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August 28, 2010

Planet Madonna

Planet Madonna

By Cornelia Read

[I am currently doing six days of college touring with my daughter, my niece, and my sister. In a small car. We did two places today. I am kind of fried, with intermittent wireless hookup. So this is a review I wrote a while ago, but it seems like a place that Tarts should congregate. Maybe we could all meet up for drinks on New Year's Eve???)


Of course great hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service. 

--Joan Didion The White Album 

If you want to spend one night in America’s most memorable lodgings, forget about The Plaza, The Drake, The St. Francis, the Ritz-Carlton. and The Chateau Marmont—what you need is a reservation at the Madonna Inn . This "spectacular fantasy motel" has become so widely known that when its proprietors, Phyllis and Alex Madonna, visited Austria and Switzerland and were asked the name of their hometown by someone to whom they had not been introduced, their reply of "San Luis Obispo, California," was greeted by, "and how far is that from the Madonna Inn?" Though their fame abroad is remarkable (the Madonnas have gotten press coverage in venues ranging from Good Morning America to The Times of London), it is eclipsed by the esteem in which this couple is held at home: that trip to Europe, for instance, was a gift from their employees. 


As kind, honest, and sincere as Mr. and Mrs. Madonna are reputed to be, however, the foremost reason to book a room with them is that the Madonna Inn is to interior decorating what miniature golf is to landscape design: outrageous, eye-catching, and deeply, deeply American. This 109-room hostelry is a cultural icon right up there with Disneyland, Hearst Castle, Pedro’s South of the Border, and the entirety of The Vegas Strip. The Inn exerts a force of kitsch so powerful, in fact, that—like Graceland— it generates a self-referencing bubble of wonder, a magnetism that pulls busloads of the faithful to its doors as surely as pilgrims are drawn to Mecca, Lourdes, Rome, and Zion. 

The Madonnas have conceived of, built, and decorated a veritable temple to the self-made aesthetic, making tangible—in flocked velvet, apple green leather, lava rock, faux leopard, and hot pink everything—the bedizened romanticism of the American Dream. 


Step through the carved doors by the fountains chez Madonna, and you’re inside the giant snowglobe whose web of enchantment hides the ancient homeland of all Hummel figurines, Jell-O salads, lawn trolls, sparkling pink Barbie accessories, gilt cherubs, and "Round-Tuits" from the gaze of we lowly mortals. There is no greater Valhalla of Va-va-va-voom than this, no more hermetically perfect auberge of audacity…. You have arrived, Chica. 


The pillars, beams, and cornices of the coffee shop were ten years in the carving. The tables and bar are made of copper, the former with the Madonna "pick and shovel" logo handstamped and the latter elaborately engraved. 

Murals with a fin-de-siecle theme abound, as do Tiffany-style stained glass lamps, red leather barstools, and sheet-copper sheathing. All this, and you’re still in the coffee shop. 

Don't forget to ogle the Gold Rush Dining Room, whose baroque magnificence includes the "swinging girl," a nearly life-sized brunette doll who has been careening back-and-forth--suspended from the "genuine oak branches" adorning the ceiling--since the inn opened.

Of course, it’s hard to miss the 28-foot tall tree made from leftover conduit, scrap copper, and spare diesel fuel tubing, "lit by a thousand dainty lights" that stands at the room’s center, but the focal point is still the overwhelming use of "Madonna Pink," a lushly roseate shade the owners felt would be flattering to female guests. The ubiquity of pink upholstery alone must be supported by its own naugahyde factory, working round the clock. 


Even the bathrooms are cause for a sort of hushed reverence. Those in the Wine Cellar, for instance, which are approached by following a carved banister down the flight of stairs from the lobby, walking past the rock cave which houses the pay phone, and beyond the barrel-shaped cage which leads to another dining room ("starlit" stone pillars, grape trellises, wine barrels…). The Ladies’ Room features red flocked wallpaper, pink Italian marble, and door panels of tufted red leather, but it is the Men’s Room which draws crowds with its giant clamshell sinks and the stone wall urinal, "flushed" when patrons trigger an electric eye and loose a full-scale waterfall. 


Each of the 109 rooms is decorated differently, with its own theme, color scheme, and decor. But as over the top as the decor sounds (and we haven’t even discussed the Gay Nineties Room, the Silver Bar, or the Oak Pit BBQ), this is not the place to show up in python thigh boots with Hunter S. Thompson and his Samoan attorney in tow. 


As Jack Arky, a composer from Los Angeles, said of his stay there last year, "Everyone is nice. Really, really, really nice. I mean, like Disneyland nice—it was, um, eerie." 


Arky and his girlfriend stopped in on their first driving tour up the West coast at the behest of a college buddy who is a California native. "’Get one of the cave rooms,’ she told me, ‘and surprise her with a gift of leopard underwear,’" he recounts. 


"We followed instructions, and actually we had a really great time, but it was so overwhelmingly detailed, visually, that we were exhausted by the time we left. I don’t think I could stay there longer than one night." 


Still, he remembers the experience vividly, saying that it was like nothing else so much as wandering into a lost episode of Twin Peaks. 


"The wildest thing was when we went down to the dining room, and the whole place is like, hot pink car upholstery or something, and the service is great, and there’s this band playing. The music was really amazing—like Glenn Miller, 'Stardust,' the whole thing— and everyone’s dancing ballroom style, and we look around and we realize that everyone’s really good. They’re all dipping and swirling and doing all of this amazing stuff out on the dance floor...everyone...and so we just decide that it really is an alternate universe, that maybe the whole population from the surrounding area comes here all the time and they’ve developed this whole really nice culture together, just unbelievably polite and into dancing their heads off all the time." 

He paused and laughed at this point in the story, adding "Later, of course, we find out that it was some huge Arthur Murray ballroom class out on a field trip." 

We checked back and found out that the Inn offers live Swing music Tuesday through Saturday, and that local dance groups often show their stuff here. But if you’re not ready to Cha-Cha, the recreational opportunities are legion. The Madonna Inn is within easy distance of downtown San Luis Obispo, Hearst Castle (about a 50-minute drive), and a number of good wineries. While there is no concierge, the desk staff will help you get information on setting up golf or fishing outings. Tours of California's scenic coastline can be arranged for guests, with the local Silverado Tours coming right to the hotel. 


Bring your mountain bike or hiking boots, too, because the surrounding terrain offer some great trails and views. Especially recommended are the trails originating at Montana De Oro State Park, which is about a 20 minute drive away, on the Pacific. 

As for indoor recreation, we highly recommend reserving any of these splendid rooms for at least a night, preferably after a shopping spree at Frederick’s of Hollywood down the coast. Most people like to book rock accommodations that include a waterfall shower, but two rock suites offer both the shower and a fireplace. 


The staff at the hotel will happily fill you in on the dozens of other theme rooms available. There is truly something for everyone here, and goodness knows this is fertile ground for coming up with a thousand and one "honeymoon" scenarios. 

Even if you’ve got the rental car on cruise control, trying to do the length of the state in a day, this is an ideal rest stop on any road trip through California. The postcards alone (featuring a variety of rooms as photographed by Mrs. Madonna) are worth pulling off 101 for, and you won’t find a more entertaining (or cleaner) restroom anywhere in the NAFTA countries. If you’ve got a couple of minutes more, pull up a tufted pink leather barstool at the copper horseshoe-shaped bar for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie…. Go ahead, make your day.


The Bottom Line: if you haven't been to The Madonna Inn...


...you haven't been to America.

 Okay, Tartissimas and Tartissimos, what is YOUR favorite slice of tack-fest Americana? Or source of REALLY good pie?


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Cornelia, I've passed the Madonna Inn on several occasions but haven't ever stopped, despite having read several articles (none as detailed or entertaining as yours) about it. I wonder whether the combination of the Tarts and backbloggers and the Inn would be totally combustible . . . but I'd be game to at least visit for an afternoon.
Decades ago, I used to love stopping at the Stuckey's establishments along the highway between Texas and L.A., and always dreamed of buying a 'pecan log', but I somehow think I was only allowed by the parental authorities to have one slice of such a log.
Also used to love visiting the North Pole/Santa's Workshop . . . had to Google it to remember where it is, though . . . apparently Colorado. No joke.

I have never done mescaline. I am deeply grateful I have never done it in this location.

Tom, I have done mescaline and I'm glad I never did it in a place like that. Christ, it nearly 'sploded my head just lookin' at the pictures.

Cornelia, I have the 12 volt adapter for my vibrator and her cute little bright blue buddy burkha - a perfect match to my new metallic blue Q6000Z power wheelchair - all packed and ready to go. I see the colors there are designed to induce left temporal lobe seiures... so who needs fucking acid!

I am partial to South of the Border, for a few reasons. First, it's those signs. I seem to recall one all the way up here in Delaware, only 400 miles to Pedro. But more important, South of the Border was apparently the first lodging on the main road between New York and Florida that allowed blacks to stay, back in the '50's. That was quite revolutionary at the time, and a reason to buy that snowglobe.

Ah, Stuckey's, Laraine... such memories of driving across the country in old station wagons, fighting with my sister...

Tom and Doc, I've never done mescaline either, but I'm glad I never did even mushrooms in San Luis Obispo.

Marie-Reine, we're going to have to get you "The Austian Suite," one of the lovely blue rooms.

Josh, you've just taught me new respect for Pedro's. Next time I drive south down 95, I'm going to stop in just to buy something to support them. That's really cool!

Whoops, Marie-Reine, that should be "Austrian."

So now we know how the phrase, "My eyes! My eyes!" originated. Holy mama.

Is everything in that red room vinyl? Holy mama and daddy.

Fabulous! Which is the only word worthy of this hotel, I think. I MUST visit! I am a big, big Elvis fan--the kitschy Elvis, that is. Looks as if this place is definitey my cuppa.

BTW, I loved the college tour experience. It's a wonderful way to see America with teenagers. (And my girls learned to read a road map while looking for schools.) We had to placate the other sibling with other destinations, too--the most memorable being whale watching in Glouchester, MA on the foggiest day of the year. Big fun.

Holy cow, this place is awesome. I don't see how you could take it all in - I see how it could be exhausting. But what a ride! I wish I had a breakfast bar in my kitchen - I'd have to have those pink tufted stools.

I've always enjoyed the South Of The Border signs too. It always seems like such an accomplishment when you get there, after seeing the signs for so long. I never knew that about Pedro's, Josh. Very cool.

Since we don't have them around here, I like finding a Waffle House in the south and ordering their pecan waffles. I used to feel that way about Sonic and their burgers and milkshakes too, but now we have one down the road.

"the ancient homeland of all Hummel figurines"

lol! I always wondered.

Jayne Mansfield should be wandering those grounds.

What a fantastic story - thanks Cornelia!

I must say I was fortunate to have sunglasses on when I read this. Otherwise, I fear my eyes would have closed themselves in self defense. Well said, Ramona!

The place reminds me of those "I Spy" books we had for the kids. One can only imagine what could be hidden among that decorative spendor!

I'm partial to the room with the spiral staircase . . . and remembering a trip to House of the Rock in Wisconsin with my mom and Aunt Paula (but you can only tour that one, not stay over).
Storytellers in Missouri do a weekend retreat in January, the Chicken Festival. I can only imagine the storytelling and music we could concoct in a place like the Madonna Inn.

Josh, I didn't know that about Pedro's South of the Border either and I've been running up and down I-95 forever. This past spring, though, Dorothy Cannell and I stopped there and were blown away by the total, tackiness of it. Cornelia's Madonna is many many cuts above this place. I bought a flamingo and Dorothy got the shot glasses.

Mary, I don't think the stories you would come up with there would be suitable for children! (Madonna Inn is what I visualize when I hear the term 'french whorehouse' LOL!)
Some how, St. Louis falls short when you compare Knotty Pine and Corral Courts with Madonna. >>sigh<<
Elaine, the maids would have to watch for smuggled baby oil in that red vinyl room!

Well, I actually haven't been to South of the Border since 1989, because my family lived in far western Florida, and I split off on I-85 in Richmond (good-bye South of the Border, hello Giant Peach of Gaffney, S.C. and First White House of the Confederacy of Montgomery, Alabama) But I assume that it hasn't gotten any more high-brow in the past 20 years. We stopped and frolicked at the giant peach. We never stopped in Montgomery.

And I luckily stopped at St. Nick's Knife and Christmas Shop in Orange Beach, Alabama to get my photo taken in front of the sign before the place, quite literally, disappeared off the map. Hurricane Ivan removed any sign of St. Nicks: the sign, the building, and every building on the Gulf side of the street for a few miles in each direction.

I love the green room "Round" with the beautiful balloon chandelier.
Just a wonderful place!
I stayed in Cuernavaca, Mexico where iguanas roomed the grounds and one made its way into a guest room.
Talk of the visit.

Damn, Cornelia, I thought you left the F off Faustian!

There are no words

This is old home week for me. I went to high school a few towns south of San Luis Obispo, not long after Madonna Inn opened. My mother and I crewed for a community theater production of 'Oklahoma' at Madonna Inn because Mrs. Madonna starred as Laurie. At that time, Alex Madonna owned a construction business in SLO.

Cornelia, I thought maybe your daughter was applying to Cal Poly.

Good lord, decorating on steroids! I have driven by the Madonna, but was totally intimidated by its, well, kitsch with a bang! And I love kitsch. You all are reminding me of Stuckey's and how much I wanted that log. Billboards always seem to advertise Americana, don't they? Driving on Highway 80 in California is a gateway to the gambling centers of Nevada. Now there is a promise of riches, and tacky.

This is surely a Must See on the Only in America Tour:


The lobby alone would give me vertigo. It looks like a place you only dream about. I should say nightmare about.

Juliette Samuel

I stayed once--once--at the Madonna Inn. I was with my then-boyfriend, who was Cuban. I can't recall which room we stayed in, only that it was such a dreadful night in our lives that we broke up on the spot. That was 20-some years ago and to this day I can't figure out if it was the boyfriend, or if I was having some sort of psychotic break, possibly brought on by the fact that we had not only slept there, but dined there, stone cold sober.

I guarantee, though, that if I'd been doing mescaline that night I'd be institutionalized today.

When I win the lottery the TLC meet-up will be at the Madonna Inn! I want the lime green room - I have a shirt that will match it perfectly . . . This place is awesome. Can you feel the exploding heads of all those HGTV designers!

The Sistine Chapel recreated in a Precious Moments motif. Where do you find these things, Nancy?

The Madonna Inn is colorful, okay, but how does it stack up against the Hotel J Girl in Tokyo? http://www.hotelchatter.com/story/2007/9/4/83923/63164/hotels/Colorful_Fun_at_Hotel_J_Girl

As a reporter, I was sent to do a story a honeymoon hotel in the Poconos. My room had a heart-shaped tub, but it looked like a Holiday Inn compared to the Madonna.

Hey, I've stayed in that red room--that leather bedspread is HEAVY!!! And we did a bit of rock climbing the time we took our son for an overnight in one of the cave rooms.

I love this place. :)

OMG, Nancy-- a Precious Moments Sistine Chapel! And I need one of those angel water globes... hallelujah!

I wouldn't be able to stay in that Inn 'cause I would get sensory overload. In fact, I have it now just looking at the pictures! Accckk!

When I was a kid, I always wanted to stop at South of the Border, but we drove down I-75 to FL from TN and never had the chance. But about four years ago, my husband, son and I drove to FL from MD, and I finally got to see the place. We got closer...and closer...and closer, and FINALLY we were there. But what a let down! The kitcsh was there, but no people were. It was like a ghost town. So we drove on.

Another place I always wanted to see when I was young was the oldest jailhouse in the country in St. Augustine, FL. But we always drove on Sunday, and the jail was closed that day. I finally got my wish and saw it on the same trip where we didn't stop at South of the Border.

Good luck with your college tour, Cornelia. We did our visits two years ago with our son, and it was pretty enjoyable. We went about 12 years ago with our daughter, and it wasn't. Apparently girls are more particular than guys are when trying to decide where to go to school. Go figure!

Snicker. I thought you'd like that Precious Moments Chapel. It's over the border in Missouri, Margaret, so I've been avoiding thinking about it for a long time.

Harley, it is too bad you had such a bad experience at the Madonna. I was planning the first Blond Bond Sisters Con in that cave room.

Oh my lord, Cornelia, I have been JONESING for the Madonna Inn. There is nothing on earth even close. I have stayed in many, many, many of the theme rooms, lots of them with caveman showers, and once several of them in one endless night - or maybe it was an entire lost weekend. Hard to say. I either heard a murder or a divorce in one of the rooms next door to me, though...

I am with Harley, that mescaline and the MI might well be the fastest road to permanent institution.

(I do recommend Psychedelic green Midori Sours in that psychedelic crimson bar.)

Holy cow. We've driven by the place, years ago, but I had no idea it was such an institution. Durn, that was a missed opportunity. I think we were on our honeymoon, too.

One of my daughters went to the Coral Castle in Homestead, FL not too long ago, although you can't stay there: http://coralcastle.com/

And near Cincinnati is the Loveland Castle, made over the course of many years by a misogynistic old dude who fashioned himself a knight errant, complete with young boy knights of the round table. Hmm. Also can't stay there, however: http://www.lovelandcastle.com/

In Florence, Italy there is a museum of animals with oddities like three legs, etc. I haven't been there, but a friend has. Maybe it's not just solely an American phenomenon, this idea of wacky ways to draw people in.

Karen, that description of Loveland Castle (at the website) is CREEPY.

Isn't it? The guy could have doubled as a Catholic priest, I'm thinking.

I was there while the man was still alive and still building the joint. He used big coffee cans to make some of the blocks for it. He didn't speak to us, now I guess it was because we were wimmen.

Yeah, Karen, 'cuz wimmin cause problems with (K)nightly Purity (whichever spelling you use) for wannabee Knights Templar.

Wat a minute, Cornelia, did you say pie?

Rita, I could tell some of my "bachelorette party" stories . . . ;-)
Maybe they need a few plainer rooms for the ADHD guests.
Meanwhile, here's the long-gone Coral Court http://www.coralcourt.com/main.html
Or for those who like to be really "cool" http://www.icehotel.com/

Reader's Digest has a bit about a "hamster hotel" but I think it's just a spoof. I can imagine wanting to run on one of those wheels, but not sleeping on hay or eating pellets . . . .

Mama Madonna took her interior design course from Tammy Faye Baker by correspondence.

Loved the Madonna Inn and so did our kids who all three were 12 when we visited.........a once in a lifetime experience that almost matched a wicked rainstorm in Carmel!

I had to laugh at the synchronicity of reading this entry today of all days.....40 years ago today I spent my honeymoon night at the decadently fabulous Madonna Inn in the "Carin Tower Room". It was Madonna Hot Pink with golden cupids suspended everywhere. It was quite the luxe destination in 1970 as we started our drive up the coast toward Victoria Island in Vancouver. Thanks for all the nostalgic pics of an over-the-top experience. P.S. There was a kitschy little club of women in those days who had visited the men's "cave" bathroom to which I happily belonged.

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