in red leather seats near wood carvings and hand-painted walls. The orange juice glasses were made of thick colored glass, like something you would find in your grandmother’s living room credenza in the 1970’s.
We watched Mr. Madonna every morning with his identical waitresses. They made him happy, you could see, and he would watch them come and go from the kitchen with plates of eggs and pancakes balanced along their forearms. This made us wonder what we would do if we owned a restaurant like the Copper Café…
Our restaurant would be staffed entirely with midgets and giants. The midgets would be very classy, well-mannered waiters in miniature black tuxedos. The midgets’ demeanor would be noble, aloof, worthy. The giants would serve as busboys, they would clean the tables, do the dishes and take commands from the midgets. The giants’ trousers would be too short and their finger nails would be chewed and dirty. The midgets would be very mean to the giants when they made a mistake, especially in front of the guests. They would kick them in the shin or step on their foot and the diners would giggle and snicker and pour more wine. The food in our restaurant would be impeccable. The dishes would be planned with the most delicate ingredients from around the world. No wine would be younger than 1967. The restaurant would be thedestination for famous actors, foreign dignitaries, and Fortune 100 CEOs. The restaurant would also be impossibly expensive. An appetizer would be the price of an ipod. A main course would cost the same as an A-Class Mercedes…
When we stopped dreaming about our restaurant and asked for the check, we concluded that Mr. Madonna was right to have an identical band of Swiss Misses pouring coffee and serving pastries. It isn’t complicated – it is pleasant to receive a pretty, kind smile when asking for a side of bacon.