Everyone has ups and downs at work. Andrew Lounsbury’s are intentional.
For 39 years, he’s been an elevator operator at the Hotel del Coronado, a throwback job in a throwback place.
The hotel dates to 1888, and so does the elevator. The technology was so new that the hotel included it among the advertised amenities, boasting that the elevator was “rendering the climbing of stairs unnecessary.”
Back then, a human was required to open the metal gates and operate the handle that told the elevator where to go and when to stop.
Over time, the technology improved, and now almost all of the 900,000 elevators in the United States are automated. Human operators have gone the way of buggy whips and horse carriages, seen mostly in period TV shows and movies.
The average American living or working in a multistory building rides an elevator four times a day and hardly pays the conveyance any mind, unless it breaks down. Such is modern life.
The Hotel Del, though, is modern in moderation. It sits proudly in earlier times, and the gilded, caged elevator in the lobby is considered part of the ambiance.
“It speaks to an elegance and style you just don’t experience much any more,” said Gina Petrone, the hotel’s historian.
Although the elevator has been updated several times over the years — the controls are push-button now — it still has doors that have to be worked by hand.
Most days, from 2 to 10:30 p.m., that’s Lounsbury’s domain. He, too, is considered part of the ambiance.
It’s not just the uniform, a blue jacket with twin rows of gold buttons up the front. It’s more than the round hat.
He often greets returning hotel guests by name, and by song. Someone from Tucson hears “Get Back,” the Beatles tune that mentions the city. A visitor from New Orleans hears a snippet of Louie Armstrong.
Wedding couples get Elvis: “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
Tell him you’re from the Land of Lincoln and he recites the beginning of the Gettysburg Address, modifying it sometimes to make it autobiographical: “Four score and 39 years ago, I came to this great hotel.”
The personal approach endears him to people. Mike Calvi, a New Jersey resident who has been coming to Coronado to visit a brother for about eight years, stopped by the elevator one day last week to say hi.
“Even when we’re not staying here, we come over to see Andrew,” he said. “The hotel, the elevator — they don’t make ‘em like this any more. The place is unique. Andrew is unique. He puts a smile on your face.”
Lounsbury, 66, came to San Diego with his family from Ventura, where he had worked as a janitor in a bowling alley. He was in a custodian job here, too, when his mother saw a “help wanted” ad for the elevator at the Hotel Del.
“She said she wanted me to get out of the line of work I was in, and I said that makes two of us,” he recalled.
He went to the hotel, was interviewed, hired, and walked out the door with a uniform in hand — all in one day. And he’s been there ever since, commuting now from the mobile home he shares in Mira Mesa with a brother.
Ask him what he likes best about the job and he mentions the people. Some of them have been famous, like the late actor Tony Curtis. They met when Curtis came to town in 1984 for the 25th anniversary of “Some Like It Hot,” which was filmed at the hotel.
The two became friends — close enough that Lounsbury felt comfortable teasing the actor about his celebrity. When he noticed how Curtis was always being asked to sign something, Lounsbury autographed a photo of the two of them together: “From Andrew, the elevator operator.”
Earlier this year, when the TV appraisal program “Antiques Roadshow” filmed three upcoming episodes at the hotel, Lounsbury got on camera with some etchings Curtis had made and given him.
Not all of his encounters with guests go so well. Young people unfamiliar with the history of elevators sometimes jump back and scream when the gate opens and he’s standing there, he said.
He tries to settle them down with a song or a joke. When someone mentions that the elevator reminds them of the one in the movie “Titanic,” he quips, “And you’re about to get that sinking feeling.”
He’s never counted how many trips he makes during an average eight-hour shift, but on busy days, it’s in the hundreds. He says “Hello” when people enter, “Bye” when they leave. He calls out the floor numbers as the elevator arrives.
On occasion, the elevator breaks down, he said. It’s so old replacement parts sometimes have to be manufactured.
One of the biggest changes he’s seen over the years is the proliferation of cellphones. People get on the elevator now and don’t even look up from the screens. He thinks that’s rude, but he’s not about to tell them that. He says “Have a good day” to them, too.
Harold Rapoza, the hotel’s general manager, said part of what makes Lounsbury special is the way he fits into the iconic property’s ability to cast a spell, to take guests back to an earlier, more elegant time.
“He starts the journey,” Rapoza said.
Lounsbury sometimes tells his riders about L. Frank Baum, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” author who wrote three of the book’s 13 sequels while wintering in Coronado. Mentioning Baum is one way he explains why he keeps coming back to a job that is obsolete almost everywhere else.“This is the Emerald City,” he said, “and you never know what’s going to happen in the Land of Oz.”
Wilkens is a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune.