Imagine a sprawling Swiss chalet with gingerbread trim. Add rustic rock walls, hand-carved wooden arches, sparkling chandeliers and a colorful carpet patterned with pink roses.
This wildly whimsical place may sound like a set designer’s daydream, but it isn’t based on some Hollywood backlot. It’s located in San Luis Obispo, right off of Highway 101.
With more than 110 themed rooms and suites, the Madonna Inn has served as a candy-colored backdrop for movies, music videos and reality shows for decades.
“I would call it the pinnacle of Americana,” said English filmmaker Julien Temple, who shot part of 1987’s “Aria” at the hotel. “I love it. I think it’s great.”
Built by late construction magnate, real estate developer and cattle rancher Alex Madonna and his wife, Phyllis, the Madonna Inn opened its doors in 1958. The property, which today spans more than 1,000 acres at the base of Cerro San Luis Obispo, includes a few eateries — the Gold Rush Steak House, the Silver Bar Cocktail Lounge and the Copper Café coffee shop — plus a wine cellar, an event center and a swimming pool, spa and fitness center.
“One of the appeals (of the Madonna Inn) is that it is very classic in the core of its design,” said Audrey Pearce, assistant marketing manager at the hotel. “At the same time, it’s really playful.”
The cast of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” lunched at the Madonna Inn in 2015, the same year BBC’s “Top Gear” car buffs made a pit stop there. Last year, the inn’s pink champagne cake landed on celebrity stylist Carson Kressley’s list on Food Network’s “Guilty Pleasures.”
Meanwhile, the hotel has proved a popular shooting location for recording artists including Diana Espir, Hey Violet and Grimes.
Country band Lady Antebellum showcased several spots — including the elegant Austrian Suite, the two-tiered Love Nest and the frenetically floral Krazy Dazy room — in a video promoting its new album “Heart Break Hotel,” released in June.
“Growing Up Hip Hop” reality star Kristinia DeBarge spends much of her steamy music video for “Pink Love,” which debuted July 27, lounging in lingerie in the rosy Madonna Suite and prancing on the pink tennis court.
Film crews love “the lighting and the ambience of the brighter, more colorful rooms” such as Carin, a vaulted pink room complete with gold cherubs, and Merry, a sparkling symphony in pale pink glitter, Pearce said. “Pretty much anything with glitter is going to be pretty popular.”
“We get called a lot of things, from kitsch to camp to quirky,” she said. “I would say we’re eclectic. There’s a lot going on, but it works.”
It was the Madonna Inn’s unique blend of kitsch and class — plus its proximity to Los Angeles — that attracted Temple, best known for his music videos and documentaries about Joe Strummer and The Sex Pistols, in the 1980s.
He’d seen the hotel while driving along Highway 101, and read about it in Umberto Eco’s essay “Travels in Hyperreality.” (An excerpt: “Let’s say that Albert Speer, while leafing through a book on Gaudi, swallowed an overgenerous dose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli.")
“I had actually stayed at the Madonna Inn a couple times,” “Aria” producer Don Boyd recalled, so he seconded Temple’s decision to shoot there.
Boyd said the inspiration for “Aria” came from Disney’s “Fantasia,” which pairs symphonic music and animation. “I thought, ‘Why isn’t it possible to do something like that with opera and film?’” he recalled.
For “Aria,” Boyd brought together 10 world-famous filmmakers — including Robert Altman and Jean-Luc Godard — and invited them to shoot short segments set to excerpts from their favorite operas.
The project paired the directors with a cast that included up-and-coming actresses Tilda Swinton, Bridget Fonda and Elizabeth Hurley, as well as more established stars such as John Hurt.
“None of us thought ‘Oh gosh, these people are going to become great movie stars one day.’ We just knew they were good at what they did,” Boyd recalled.
Temple’s contribution to “Aria,” set to music from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” is a zany bedroom farce about a husband (Buck Henry) and wife (Anita Morris) carrying on simultaneous affairs. The setting for their romantic trysts is the Madonna Inn.
In one memorable scene, philandering film producer Preston (Henry), wearing a leopard-print onesie, acts out a prehistoric fantasy in the Caveman room with a German sexpot named Gilda. She’s played by Beverly D’Angelo — that’s right, the mom from the “National Lampoon’s Vacation” movies – in a fringed buckskin bikini.
The “Rigoletto” segment makes the most of its setting, with surreal scenes set in the hotel’s steakhouse, cocktail lounge and famed men’s restroom with waterfall urinal. (Preston, high on ecstasy, is dazzled by the decorations.) We even see a lip-syncing Elvis Presley impersonator serenading dancers in the inn’s ballroom.
Italian director Federico Fellini “saw this film and wanted to know where I got this amazing art director,” Temple told The Tribune in 1988.
Although few people at the Madonna Inn remember the making of “Aria,” Boyd has fond memories of the 1986 shoot.
“I was amazed to the degree to which the degree that the Madonna Inn was so delightfully supportive” during filming, he recalled, describing Temple’s segment, which features lengthy sequences shot with a hand-held Steadycam, as “very post-modern in its approach.”
Thirty years later after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in France, “Aria” remains the only feature film to be shot at the Madonna Inn. (A new DVD and Blu-ray set celebrates the film’s 30th anniversary.) But it’s unlikely it will stay the sole big-screen monument to the hotel.
The Madonna Inn “has such a creative spirit that people have fun reimagining and reinterpreting it,” Pearce said. “It’s hard not to feel some creative juices flowing when you’re here.”