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Duke losing reins of his town

Times Staff Writer

Newport Beach will fete John Wayne, but it can’t throw the bash at his house. The bay-front home was ripped down to make room for a larger estate.

The city has wiped away most of his fingerprints. The tennis club Wayne built: renamed. The affiliated Dukes team: now called the Breakers. The Orange County airport remains the grizzled leading man’s namesake -- although one county supervisor toyed with rechristening it The O.C. Airport when the television soap outstripped the leading man in hipness.

As Newport Beach gears up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wayne’s birth, a classically Southern California conundrum has emerged. Many places where “The Quiet Man” star snoozed and caroused in the seaside town have been sold, revamped, renamed or bulldozed. “His remnants are in Pacific View” -- a hillside cemetery -- “and that’s about it,” said Bill Grundy, Newport Beach Historical Society president.

Beginning Saturday, the city will honor its Oscar-winning adopted son with one of Wayne’s few tangible legacies: celluloid. The Newport Beach Film Festival will screen several movies, including “The Searchers” and “True Grit” and trot out family members and co-stars.

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“What could be more fitting?” said James S. Olson, who co-authored the biography “John Wayne: American.” “Who needs a monument to go visit? People don’t even need to leave their homes to worship Wayne, when he’s on cable.”

The approach says plenty about Southern California’s sense of history -- and its predilection for knocking down even its glitterati’s old haunts. In Beverly Hills: the 42-room Pickfair, home to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, and the home where George and Ira Gershwin penned several classic tunes. In Los Angeles: the Brown Derby, Nickodell and Perino’s restaurants, among other hangouts for Hollywood aristocracy.

Even Wayne’s white colonial estate in Encino, where he lived before moving to Newport Beach, couldn’t dodge the wrecking ball. “Maybe there’s not the same East Coast ethos, you know, ‘Washington slept here,’ ” said Pamela Lee Gray, author of a book about Newport Beach and a onetime architectural historian in Los Angeles County.

By contrast, residents in Wayne’s birthplace of Winterset, Iowa, whose own centennial extravaganza is next month, painstakingly restored the squat home where the cinematic icon was born Marion Morrison on May 26, 1907. Up to 40,000 people -- eight times the town’s population -- stroll through annually, and there are plans for a museum larger than Wayne’s Newport Beach home.

“That was so disappointing when his house was torn down -- to lose that to the winds of progress, I just don’t know,” said Wayne Davis, a John Wayne Birthplace Society board member. Wayne lived in Newport Beach more than a decade, “and there’s unfortunately not much to show for it.” Wayne died of cancer June 11, 1979.

Wayne’s popularity today could make many a living actor jealous. In Harris polls that ask Americans to name their top leading man, the Duke has notched a top-10 spot for more than a decade. His cowboy-hatted likeness has sold Coors Light, refrigerator magnets, alarm clocks and organic beef jerky -- and now anniversary-linked revolvers, ammunition cartridges and beaver-fur hats.

In Orange County, the relationship between the Duke and his fans was as tight as that of cowboy and horse. “They had an icon there,” said Olson, a distinguished professor of history at Sam Houston State University in Texas. “The image he projected harkened back to an era where black and white and good and evil were clear.”

In 1965, Wayne and his family moved to Bayshore Drive after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. To the Duke, Orange County’s coastline inspired nostalgia -- he had long bodysurfed the Wedge, injuring his shoulder badly enough to lose his USC football scholarship and switch to acting. “Maybe we wouldn’t have John Wayne without the surf in Newport Beach,” quipped son Ethan Wayne.

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Newport Beach -- “the mecca for prosperous political conservatives” -- was also a flawless political match for a star fed up with Hollywood liberals, Olson said. In the century-old city, “he became John Wayne the person, not John Wayne the celluloid star,” visitors bureau president Gary Sherwin said aboard the Wild Goose, Wayne’s 136-foot minesweeper-turned-yacht, reincarnated once again as a charter vessel.

Newport, a onetime escape for Hollywood luminaries such as Humphrey Bogart, mentions Wayne in its visitors guide and on its tourism website. His cancer foundation is anchored here, as is Wayne Enterprises, the company that licenses the Duke’s image and name. The nearby airport bears his name and 9-foot bronzed likeness -- though he had signed a petition to block commercial jets because the flight path arced over his home.

There’s little else. Like much of Southern California, Newport Beach has long favored the newly constructed over the aged. Aside from the 46 wood-frame cottages at Crystal Cove, the community has fewer than 20 structures designated as historic, including the Balboa Saloon, McFadden Wharf and the Balboa Inn.

“It seems they tear down everything after 20 years to build something bigger or change it so you don’t recognize it,” said Elaine McGrew, who tends bar at an old Wayne watering hole, Class of ’47.

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At Lido Yacht Anchorage, Wayne’s slip was renumbered, from 55 to 204. The Wild Goose’s upper deck has been so retooled that its former captain, Bert Minshall, said, “I cringe every time I see the boat go down the harbor.”

The tennis club on Jamboree Road that Wayne opened in the 1970s was rechristened the Palisades Tennis Club two decades later. Instead of paying to use Wayne’s name, the new proprietor preferred to spruce up the club’s courts.

At the overhauled Balboa Bay Club, little mirrors the place where Wayne doled out twenties to the hamburger guy and introduced himself to the owner’s Texas relatives by saying, “Hi, I’m John Wayne.” Duke’s Place, the public lounge graced with his nickname and photos, opened only this millennium.

Farther along Coast Highway, the Arches restaurant, whose steaks Wayne relished, has preserved the actor’s favorite dining room booths, Nos. 9 and 10. But when the restaurant’s lease expires this summer, the dinner house is moving -- another Duke hangout dispatched. And the new clubs coming in “probably wouldn’t let him in -- they’re too trendy,” said owner Dan Marcheano.

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Wayne’s Newport home stood until 2002. The couple razing it invited a horseback-riding Wayne impersonator to its farewell soiree. Hank Wiessner, whose company runs boat tours in Newport Harbor, said the owners asked that the home be deleted from the tour, since it no longer resembled where the quintessential movie cowboy waved howdy to passing boats.

“I wish it was still there,” Wiessner said. “All we can say is, ‘That’s where it was.’ ”

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Getting his props at film festival

The Newport Beach Film Festival, which begins today, kicks off its “Ten Decades of ‘The Duke’: The Official John Wayne Centennial Celebration” on Saturday at 2 p.m. with a symposium at Edwards Island Cinema, 999 Newport Center Drive. Through April 28, the festival will be screening Wayne movies, including “The Quiet Man,” “Rio Bravo” and his Oscar-winning turn in “True Grit” at various theaters. For more information, visit www.newportbeachfilmfest.com and click on John Wayne Centennial.


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