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Weekend Escape: San Simeon

Evening Performance : Cole Porter music and actors in period garb give Hearst Castle night tours a 1930s feel

April 21, 1996|SHARON BOORSTIN | Boorstin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

HEARST SAN SIMEON STATE HISTORIC MONUMENT — It was sunset when my family and I piled off the tour bus at Hearst Castle, and in my jeans, heavy jacket and athletic shoes, I felt underdressed. For strolling by us were half a dozen couples in formal '30s evening wear, the ladies with fur jackets over their gowns to ward off the chill. On the 15-minute bus ride from the parking lot, a "Radio San Simeon" broadcast had briefed us on world events during the 1920s, during which newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst built this ornate mountaintop estate.

Some years past, I'd been on a day tour of the Hearst Castle; it had been your basic nuts-and-bolts "this 17th century armoire is from Spain and cost $200,000" experience. Evening tours (offered Fridays and Saturdays only through May, and again from September through December; tickets for adults are $25; children 6-12, $13) are the only tours that include "living history" docents in period dress. So this tour promised to be a lot more entertaining than a day tour. At least I hoped so, because my husband, Paul, and I had taken along our 17-year-old daughter, Julia, and our very reluctant 12-year-old son, Adam.

"You just missed the Marx Brothers; they were doing a water ballet!" Jan Maas, our chatty tour guide said, joining us beside the 80-foot-long marble Roman pool. Along with a dozen other tourists, we followed Jan through the terraced gardens, where only a few lights glowed and the air was heavy with the scent of orange blossoms. Julia clutched my hand, and said she felt as if she were walking in a dream.

Jan led us into Casa del Mar, a lavish 22-room guest house where an old radio played '30s tunes. "Pick out any guest room you'd like," she offered, giving us time to wander around. Julia swooned over a bedroom with a gilt ceiling, where a white satin nightgown was laid out on the four-poster bed. I couldn't pique Adam's interest in the mother-of-pearl manicure set on the dresser or the vintage '30s "bathing costume" hanging in the shower; he wanted to see the "actors" again. He lighted up when he spotted them through the window of La Casa Grande (the big house). "They're playing poker!" he called.

When we filed into the Assembly Room in La Casa Grande, I felt like a voyeur at one of Hearst's pre-dinner cocktail hours: Two couples were playing a lively game of cards at one end of the baroque, cavernous room; at the other end, several guests were sipping martinis as they assembled a giant jigsaw puzzle; another was playing Cole Porter on the grand piano. Julia admired the ladies' gowns and glittery faux diamond jewelry. Adam eavesdropped on the poker-players' gossip, which he reported was sprinkled with names such as Charlie Chaplin and Charles Lindbergh and "Hearst's girlfriend, Marion" (Davies).

We walked through the dining room, where heraldic banners hung near the high ceiling, as in a real English castle, and bottles of Heinz catsup (a Hearst favorite) were interspersed with the sterling silver serving bowls on the banquet table. Moving into the kitchen, Julia and I checked out cabinets stocked with magnums of 1926 Bordeaux and boxes of sodium bicarbonate; Paul enjoyed seeing the beer dispenser from which, at parties in the '30s, Jan explained, Hearst's guests could help themselves to light or dark brew 24 hours a day. Adam, who had wandered away, returned to us, excited; he led us over to a place where he had discovered a uniformed "living history" maid sitting in an alcove.

We climbed a spiral staircase to the second floor, where we peeked through the windows of several guest bedrooms. In one, the couple we had seen earlier near the piano now wore dressing gowns; the gentleman was typing what appeared to be a screenplay on an old Underwood typewriter. By this time, Adam was totally into the tour, and he was was plying Jan with such questions as, "Did people ever get into fights here?" Amused, Jan said she imagined that yes, if some of the male guests exceeded Hearst's two-martini limit "altercations" may have occurred.

We were allowed to wander through Hearst's third-floor inner sanctum, which had been off limits to most guests when Hearst lived there during the '30s. After having climbed what must have been hundreds of stairs, Julia said Marion Davies' canopied bed looked inviting. In the red velvet-curtained theater, we sat on wood benches to watch an old Hearst movie newsreel, just as Hearst's guests always did after dinner. But, unlike Hearst's real guests, we weren't invited to stay for the feature film.

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