Guests sleep in a Cadillac convertible. A former Ping-Pong champ makes balloon sculptures in the bar. You can't locate the bathroom until you find a secret door. A guest describes the owner as "kind of like the illegitimate son of Woodie Guthrie and Howdy Doody," and nobody argues that.
Welcome to the 1880 Union Hotel and Victorian Annex, the delightful, bizarre, romantic and incredible dream-come-true of Richard Wilkes Langdon, a sailor turned piano salesman turned ink salesman turned meat wholesaler turned hotelier.
His piece de resistance is the Victorian Annex, a bed and breakfast push-button fantasy land. Life was never like this.
Want to stroll into a mirage of the 1950s? Dick ("Everyone calls me by my first name") will show you the way. Want a night in an Egyptian tent (with running water, of course)? Talk to Dick. Or how about a night in a loft overlooking Gay Paree? Or in a Gypsy wagon surrounded by forest? Or in a Roman chariot or on a pirate ship sailing the seas?
For $200 a night Dick will furnish any of the above, right here in Los Alamos (population "about 950"), a blink of a town within shouting distance of U.S. 101, 50 miles north of Santa Barbara. Or you can cut off 15 miles and improve the views if you wind over San Marcos Pass (California 154) from Santa Barbara.
Los Alamos, founded in 1876, seems to be a clean, sleepy, pleasant country town. Its main street boasts a couple of restaurants bracketing a couple of gas stations, a couple of bars, another restaurant and a disproportionate number of antique stores (four), with a huge array of oldies and goodies for sale.
And there is Dick's 1880 Union Hotel and Victorian Annex.
The annex is a six-room B&B; with each room extraordinarily decked out in a different theme. And each room is an electronic wonder, with wireless remote control regulating mood lighting, music, bathtub water, gas fireplace, video projector and TV set.
You'll hear a lot of adjectives used to describe the annex: unique, amusing, fun and, perhaps as often as any, romantic.
"The rooms transport you," said Laura Greenburg of Encino, who with her husband, Jon, has stayed in three of them and seen all six. "They support fantasy. They create a romantic, sensuous atmosphere."
Next door to the Victorian Annex, unremarkable by comparison but lively in its own right, stands the Union Hotel, a 15-room bed and breakfast dating from the 1880s, when Los Alamos was even more remote than it is today.
The annex is always open. The hotel operates Friday through Sunday nights.
Three hotel rooms have bathrooms ($100 a night). The other 12 have washbowls ($80 a night), with toilets and a shower down the hall.
Hotel guests schmooze in a parlor with a pool table covered in red felt or in a lobby where lollygagging is encouraged. Shelves offer hundreds of books and as many vintage magazines (a 1937 Sunset, a 1945 Saturday Evening Post). For those seeking spicier fare, there are enough Playboys to create a pile more than five feet high.
Next to the lobby stands a saloon (open to guests only) where you can drink beneath a ceiling advertising "The Peoples Store. A Safe Place to Trade." The ceiling once stood as the wall of an emporium.
Saloon enhancements include a beautifully finished wooden shuffleboard table, a couple of jukeboxes and wall hangings from a moose head named Bullwinkle and half a dozen ancient pipe wrenches to a 1932 tin Olympic Games pennant. Nonsense, but great fun--both of which are typical and plentiful around the hotel and annex.
A step from the saloon you'll find a room almost empty except for a Ping-Pong table. But what a table it is. A mahogany slab rests atop five marble legs. A sculptor transformed the marble into likenesses of Adam and Eve, Confucius, King Tut, a gargoyle and Triton (a Greek god--half fish, half man--who made the oceans roar). A needlepoint net emblazoned with "Union 1880 Hotel" stretches between two marble griffins.
At any moment a retired logistics manager, now a clown in mufti, may appear to teach you the fine points of Ping-Pong (he claims the 1957 national YMCA championship) or shuffleboard. Or perhaps he will blow up balloons that no ordinary human could inflate without a tire pump, and twist them into sculptures. Meet Mike Petlansky, 67, part of Dick Langdon's unlikely extended family that makes possible the improbable 1880 Union Hotel and Victorian Annex.
A decade ago Dick took racquetball lessons from Petlansky. As is usual with Dick, conversation developed, and Petlansky talked about his troubles: "I was literally falling apart from my divorce," he recalled, adding that in subsequent months "Dick sat me down and told me to 'take charge, no excuses.' "
They have been friends ever since.
Dick has a knack for making long-term friends, then involving them with his hotel and annex. His overt friendliness and off-the-wall imagination make the place what it is: an extension of Dick Langdon.
And make no mistake, the 1880 Union Hotel and Victorian Annex is Dick Langdon. He is the Julius Caesar of his treasured fiefdom: decisive, daring, magnanimous, charismatic and, most definitely, all-powerful.
"He's an inspiration," says Joyce Ortner. "People see him achieve his dreams and think, 'Maybe I can do it too.' "
Ortner knows all about that. Five years ago she was enjoying a drink at the hotel bar when Dick struck up a conversation. To her considerable surprise, the talk led Ortner to a three-year stay during which she painted murals in every room of the Victorian Annex.
So today each room has Ortner's wall murals to fit its theme. And each room has mood music, again to fit the theme. And games which, you guessed it, relate to the theme. And theme movies. Even theme glasses and mugs. And theme bathrobes made by Marianne Friedl, who also is likely to serve your dinner.
Dick didn't stop there; he built theme bathrooms. The washbowl in the Pirate Room, for example, is built into an old wine keg. In the Roman Room the entire bathroom is a catacomb. It's not so easy to discover these facts for yourself because the bathrooms are all behind hidden doors.
In the Egyptian Room a larger-than-life golden statue of King Tut stands at attention in a corner. Pull Tut's beard and the golden king slides forward on tracks, revealing the bathroom.
Custom-made bathroom tiles emphasize the personality of each Victorian Annex room. Not surprisingly, the tile maker was a hotel guest who came to relax and stayed to work.
Redondo Beach artist/craftsperson Nancy Grossman and her husband John arrived for an overnight stay in 1985. Three years later Grossman had designed, painted and fired 5,500 tiles depicting everything from Kilroy Was Here and Elvis graffiti to a life-size figure of Blackbeard the Pirate. And she did it all for nothing. "If I'd charged for it, my bill would have been about $25,000," she said.
"Dick paid for supplies," Grossman continued. "I did the work for nothing because it was an opportunity to do the kind of work you never get to do anywhere else. It was a chance to get as creative as I wanted to get. I found Dick delightful to work with. His imagination is amazing, and the way he makes things happen is incredible. I was in awe of him all the time."
Carpenters, sculptors, wood carvers, plumbers, electricians, masons, even doctors and lawyers have worked for nothing or next to nothing to help Dick build the Victorian Annex.
At first sight Dick hardly seems the kind to inspire such devotion. An informal dresser, probably in his mid-50s (he won't say), he can often be found lounging in his hotel lobby, looking more like a guest getting away from it all than like the owner who gets into everything. He looks a lot more like the guy you'd sit next to in the bleachers at Dodger Stadium than the owner of your hotel.
So what accounts for the man's charisma? "People want to share my dreams," he says. "I share them and people pick them up and push themselves beyond what they've ever done before. I'm the dreamer and I find people who live with my dreams."
A romantic thought, and doubt it not, Dick Langdon is a romantic. So romantic, but so tough.
"I'm a dreamer, but I own all my dreams," he declares. No one messes with Dick's dreams. He is the emperor. People either do things his way or out they go.
His do-it-my-way approach extends to guests. Not long ago Dick told a close friend and valued guest (the combination is common) that he was always welcome, but his children were never to return. The kids had pilfered "handfuls of costume jewelry" from the treasure chest in the Pirate Room.
"I'm not down on kids," Dick says. "I love kids. We get a jillion kids here, and as long as they respect and enjoy what's here, they're welcome. This is a family place."
Lorry Ortner, the muralist's daughter and the cook for Dick's hotel and annex, compares her boss to "the Apostle Paul, who was two men."
Lorry surrendered a job as controller of a commodities firm to realize her own dream of being a chef. "It was a fantasy of mine to be a good cook. It's a nurturing thing. So I said to myself, 'Just go for the change.' "
There's not a lot of variety in her menus, but what goes on the table is always good and always plentiful.
Breakfast is for guests only. It may be fresh fruit, scrambled eggs with green onions, chopped bacon and tomatoes, home fries, biscuits, coffee, tea or chocolate.
Or the fancy eggs may be replaced by plain scrambled eggs with sausage patties, and homemade applesauce cake may take over for the biscuits.
The dining room opens to the public for dinner, which costs $15 for all you can eat. The meals start with homemade soup, which may be senate soup (pinto beans, bacon, mashed potatoes and onions) one night, leather apron soup (chicken, vegetables and dumplings) the next, or cream of broccoli or Italian barley. There's always a green salad.
The entree never changes: You'll get platters of tri-tip beef marinated in beer and then barbecued outside by the pool, plus boneless, skinless breasts of chicken sauteed in butter and lemon pepper. And there will be plates of whatever vegetables are in season.
Dessert might be homemade cinnamon rolls or strawberry fritters.
-- -- --
Life has not always been cinnamon rolls and strawberry fritters for Dick Langdon.
He bought the run-down 1880 Union Hotel 18 years ago after "I had made and then lost a lot of money in the wholesale meat business in Los Angeles. Then I came up here and started over again."
He had passed through Los Alamos in the late 1960s, and an antique dealer had mentioned that the town's hotel was for sale.
A few years later Dick went flat broke and, while mulling his future, he remembered "that old hotel in the middle of nowhere. I thought, 'I can buy that place and I can beat life.' That's how this whole thing started."
He finagled a loan and moved into the run-down hotel.
At first, Dick recalled, "the bar was 10% of the space, 85% of the profits and 99% of the headaches." So he refurbished the hotel and developed a clientele that built up his overnight and dining room business while minimizing bar activity.
Today his guests include everyone from dentists to stunt men, retired judges to construction workers, chief executives to carpet layers, mostly from Los Angeles and closer, but occasionally from as far away as Tokyo or Fairbanks.
What's next at the 1880 Union Hotel and Victorian Annex? Well, something has to be done with the 67-foot yawl built 75 years ago for the King of Denmark. It sits high and dry behind the annex, waiting for Dick to transform it to a hotel room extraordinaire .
Then there's the run-down 1928 gas station between the hotel and annex. Dick is negotiating to buy it. If he succeeds, Los Alamos will gain a 1920s-style service station (with 1980s-style prices).
Dick dreams of "taking the station back to 1928," in part by covering its facade with the 10,000 antique yellow bricks he has piled up behind his hotel.
Then he wants to build a maze behind the gas station with the 1,000 privet hedge plants standing in pots near his brick pile. After that he dreams of digging a tunnel between his hotel and the annex. In that tunnel he envisions laying 130 feet of railroad track he's already bought.
Then Dick wants to buy a railroad hand car and a Victorian-style elevator so guests will be able to pump the handcar between the hotel and the elevator. The planned elevator will rise to a planned barn that will house a planned racquetball court.
If hotel rooms in royal yachts and underground railroads and Victorian elevators and racquetball courts in barns are not enough for you, stick around for a while because, as Dick is wont to say, "The dream goes on."
For more information, write to Union Hotel and Victorian Annex, P.O. Box 616, Los Alamos, Calif. 93400, or call (805) 344-2744 and (805) 964-0680.
FEELING NAUTICAL? TAKE A SHOWER WITH BLACKBEARD. Rooms at the Union Hotel's Victorian Annex have--to understate the situation--distinctive features. Each room has a theme, and within that theme fall the beds, music and other sounds on built-in sound systems, movies that flash on the wall at the touch of a button, games, special bathrobes (don't take them home) and extraordinary custom shower tiles depicting various people and scenes.
Room themes: '50s Drive-In Bed designs: '56 Caddy convertible Sounds: '50s music Movies: "Rebel Without a Cause," "The Misfits" Games: Monopoly Robe designs: Mickey Mouse pattern Shower companions: Kilroy Was Here and Elvis graffiti Room themes: Gypsy Bed designs: Gypsy wagon Sounds: Forest sounds like frogs and running water Movies: "The Wolf Man" Games: Tarot cards Robe designs: Colorful pattern Shower companions: Life-size gypsy mother and son Room themes: Roman Bed designs: Hand-carved chariot Sounds: Harp music to eat grapes by Movies: "Spartacus," "Ben Hur" Games: Chess and checkers Robe designs: Togas Shower companions: The Three Ladies of Grace* Room themes: Egyptian Bed designs: Canopied harem bed Sounds: Sitar music Movies: "The Wind and the Lion" Games: Backgammon Robe designs: Hooded desert robes Shower companions: King Tut and his family Room themes: Pirate Bed designs: Captain's bunk Sounds: Ocean storm sounds Movies: "Captain Blood," "Sinbad the Sailor" Games: Cribbage Robe designs: Oriental pattern Shower companions: Blackbeard the Pirate Room themes: French Bed designs: Artist's loft overlooking Paris Sounds: Edith Piaf songs Movies: "A Tale of Two Cities," "Gigi" Games: Dominoes Robe designs: Gendarme pattern Shower companions: Four can-can dancers * The ladies actually were Greek mythological figures, but they seem quite comfortable in a Roman shower.