The Baja-Hollywood Connection: A Love Affair Rekindles

At a recent FRAO (Foreign Residents Attention Office) public meeting at the Rosarito Beach Hotel attended by an audience of well over a hundred, the organization’s Director, Oscar Lozano, introduced two distinguished speakers who updated the synergism between the two geographic area’s cinematic industries. Gabriel de la Valle, the state of Baja’s Film Commissioner, and Juan Tintos Funcke, the former head of SECTURE (the Office of the Secretary of Tourism)…from the initial collaboration through the halcyon days that followed…weaved a galvanizing narrative, augmented with video footage, that was positively mesmerizing. We thought it would be fascinating to delve into the history, the stranger-than fiction story, that came before.

The Courtship Begins
A little over a century ago (1909) legend has it that fledgling filmmakers based in Philadelphia were being pursued by the patent attorneys representing Thomas Edison. They were not paying royalties for the use of his Magic Lantern invent and its unique spool bank mechanism for film projection. To escape their legal responsibility, they fled as far from Pennsylvania as they could go via the Transcontinental Railroad. The western terminus for their wild ride was known as Hollywood. Amidst forests and sawmills, four entrepreneurs established studios…Columbia, Paramount, RKO, and Warner Brothers…and California’s movie industry was born. Their exotic get-a-way from the everyday pressures of production was the Mexican border state of Baja Norte. Fishing, hunting, and surfing were some of the more savory south-of-the-border pursuits.
Seven short years later (1916), as the film studios prospered, the racetracks and casinos of Tijuana had become the premier-places-to-play for Hollywood’s high-rollers. In 1919, the south-of-the-border gambling business took an unexpected turn for the better when the United States entered the Prohibition Era.  The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, passed over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto, outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors  within the borders of Estados Unidos. There were two choices for American citizens with a taste for alcoholic beverages: patronize illegal ‘bootleggers’ at home or travel to Mexico where they could imbibe legally. The Golden Era of Tourism along La Frontera began and the movie industry’s celebrities led the way. Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, D. W. Griffith, Louis B. Mayer, Mary Pickford, and Lillian Russell were among the first wave of stars and moguls to gambol (and gamble) in Baja.

Hollywood’s Nightclub
Tijuana made it very convenient for its American customers. The Sunset Casino, just one amongst the twenty that soon opened for business, had its entrance conveniently located just 100 meters from the border. Since segregation was still legal in the U.S., another one of the twenty was devoted solely to accommodating black patrons. The Tijuana Corrida (bullring) really added insult to injury, as it actually had its entrance within the United States, although the fights themselves actually took place in Mexico. In case you’re wondering, the only exits led to Mexican soil. Newspaper headlines in Los Angeles trumpeted that “…Baja has become the nightclub for the movie stars of Hollywood.” Tijuana was definitely the epicenter for the prohibition-evading real and wanna-be celebrities and film folk. They quickly spread the word about a beautiful young teenage Mexicana who was part of her father’s dance troupe at the Agua Caliente Casino. Her name was Rita Cansino but when she passed her inevitable screen test in Hollywood, her last name was changed to Hayworth.
At first, the supporters of Prohibition, members of the Christian temperance Movement (or as the Mexicans called them, ‘puritanismos’) were happy that liquor and its equally evil counterpart, gambling, were not permitted in the United States. Their laissez-faire attitude, however, soon changed when they actually began to understand the actual dynamics at work, First and foremost, many of the customers of the casinos and racetracks were Americans. Even worse than that, most of the casinos had American owners or, at least, co-owners, who wer glad to supply gambling, liquor, beer, wine, and prostitution to their fellow U.S. citizens. These not-accidental tourists had only to walk across a nearly invisible border that was just a few feet away from their homeland to partake of these forbidden pleasures. Finally, since all of the transactions were legal in Mexico, the United States saw none of the potential tax revenue that was being collected otra lado. The ‘Puritans’ were really upset when they found out that $1 Million U.S. Dollars (a huge sum in those days) had been used  for the construction of the race track. The knowledge that American celebrities, like heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, were on record as being among the owners of The Riviera Casino in Ensenada, 80 miles south of Tijuana, just exacerbated their feelings of helplessness.

Rosarito’s Wake-Up Call
In the meantime, Rosarito Beach, a sleepy village about 20 kilometers along a dirt road leading south from Tijuana, began to gain a small share of the U.S. market. In 1924, The Rosarito Beach Resort…and gas station…opened for business. It was the first hotel/casino in the area and if you think that it exists today as The Rosarito Beach Hotel, think again. Up until recently it was known as Rene’s until its latest iteration as the Casino Rosarito Juan Ortiz, a close friend of General Abelardo Rodriguez (who had been elected Governor of Baja California in 1923 and was later to serve as President of Mexico from 1932-34), persuaded Ortiz to design and build the bar with materials brought all the way from Sonora. A year later, another enterprising local, Manuel Barbachano, opened a 6 room adobe hotel and casino about a mile north of his competitor. This was the humble beginning in 1925 of today’s landmark hostelry, the iconic Rosarito Beach Hotel.

Let’s digress here for just a moment to explore the fascinating genealogy oif the area’s centerpiece. Manuel Barbachano married Maria Luisa Chabert iun 1920. When Barbachano dies in 1963, after building the firstpaved road into the area, as well as starting the electric and phonbe companies…their union had produced two children; the couple, however, had always doted on their favorite nephew who came to stay with them frequently, beginning as early as 1943. The widow Chabert leased hotel operations to an outside entity in 1964. A decade later, when she died and left all of her holdings to her brilliant sobrino , Hugo Chabert Torres, Playas de Rosarito began its transformation into the most vibrant area in the state. Torres recently continued his service to the city that he helped lead to autonomy from Tijuana by serving his second stint as Mayor.

Before Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Hollywood’s Baja connection took a brief off-shore detour. Los Coronados, two islands just 14 kilometers  off the coast ofRosarito, became the home of a cabaret casino frequented by Hollywood stars wanting to escape the public eye; it was also the clandestine destination for powerful film producers ostensibly holding private ‘screen tests’ for their hottest starlets. Errol Flynn, Harry Warner, and the alleged mastermind behind the casijno, the infamous Al Capone, all made U.S. newspaper headlines with their escapades. In a precursor of things to come, the Pitcairn Island scenes for the movie ‘Mutiny on The Bounty’ were filmed on and around Coronado Sur.
On-location shoots in Baja were also featured in two other notable Hollywood films: in 1926,’Tell It to the Marines’ starred Lon Chaney Sr., followed soon thereafter, in 1931,by the classic ‘The Champ’ featuring Wallace Beery (who won an Oscar for Best Actor) and child-star Jackie Cooper. This magnum opus, which was nominated for a Best Film Oscar, was directed by the legendary King Vidor (to be continued)


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