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Jack Smith

With all the cards on the table, it's clear that he : gambled wrong on the history of a Mexican casino

July 30, 1985|JACK SMITH

In writing the other day of our stop for lunch at the Rosarito Beach Hotel, in Baja California, I remarked that the hotel had been built in the late 1920s as a gambling casino, "but gambling was never permitted, and its large casino rooms stand empty, polished and inviting, as if expecting crowds of rich American gamblers any day."

Hugh M. McConahey of Laguna Hills recalls a visit to the Rosarito Beach Hotel "sometime in the late '50s. . . ."

"Everything was polished and spotless. The margaritas were the best I've ever had. We noticed that there were some central rooms off the lobby, the entrance to which was guarded by what appeared to be uniformed policemen. Inquiry determined that this was a gambling casino. A membership card was required. We paid a dollar or two for our cards, walked in, and sat down at a blackjack table. . . ."

After a few hands McConahey began to suspect that the dealer knew his hand before he turned his cards up. He quietly slipped away.

"A couple of weeks after we returned home," he remembers. "The hotel was raided. . . . Several U.S. citizens were arrested and jailed. . . . The newspapers were full of it. . . ."

Patricia Newing of Joshua Tree remembers that her family used to vacation at Estero Beach, below Ensenada, and one time they stopped at Rosarito Beach.

"It was wide open," she recalls. "We had a ball playing the tables, had a beautiful dinner, and spent all of $40, which was a lot then."

A few weeks later, reading the Examiner at breakfast in her Burbank home, she saw that the Rosarito Beach Hotel had been raided and several Americans had been thrown into the Tijuana jail.

It's true, and I should have remembered, because as McConahey says, "the newspapers were full of it," and I probably wrote some of the stories. The arrest and detention of 48 Americans, in heavy bail, was not as big a story as the recent 747 hijacking, but it did arouse a lot of interest and some outrage this side of the border.

The raid took place on Jan. 25, 1959.

According to The Times, it was led by a colonel of the Federal Judicial Police, from Mexico City, and 16 men who had flown secretly to Tijuana from Mexicali. They motored to Rosarito Beach, where they were joined by two platoons of federales from Tijuana.

At 11:30 p.m. they surrounded the hotel and crashed into the casino, waving guns and ordering all the patrons to put their wallets, bags and personal possessions on the gaming tables.

Of those arrested and lodged in the rude and unheated Tijuana jail, 43 were Americans. A hard-nosed federal judge in Tijuana set bail at from $1,600 to $3,200, and about half those arrested spent from nine to 12 days in jail before they could raise it, or until he lowered the amount.

The prisoners sounded not unlike the recent hijack victims:

"We're helpless," said one. "We don't know how to fight this."

"At first it was sort of exciting," said another. "But now we keep waiting for the nightmare to end."

Also the feeling of outraged innocence: "This might be justified if we were criminals. . . ."

Meanwhile, at the urging of Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, state Atty. Gen. Stanley Mosk telegraphed his opposite number in Mexico: "I sincerely feel that reports of this incident, if accurate, reflect unfavorably upon Mexican judicial administration and may retard tourist trade. . . ."

Finally three Americans were convicted of operating the casino and were sentenced to 2 1/2 years each; of 37 found guilty of patronizing the tables, eight were sentenced to one year and 22 to six months, suspended on condition that they pay fines of various amounts.

So I was wrong in implying that gambling had never taken place at Rosarito Beach, but I was right in saying that it had never been permitted.

Gambling was allowed in Mexico in the 1920s when the $8-million Agua Caliente hotel and casino was built near Tijuana. It became a fashionable spot for American high rollers, including many celebrated movie stars. But on July 21, 1935, President Lazaro Cardenas outlawed gambling, and Agua Caliente shut down with what The Times called a last night "of frenzied gambling."

Agua Caliente, remembers Virginia Herzog of Yucaipa, "was glamorous no end, and a real exciting experience for Americans in the era of Prohibition. . . . Tropical shrubs and flowers filled the patios and brilliant huge parrots or macaws were chained to perches. . . . When the Mexican government did outlaw gambling, the hotel became a boys' school and sad reports came through of pigs and chickens rooting around in the former storehouses among cans of caviar and the like. . . ."

The Rosarito Beach Hotel was under construction when the ban on gambling came, and the even more splendid Hotel Playa Ensenada, in Ensenada, was hardly finished.

The two hotels stand today as magnificent monuments to faulty foresight. The Playa Ensenada, later renamed the Riviera Pacifico, was financed by an American group that included Jack Dempsey. It was meant to rival Monte Carlo, and to attract the rich and famous of the world. It has had many openings and closings, but without gambling to fill its grand casinos, it was doomed.

There is no doubt that Rosarito's brief fling as a "private club" was carried on with the connivance of authorities in Tijuana. But evidently the payoff didn't reach high enough, or someone changed his mind.

By the way, as several readers have suggested, those red and yellow flowers at the Rosarito Beach Hotel are cannas, not callas.

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