Light splashes everywhere, the palm fronds, the surface of the swimming pool, the drops of water falling in the fountain. At night the dark heavens are radiant with stars and a wash of moonlight. Step into the magic of Baja. Step into the past. Stars of the silver screen walked here during the heydays of Hollywood when glamour created dreams. Those who created those dreams came to Mulegé, where at the Hotel Serenidad they could hide from their adoring fans. It was their secret place and Don Johnson was their host. They danced here and sang here and romance was a companion of the night. Don Johnson is a living icon of this era. Fate brought the opportunity for an interview, just a little starstruck, he made me feel right at home.
Don first discovered Mulegé by way of "a leaky boat" from San Felipe, before Highway 1 was completed in 1972. He came to investigate and to dream. Once he set foot on the shore, he never wanted to leave. This began a love affair with the pristine gulf region. It was natural for him as a businessman from San Jose to consider becoming part owner of the Loma Linda Hotel on the north shore of the Mulegé River. The Hotel Serenidad was originally developed in 1961 by Leroy Center and Don was the hotel's boat manager. In 1968, with his partners, Don bought the resort and began living his dream. "I didn't want to go back to the rat race. I wanted to be involved with what I had a deep interest in." He was interested in meeting people, "meeting all kinds of people is like a shot in the arm." Johnson continued the now famous Saturday night Pig Roast that Baja pilots still fly in just for the feast. What a time it must have been, no paved highway, Mulegé with dirt streets, a sleepy fishing village, deeply peaceful and star studded.
Overhead a glittering night sky canopied the romantic Hotel Serenidad. Warm evening breezes rustled the palm trees. Young Don Johnson was the host for the evening of Mariachi music and a lively party for a girl's 15th birthday. All the young women wore beautiful dresses in swirling colors. As if in a movie, Don looked across the patio and just beyond the sparkling fountain, there was the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen. It was love at first sight. He walked through the crowd, held out his hand and introduced himself. On January 12, 2014, Nancy and Don celebrated 50 years of marriage and have raised three daughters. It was evident how much he cared for all his women and he said about Nancy, “She is real, a truly wonderful person and I am the luckiest man to have lived with her so long.” Within these 50 years Don and Nancy together created an era of true Hollywood magic for people from around the world.
Today was fiercely hot. One of the waiters brought Don and I tall glasses of iced lemonade. I noted how the employees treated him with respect, as if he were one of the Hollywood stars. After World War II, sound had come to the big screen. This was the beginning of what is called, The Golden Age of Hollywood lasting into the late 60s. Dashing heroes and beautiful starlets created rich fantasies. However, none was more romantic than being in Baja; flying in over the blue gulf waters, touching down on the dirt airstrip with Don Johnson's welcome to paradise. "Do you know how you talk to a famous person?" he asks me. I smile and say no, as not many cross my path. "You be yourself and don't try to be someone else." His stories rolled out like the red carpet.
"I had a nice young man stay for a week. He enjoyed himself so much he said he would return with his father. The day that he flew back in I saw him walking into the restaurant with a slender man. Grinning he said to me, I'd like to introduce you to my dad, Fred Astair!” Don sipped his lemonade, musing, “I saw Astair dancing in this very patio. He was a true and beautiful human being.”
"Now I'll never forget the day John Denver flew in. Once John was settled, he offered to play later in the evening. Of course I said yes! He went out to his plane, got his guitar and it was a magical night. There were just a few people staying here and they couldn't believe I had the budget for that kind of entertainment; of course, I didn't.” He laughed and said, “People thought I was the last of the big spenders!"
"There were so many who came here, I don't even recall all their names.” He paused and continued, “You know they called him the “Duke.” Ah, I must admit I'd been waiting for this. I could picture the legendary John Wayne, with his distinctive walk, striding across the patio from his plane. Don said besides flying in, Duke would often cruise in on his 135 foot ship and moor it near the lighthouse. “Duke was a super person, a very special type of man. He would frequently ask Nancy and I to lunch on his ship.” On one such visit, Don told John that he would be winning the Academy Award that year. John scoffed, how could he possibly know? But sure enough, in 1969 Wayne won best actor in True Grit. Don reminisced of the times he and Nancy were invited to visit John in his home in Newport Beach, California. “Even though we were good friends, I would think to myself, 'I'm just this guy with a little hotel in Mexico, how could I be finding myself here?' ”
It was much later after the death of his friend, that Don learned from the Captain of the ship that when John planned to come down for a visit he would make sure there was plenty of Rocky Road ice cream in the freezer. “It still brings tears to my eyes when I think of John remembering that it was my favorite ice cream.”
Martina's note: I was very fortunate to have happened to meet Don and record this story before he died; September 15, 2020. He was 94 and had been welcoming people to his dreamscape for five decades. The end of an era, and he will be missed.
Martina's email: mteomaya(at)gmail.com