Near the end of his interview with The Tribune last May, Moody Blues singer Justin Hayward had one question about San Luis Obispo. “Is that where the Madonna Inn is?” he asked. Even though Hayward has toured the world the past 45 years, the pink-themed Madonna Inn left a lasting impression. “We stayed there on one of the first tours,” he said.
While the Hearst Castle was once the most famous playground for movie stars and political figures in the county, since it opened its doors in 1958 the Madonna Inn has been the most popular celebrity hangout — a favored destination for those performing in town or just passing through.
“I stayed there about three times,” said Davy Jones, singer for the 1960s group The Monkees. “It’s kind of old-fashioned inside the hotel. And I remember waterfalls inside there.”
The inn was the brainchild of the late Alex Madonna, the owner of a successful construction business who teamed up with his wife, Phyllis, to design the motel. When the inn opened just before Christmas in 1958, the couple’s quirky, themed rooms, with names like Pioneer America, Austrian Suite and Country Gentleman, would become its biggest draw.
For some, the 110-room inn — with its rock walls, waterfalls and over-the-top restaurant interiors — has been an amusing curiosity. But for those who travel frequently, it has represented a break from the mundane.
“We travel so much, and so many hotels are so corporate and sanitized,” Susan Nash, wife of singer Graham Nash, told The Tribune in 2002. “There’s no predictability about the Madonna Inn. It’s all about personality and having a good time.”
Nash was so impressed with the inn that she arranged to have her husband’s 60th birthday party there. The guests, who included Bette Midler, Jackson Browne, Stephen Stills and Eric Idle, were required to wear pink — Alex and Phyllis Madonna’s favorite color, which permeates the one-of-a-kind inn.
“It was hysterical, man,” recalled David Crosby, Graham Nash’s bandmate, who wore a pink bunny suit that night. “If you’d seen it, you would have died laughing.”
The long list of celebrity guests at the inn through the years includes rocker Debbie Harry, who stayed in the Country Gentleman room; child actor Macaulay Culkin, who stayed in the Old Fashioned Honeymoon room; and Danny Baldwin, who checked into the Chestnut Foal. Others, like Dustin Hoffman, Sam Elliot and Clint Eastwood, have dropped by for a bite at one of the inn’s eateries.
It’s hard to say exactly how the celebrities hear about the inn, located off Highway 101. But some have known about it most of their lives.
“I love the Madonna Inn,” said Reeve Carney, who is currently playing the lead role in Broadway’s $75 million musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” “That place is crazy.”
Carney remembers the inn from his childhood days traveling to jazz contests at Cuesta College. Whenever he gets a break — which could be a while now that he has signed on to portray musician Jeff Buckley in a movie — Carney said he’ll head back to San Luis Obispo for a vacation, and the Madonna Inn is one of two places he’ll likely stay.
Others simply discover the inn when they have an engagement in town, as former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis did when he spoke to Democrats at the inn in 2002. During his talk, the former governor of Massachusetts noted that his wife, who hadn’t traveled with him, missed out.
“Kitty not only missed you in San Luis Obispo, but she missed the Romance Room at the Madonna Inn,” he joked.
Staff interactions with the celebs are usually brief, as the employees want to give them space.
“I think that’s why they love the inn,” said Cheri Humphrey, the inn’s longtime retail manager. “Because there’s a family atmosphere and we leave them alone. We respect their privacy.”
Still, inn employees usually have a few celebrity tidbits to share.
For dinner, the late actor Paul Newman once ordered only a beer and a baked potato, mixing applesauce into the potato. Former basketball star John Salley recently arrived at the inn in a Ferrari and had lunch with his “The Car Show” co-host Adam Carolla. And Howie Mandel stayed at the inn in 2009, when he took his kids to see Cal Poly.
But the best celebrity stories belong to Phyllis Madonna, whose interior ideas helped give the inn its panache.
“George Burns was sitting right there,” she said, pointing to a seat in the café. “He came in and had lunch with us. It was shortly after they had said, ‘No smoking in any establishment.’ So here’s George Burns, and he’s the big cigar man. And he was so much fun. And I dared not tell him he couldn’t smoke. And, boy, he got that big fat cigar out. That was his signature. That was who he was.”
Madonna’s celebrity encounters include tales of meeting people like Barbra Streisand, Joe Montana, Peggy Lee, Ronald Reagan, Monica Lewinsky and Betty White.
“I am not a person who loves movie stars or famous people,” she said. “I just think they’re all people — they’re no better than the average Joe, in my opinion. But I felt connected with Dolly Parton because she’s so down to earth, and she’s never putting on.”
Parton visited the inn on multiple occasions. Eventually, Phyllis Madonna introduced her husband, who had been shy about meeting the country singer.
“He was so thrilled,” she remembered. “From that time on, I never could get a word in edgewise. He just took over.”
One of her favorite celebrities was her husband’s friend, John Wayne, who did cattle business with Alex Madonna and was a frequent visitor himself.
“These little old ladies would come running up to him and say, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ ” Madonna remembered. “It didn’t matter what he was doing or where he was, he always took time to sign an autograph.”
One time, Wayne walked into Alex Madonna’s office while he was working.
“And, you know, when Alex bids, you do not disturb him,” Phyllis said. “John Wayne walked in unannounced, and I’ll never forget, Alex said, ‘John — I can’t talk to you.’”
Turned away, the Academy Award-winning actor left Madonna’s office and had lunch at the inn.
Phyllis Madonna, who often sang and played accordion for guests, said she was also impressed by actor Danny Thomas, who performed at the inn for a fundraiser many years ago.
Madonna, who said she always had anxiety before performing, was surprised when Thomas told her he had to change his tux because he was sweating so much before his performance.
“I thought, ‘My gosh — here he is a famous, famous movie actor, and he was still getting nervous.”
Other celeb visitors include actors like Steve Martin and Lucille Ball, political figures like Karl Rove and former governor Pat Brown, and musicians like Joni Mitchell and Robyn Thicke. The band Roxette filmed a video for its song “The Centre of the Heart,” there, and “The Girls Next Door” — a reality show featuring three Playboy models — filmed a segment there in 2008.
More recently there has been a spike of celebrity visitors, Humphrey said. Actor David Arquette was in the Gourmet and Wine Shop last month, Reba McIntyre stopped in for lunch, and supermodel Kathy Ireland stayed at the inn.
“A month ago, Orlando Bloom was here,” Humphrey said of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” actor. “The girl who was waiting on him was so excited.”
Like most people, celebrities can’t resist visiting the famous men’s room waterfall urinal. The waterfall — mentioned in Weird Al Yankovic’s song “Take Me Down” — is an attraction that both men and women have gone out of their way to see.
“I had to go in with one of my daughters,” said Jones.