Warm stays at the Kon Tiki

Third story in an occasional series about Costa Mesa's troubled motels.

In the fleeting years that the Markel family lived on Harbor Boulevard, visitors to their tropical-themed Kon Tiki Motel brought their bathing suits — not the police.

Just a short drive from the shores of Newport Beach, and about 10 miles from Disneyland, visitors became friends of George and Betty Markel.

The Markels lent visitors their personal car. Melanie Markel, then in fourth grade, would ride her unicycle around the parking lot and throw on a bathing suit as each carload of kids wanted to jump in the pool. After their visits, the guests would phone long distance to chat with the couple.

That was in the 1950s and early 1960s.

These days the neon palm tree sign that once advertised room vacancies at the Kon Tiki has been replaced by a less flavorful red and white one reading, "New Harbor Inn." The sign isn't all that is different at the hotel.

The clientele stands in stark contrast to that of its predecessor. Police are there more, responding to various problems. And the now-pink stucco building is missing the clean and open feel that made the Kon Tiki so welcoming.

The New Harbor Inn is one of 12 motels that Costa Mesa officials say draw a disproportional number of calls for police assistance and, as a result, are considered a drain on city resources.

Of the 12, the New Harbor Inn, 2205 Harbor Blvd., has one infamous distinction: an average of 16.4 public-service calls per room over a three-year period.

That is twice the number of the second one on the list, the Sandpiper Motel on Newport Boulevard.

When Betty Markel, 87, thinks of the 15 years her family owned and ran motels in Costa Mesa, only 10 or so flare-ups come to mind.

Most memories of opening, owning and operating the motels center on gallons of coffee and games of gin rummy played while Johnny Carson told his jokes in the background.

Among the few unusual characters to visit the Markels' motels was the woman who delivered a baby while a guest.

"We put two postcards in each room. She wanted to know if she could have a couple dozen ... that she was sending out her birth announcement. I thought, 'Well, that's good advertising,'" Betty Markel said during a recent interview at her daughter's Laguna Niguel home.

Then there was the sketchy duo whom George Markel spotted as they tried to make off with a room's custom furniture.

"They get to the edge of the property and then decided to go down the street to get their car where they left it," Betty Markel remembered. "My husband says, 'Come on,' and he and I went out there and, out of I don't know what, your adrenaline pumps, and we were able to carry the darn thing back into the laundry room and hid it. They came and looked all around and they couldn't imagine who would have stolen this thing."

George Markel drew on his imagination and the pages of the innumerable books he read for the ideas for his motels: the Kon Tiki, Don Quixote and Ali Baba, at each creating a solid following before selling and building a new one.

Public records show the Kon Tiki was built in the late 1950s, the Don Quixote in the mid-1960s, the Ali Baba in the 1970s. The Don Quixote and Ali Baba were located on Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa.

It was at the Ali Baba where the Markels began noticing changes in the customers and the general atmosphere. Melanie Markel speculated that it could have been the drug craze of the 1970s that made people increasingly unpredictable.

"I thought I would stay there and run that until I died. I mean it was a perfect way of life, as far as I was concerned," Markel said. "But then one night I went somewhere — Christmas shopping, I think — and I had my sister-in-law come over to run the office.

"My husband was in the living room sitting in a chair, sleeping, and two or three people came and held up my sister-in-law and then went on through and put the gun in my husband's face. And that was pretty scary, all of that. So we sold it three days later."

The Markels developed other properties after that, moving for a brief time to the desert before returning to Orange County.

While Costa Mesa city officials have floated several possible fates for the problematic area motels, including buying and tearing down some, Betty Markel seems unfazed by the possibility that the places she and her husband built might be destroyed.

"Where I got my attachment was just running the place," she said.

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