Disclaimer: All photos taken on my phone. I apologize for the static and blur.
The girls were all wearing cowboy hats and glitter spread across their cheeks. They had cropped halter tops and plastic pacifier necklaces straight out of a 90s rave, only this was 2016 and we were nowhere near a DJ. It was a Wednesday night at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo and the party girls were hitting the empty dance floor alongside two couples in their mid-late 60s doing intricate line dances in their high-waisted denim. I asked one of the girls if their outfits were for a party and she said, “Every day is a party and we’re ready to party,” while not discreetly rubbing her nose. I have never done coke and I had to wonder if this was one of those coded references to gage whether I was “cool” or not. Without a response from me on my level of partying, the girl followed her two friends to the bar to park herself on a pink vinyl seat and wait for five other skinny blonde girls in equally strange outfits to join them.
I became obsessed with finding out how they had come to be at this roadside attraction dressed the way they were. Was it a bachelorette party? A reality tv show with hidden cameras? I let my friend Instagram while I leaned in closer to the bar and eavesdropped with all of my hearing capacity. One of the girls told the bartender that they had been their for a modeling shoot. Was it legit or was it porn? They had that special brand of seediness that was either girls on drunken holiday or sex worker.
One thing was certain though, the Madonna Inn was the perfect place to find them. It had a mixture of nostalgia, kitsch and a special brand of loneliness that can only be found in dive bars in cities that have no real industry. People huddled in dark corners or whispered over their shoulders, the customers were all slightly large like images one conjures of Middle America. But all of this was surrounded by bright pink leather, fake grapes hanging from ceilings, large rock fireplaces, and hidden gum ball machines. It was like the hotel was one large 90s rave, taking itself a little too seriously but only to those on psychedelic drugs.
We had found out there would be dancing in the bar when we checked in for our one night stay at the Madonna. My friend once tried out for So You Think You Can Dance and teaches salsa classes and I am an ex-cheerleader so we had a certain type of club level dancing in mind that was instantly shattered when we entered the Dionysian bar that night. The music was from a live band and it was of the swing and blues covers variety. One of the couples dancing was celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and had met in the pink dining hall of the Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steakhouse on that very dance floor. I tried to imagine what it must have been like 40 years before, at its height of popularity. Was this a destination? Did young men and women come here to mingle, to meet their future mate? Was this still the case? Did the party girls know something I didn’t know?
My friend and I did our own twirl or two around the parquet floor then headed back to our Sweepstakes room for the night. I found myself slightly disappointed. I had come for kitsch and wanted kitsch to the max. There were a few paintings of racing thoroughbreds and curtains with horses on them. Part of the wall looked slightly like a stable and there were old lanterns surrounding our bed, but that was it. I was hoping for a faux-horse hair sofa or a chair made out of a saddle. There should have been trophies lining the walls and images of jockeys. The walls should have been large stripes of bubble gum pink or lime green. The sheets should have been satin. I was paying for the experience to be overwhelmed by the over-the-top. This was underwhelming at best. The brochure tells us that the Madonna Inn has “whimsical decor and a timeless elegance.” The timeless quality is apparent but without a visit to the more expensive suites, I had yet to see the whimsy my heart desired.
Alex and Phyllis Madonna dreamed, designed and opened the inn in 1958. The Inn is still family-owned and operated and it has the feel of a legacy that you can’t touch, that you aren’t allowed to touch.
Keeping tradition alive seems to be important at the Madonna, and it should be. The Madonna wouldn’t be the Madonna without it’s strange little quirks and it’s unprofessional aesthetic. That being said, it doesn’t mean that I don’t want more. Keep the spirit of the original but add something that goes even further to each of the themed rooms. Go big or go home, right?
My friend had childhood memories of the place so when we soaked in the hot tub with a family that makes a special trip every summer, trying out different rooms, the enjoyment of the hotel made that much more sense. A bed housed in a boat would be the coolest thing you experience that summer or sneaking into the boys’ bathroom to pee in the waterfall urinal would be a thrill you would remember the rest of your life. In a 1982 New York Times article, Aljean Harmetz shared “Some guests come for a week and change rooms every night. The first woman to sleep in all 110 rooms took seven years and finally made it in 1977. Several others have done it since then.” There’s something reassuring in that what made the hotel so odd during the year of my birth hasn’t changed since then.
Personally, I loved the cakes.
The Madonna is also famous for it’s pink champagne cake, a monstrosity the size of your head that looked like the skirt of a Barbie doll on it’s way to a Gone with the Wind themed ball. It was covered with shavings of white chocolate, half of it dyed pink. Apparently there was a pink chocolate shortage (who knew such a thing existed) and the pink cake was temporarily on hiatus. Behind the glass case in the Copper Cafe there were other giant confections from yesteryear. A german chocolate cake. A toffee cake covered with broken pieces of something that looked like a Butterfinger bar. Lemon and cherry cake with perfect Maraschino cherries resting on top. This was my cocaine and I was happy to dive in. We bought four slices, each in a different flavor.
When our checkout time arrived, we packed up my car, parked right outside our door like the true motor lodge that the Inn really is. In the morning sunshine, there was no sign of a troop of girls in iridescent bell bottoms and cowboy hats. The sun washed away the strobe light vibe of the hotel and left a patina of barnyard and pink gables instead. This was a family affair and you could see that in the daylight. Maybe one of the girls met their man of 40 years on the dance floor that night or maybe one or two just met a John. Either way, we were all embraced by the loving arms of the Madonna family that night, welcoming us into their 110 room home.