My column last month on the former Casa Blanca hotel in Ontario inspired comments from some who remember the grand hotel’s long decline before its demolition in 1998, as well as a local tragedy that captured national attention.
But first, Casa Blanca’s brightest claim: Charlie Chaplin stayed there once.
I mentioned this before, but didn’t have any details, which have since been provided by the Library’s Model Colony History Room. His stoppage made the local newspaper – which misspelled his name.
“Charley Chaplin Ontario Visitor,” read the March 20, 1916 headline in the Ontario Daily Report, two days after the visit. Caption: “Funny Film Favorite Floats Into Town Saturday”.
READ MORE: Hotel Casa Blanca had Charlie Chaplin as a guest but met a sad end
The article was only four paragraphs long, so I’m going to print it all out.
“Charley Chaplin, the $10,000-a-week movie star who recently returned to Los Angeles after a trip east, was a guest at the Casa Blanca Hotel on Saturday.
“With Mr. Chaplin were Alberta Austin, WH Hoffman and Edna Hurmarse of Los Angeles. The party was on their way to Arrowhead Hot Springs for a short outing and expects to stop here on the return trip.
“The famous film actor said he was very satisfied with the Casa Blanca.”
With his greatest work still ahead of him, I hadn’t realized what a cultural phenomenon Chaplin had already become in March 1916 via his comic shorts. You could buy a Chaplin doll, listen to new songs about him, and read about his antics in a newspaper comic strip.
He had recently signed with Mutual Film Corp. for it boasted “$10,000 a week”, a shocking amount that made him one of the highest paid people in the world.
That said, the Daily Report couldn’t spell her name correctly, and I’m pretty confident that “Edna Hurmarse” was really Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s leading lady and girlfriend. One of his key players at Mutual was Albert (not Alberta) Austin. The unfortunate journalist may well have understood the name of WH Hoffman, because I don’t know who he is.
To be fair, it’s likely the hotel itself was the source of the article, and possibly its loose approach to fact-checking.
Opened less than a year earlier in April 1915, the hotel was located along A Street (later Holt Boulevard), a major route between Los Angeles and resort areas like Palm Springs, or in this case Arrowhead Hot Springs San Bernardino Hotel.
Built in the Italian Renaissance revival, Casa Blanca, at 210 S. Fern Ave., had 42 rooms and a dining room. The wide veranda had lounge chairs and a shuffleboard court. The lobby featured mahogany walls, leather chairs, and a large fireplace. You can play tennis or billiards or use the putting green.
With Chaplin’s visit, the Casa Blanca may have peaked early. And on the night of March 17, 1954, it was the scene of a shocking crime.
Two robbers surprised 13 guests watching television in the lobby, retrieved their valuables and took them to a service hallway at gunpoint. One of them escaped and phoned the police about the robbery in progress.
Responding to the radio call, Sgt. HD Williams sent his partner, reserve officer Louis Dulisse, around the drive to wait for the backup. A thief fled and was caught by the backup agents. The fleeing driver, frightened, fled.
Inside, Williams was ambushed by the remaining thief and held at gunpoint. Dulisse stood near the entrance. The thief walked through the front door in the dark, gun drawn, using Williams as a human shield.
Dulisse, fearing the back-up officers would shoot his partner, called for the back-up officers to hold their fire. The thief turned around and shot Dulisse twice. The shooter was subdued, and later his two accomplices were apprehended.
Dulisse, hit in the throat, died in hospital. He was 42 years old.
In its July 10 issue, the Saturday Evening Post, one of the nation’s leading magazines, ran a five-page article on the crime by its widow, Helen. The title: “My husband died for his city”.
The Post’s story teaser sums it up: “Louis Dulisse was a reserve cop. He rode in a hunting car at night, without pay, carrying a gun and a uniform he had bought with his own money. He was assassinated by a cheap shooter. This is his widow’s story of how – and why – it happened.
By day, Dulisse worked at the Kaiser steelworks in Fontana. One night a month, he volunteered as a reserve officer. Ontario had 35 officers and 70 reservists in the fast-growing city of 26,000.
Rather than ‘running for it’, the father-of-three put himself in danger to save his girlfriend, Helen wrote: ‘He loved this town. He loved her enough to give his life for it.
The Post issue went on sale July 7, which was declared Dulisse Day in Ontario. Officers wore white ribbons when in uniform. And that day, the Police Association paid off Ms. Dulisse’s mortgage and presented her with “a hefty check,” according to a police memo at the time.
Notoriety hasn’t helped Casa Blanca. At the end of the 1960s, the hotel had been transformed into a retirement home. In the 1970s, it was a halfway house for recovering drug addicts. Two of the owner’s grandchildren wrote in the Facebook Group You Know You’re From Ontario on the visit.
“I remember a HUGE fireplace in this hotel and it was so big even though it was run down,” the granddaughter wrote.
The Casa Blanca was abandoned, a restoration plan failed, and the property became derelict. On the Facebook page, some shared stories of exploring the graffiti-strewn wreckage as children in the late 1980s and 1990s. Some claimed the hotel was haunted.
“We spent many nights sneaking around and exploring every room and scaring each other,” Jennifer Alexander-Lesher wrote, tagging several of her old friends in her comment.
By the time the city council voted to demolish the dilapidated hotel in 1998, Casa Blanca had existed for more than 80 years.
If its walls could talk, think of the stories. From comedy to tragedy, and a long slide down.
David Allen thinks about stories on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Email [email protected], call 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.