The Motel of Make-Believe : Landmark: Monty Thomulka’s Pink Motel was a hit with 1950s travelers. Now its a star on the silver screen.
Monty Thomulka spends most of his day making beds and cleaning bathrooms and generally fixing up around the Pink Motel.
“If it isn’t a broken waterline, it’s electrical wiring,” he said. “Things happen with a place that’s 44 years old.”
When the sun goes down, Thomulka turns on a blinking, flashing neon sign out front. Cars speed past on San Fernando Road in Sun Valley. He rents rooms and keeps an eye on the guests.
“You get your drunks and you may have to run them out,” he said. “You’re never bored when you deal with the public.”
Thomulka has lived at the Pink pretty much all his life. His father built the place in 1946, a classic roadside motel, 20 small rooms with 20 beds and 20 tiny bathrooms. Back then, the area had walnut groves and the main drag, San Fernando Road, was the biggest thoroughfare between Los Angeles and cities north. The motel made money and it was some sort of landmark with its bright, almost-fluorescent pink walls and a decent lunch counter next door.
Business isn’t so good now. The Golden State Freeway cuts a few miles west and takes most of the customers with it. The Pink Cafe is closed. Graffiti mark the neighborhood, and a city power plant with towering smoke stacks, is just across the street.
But Thomulka makes due. He rents as many of his $30 rooms as he can--usually about half of them on a given night--and leases some land next door to a recreational vehicle company. He makes ends meet by letting television and movie people film at the Pink.
This year alone, 15 shoots have come through--mostly television movies and commercials--and Thomulka has picked up a quick $38,000.
“We’re putting new furniture in all the rooms,” he said.
It’s probably fitting that the Pink survives best in the make-believe world of Hollywood, the only realm in which it can still do what it does best--be a 1950s motel.
Joseph Thomulka always wanted his motel to get noticed.
“He was driving out here from Philadelphia, coming cross the middle states, looking at motels,” Thomulka said of his father. “He wanted something that people would remember.”
The elder Thomulka planted palm trees and fruit trees--lemon, grapefruit and orange--in the courtyard. He put a whale-shaped pool in back and bright lights in front. Most important, he made the building pink. Very pink.
Almost as soon as the place opened, Hollywood types showed up to film movies and television shows.
“If you’re in this business any length of time, you know about it,” said Jim McCabe, a location manager for Universal Television who recently shot a “Columbo” episode there. “It’s absolutely unique and it’s a lot of fun.”
Something about the 1950s style--low-slung buildings around a courtyard with decorative brick and high- kitsch outdoor lamps--is definitive Americana.
“It can play for someplace other than Los Angeles,” said Lauren Ross, location manager for the upcoming NBC pilot “Keys to the Kingdom.” “We were shooting a movie that took place in Florida. The Pink Motel could be very Florida-ish with palm trees and the grass.”
Sammy Davis Jr. once acted a few scenes at the Pink, back in the 1960s. Dick Van Dyke was there. So were Mary Tyler Moore, Phyllis Diller and Michael Landon.
“I really don’t pay much attention,” Thomulka said. “After you watch the first shoot, it gets boring. It’s all cut-shoot, cut-shoot.”
He does, however, recall clearly that Ed Sullivan’s nephew once did some tile work in the bathrooms.
“You probably don’t remember Ed Sullivan,” he said.
Much of what Thomulka talks about is the past. At 48, he wears his white hair in a mild pompadour. His body is muscular from morning workouts in the back yard. His speech is quick and friendly as he walks to a dirt lot behind the motel.
There are dozens of cars back there, most of them old and rusted. A ’53 Cadillac. A ’57 Ford Fairlane. A ’57 Mercury Monterey. A ’41 Chevrolet. Thomulka restores such relics with the help of several mechanics who work with him.
All those cars and the pink motel and that hairdo--one might accuse Thomulka of living in the past, obsessing on the ‘50s.
“No, I was just raised in it,” he said. “And when you have a place like this, you’re buried in that era.”
The Pink Cafe has new neon and a new name: Cadillac Jack’s. It’s still closed but Thomulka is looking for someone to lease the place and he keeps it looking brand-new, just like the motel, with fresh pink paint.
Rows of lights run the length of the cafe and form the letters of its name. At sunset, they flicker brightly. Thomulka waves his arms as he describes a fanlike neon piece he will install on the front of the building soon.
“Sort of like Las Vegas,” he said. “When I turn on all these lights, the power plant across the street dims.”
Chevrolet just filmed a commercial at the cafe. Thomulka, describing the shoot, is interrupted by a woman who calls out to him from the motel.
“It’s just Connie,” he said. She’s the maid. She lives in the motel and cares for the dozen or so cats that live in the courtyard. “She wants cat food.”
It seems that half the people who stay at the Pink work for Thomulka. Old Jimmy sits in back, by the pool, watering the lawn. Wayne Hooper, a lanky and sad-looking man who fixes the old cars and does some handiwork, chats with a couple of guests.
“From 6 in the morning until 1 at night, we’re working,” Hooper said. “This place is one of a kind.”
Thomulka said he’s happy to have people around. He’s a single man whose daughter comes by during the days to help out. The work can be both monotonous and strenuous. He said someday he might sell the place. But there is obvious doubt in his voice and a few moments later he contradicts himself.
He laughs. “They’ll bury me in the field back there.”
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