Hotelier, humanitarian dies

Hotel Laguna owner Claes Andersen succumbed Wednesday to the cancer he had been battling since last winter. He was 63.

Services for the noted hotelier and humanitarian will be held at 2 p.m. Aug. 21 at Laguna Presbyterian Church.

A champion of the hospitality industry in town, Andersen and his wife, Georgia, have owned the historic hotel since March of 1985, five years after they met here and married.

Andersen was instrumental in the formation of the Hospitality Committee that split off from the Chamber of Commerce in a dispute about the value of promoting the hotels and restaurants of Laguna.

The committee evolved into the Laguna Beach Visitors Bureau, which he helped found 25 years ago and served as president for the first two years of its existence and continued to advise.

"The gentleman brought vision and passion to the community with regard to tourism and hospitality," said Karyn Philippsen, president of the bureau for 21 years. "He had impeccable integrity in the presentation of wine and food."

Andersen was a board member of Chaine des Rotisseurs, an international gastronomic society and founded a society committee that helped train young chefs and sommeliers.

But the hotel was more than a place to eat and drink.

"Claes opened the hotel for the victims of any disasters in Laguna Beach," said Michelle Wheeler, a hotel employee for 10 years and general manager for 4 years.

Those disasters included the 1993 fire, in which the Andersen's lost their home, which included an impressive wine cellar.

He also was a big contributor to the Laguna Playhouse, SchoolPower and the Boys & Girls Club and a supporter of the Laguna Canyon Foundation and its "Keep it Green" campaign.

"Claes was much more than one of the leading businessmen in Laguna Beach," said former foundation President Michael Pinto. "He was also a visionary who loved his adopted community and was front and center when it came to helping the nonprofit community.

"As founder and president of the Laguna Canyon Foundation, I will always remember the many events Claes underwrote for our foundation, especially in the early days when we were just beginning.

"In addition to underwriting events, including the celebratory affair at which we toasted an agreement with the Irvine Co. that led to the preservation of our beloved Laguna Canyon, Claes also donated the use of a suite for the newly formed foundation.

"He has been there for us, not only as a successful hotelier, but as an individual who, with his wonderful wife, Georgia, made a significant financial commitment to he fledgling foundation that help form the basis of our future financial success. We will miss him dearly."

Mary Fegraus, former executive director of the foundation, expressed shock at Mr. Andersen's death.

"The call was like a bad dream," Fegraus said. "I did not realize he had cancer."

That was how Andersen wanted it, Philippsen said. His death was not expected to happen this soon.

"I am grateful I got to see him in June," she said.

Fegraus described Andersen as larger than life.

"My time at the foundation when we used a hotel room as an office gave me an opportunity to see his gracious and engaging ways," Fegraus said. "The foundation's beginning owes a great deal to Claes."

Cindy Prewitt, founder of the annual Music Festival and other events, said Andersen helped make the festival the success that it is.

"Claes was a wonderful friend to all of the nonprofits in town; his generosity really helped to make our Music Festival successful. Whether it was hosting a dinner for our Music Festival at the Hotel, housing artists every year or giving us the Laguna Room for our rehearsals and public outreach programs," Prewitt said.

"All of this was critical to bring the festival to the center of town and to the enjoyment of our residents and visitors. Our summer Jazz Wednesdays in the Rose Garden was actually an idea of Claes, and it is so popular now that we are sometimes having to turn people away. He also helped nurture us by having such a wonderful staff who have supported us whenever we are there.

"We will all miss Claes tremendously."

The Jazz Festival performances will proceed as planned.

"It will be business as usual at the hotel," Wheeler said. "Claes would be really, really upset if I took time out to grieve."

Andersen was born in Denmark and never quite lost the accent of his native land.

A generous man, Andersen was known to lose his temper upon occasion.

One such occasion was the purchase by artist Robert Wyland of property adjoining the hotel on which Andersen hoped to expand. The wall between the two properties was the first of Wyland's Whaling Walls, painted when he was in his youth.

Upset at the loss of an opportunity to expand, Andersen painted out the mural.

"I am not advertising you," Wheeler recalled Andersen saying.

He also got a bit testy when his last name was spelled "Anderson."

Andersen is survived by his wife of 30 years and their children, Katie, 16, a sophomore at Laguna Beach High School and Steffan, 22, a student of Hospitality Management in Boulder, Colo.

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