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In Newport Beach, the Duke is no longer king

Another piece of John Wayne's legacy is being erased with the removal of the famed actor's name from a Balboa Bay Resort lounge.

November 03, 2013|By Emily Foxhall
  • A 9-foot bronze statue of John Wayne greets passengers at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Fewer namesakes remain in Newport Beach, the city where the screen legend spent his final years.
A 9-foot bronze statue of John Wayne greets passengers at John Wayne Airport… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

Those pressed to defend John Wayne's legacy in Newport Beach are quick to point to the evidence that his name still stands strong in the seaside town: He's buried here, his old boat still bobs in the water, and the county airport is named in his memory.

But Wayne's burial place remained unmarked for nearly 20 years. His boat has been sold off. And the airport has been a source of annoyance to his old neighbors for decades.

Now another, smaller piece of Wayne's legacy is being erased in the city where he once lived and partied.

Duke's Place, a Balboa Bay Resort lounge known for its strong drinks and close-up views of the yachts in Newport Harbor, plans to shed the actor's name.

When the tavern opened in 2003, long after Wayne's death in 1979, it paid homage to the actor, with his image on the walls and the Duke's Cocktail, made with tequila, his preferred liquor.

Wayne frequented the then-members-only club and lived nearby in a mansion that overlooked the harbor where he anchored his 136-foot boat, a former minesweeper he named the Wild Goose.

The mansion has since been razed. The signature white boat, now operated by Hornblower Cruises and Events, still sits in the harbor, but it has been renovated and turned into an attraction. Guests who arrived in groups of 10 of more can tour "one of the most famous yachts in Newport Beach" for a mere $25 a person.

"The ship didn't look anything like this when he had it," his son Patrick remarked in 2007 during a celebration of what would have been Wayne's 100th birthday. "But it's finally built up big enough to hold his entire extended family."

The Newport Beach-based tennis team, the Dukes, rebranded itself. The tennis club that bore his name was sold and renamed, though the backgammon table where he played still sits in the bar. His signed handprint on Center Court has been repaved so many times it can hardly be seen.

Now John Wayne Airport, christened by county supervisors after the actor succumbed to complications from cancer at age 72, stands as one of the final namesakes in the town where he spent his final years. A 9-foot bronze statue of the actor in full stride, with his right hand near his holster, greets passengers inside one of the terminals, and the Orange County Sheriff's Department's helicopters — "Duke I" and "Duke II" — fly in and out.

"Maybe John Wayne's name has shifted from place to place, but I don't think it's disappeared," said his son Ethan, who points to the John Wayne Cancer Foundation as a powerful legacy that funds educational outreach, a tissue database of frozen tumors and a fellowship for surgical training.

"The reach and the scope and the work that John Wayne continues to do, that the name continues to do, is actually growing," he said.

Still, Wayne's dark green Pontiac station wagon, — roof raised 6 inches to accommodate his 6-foot-4-inch frame and his cowboy hats — will soon be heading halfway across the country from Southern California to Winterset, Iowa, where his birthplace has been memorialized and a museum is being built in his honor.

As for Duke's Place, it will be renamed, redesigned and reopened in the spring, said Dieter Hissin, general manager of the Balboa Bay Resort and Balboa Bay Club. The resort, which opened simultaneously with Duke's Place, represents the public side of the establishment, while the Balboa Bay Club, where Wayne once filled in as a bartender at an employee Christmas party, remains restricted to members.

As plans for Duke's Place develop, John Wayne probably won't be the restaurant's overriding theme, Hissin said. Perhaps only a framed picture of Wayne will remain. The relationship between the Balboa Bay Club and the Wayne family will endure in other ways, with events like a recent chili cook-off to benefit the cancer foundation. Ethan Wayne sits on the Bay Club's board of governors, as did his father.

Hissin noted that younger generations may not even know who Wayne is, even if he did star in more than 175 films and holds the record for most leading roles by an actor, according to a fact sheet produced by John Wayne Enterprises, also in Newport Beach.

Wayne ranked sixth in the 2012 Harris Poll of America's Favorite Movie Star — the only deceased actor ever to appear on it — and his movies still play on TV, the sheet said. As the strength of his image in Newport evolves, how long this high nationwide profile will last remains to be seen.

Among the estimated 40,000 people who visit his birthplace annually, the youngsters often have heard about Wayne from their fathers or grandfathers, said Executive Director Brian Downes.

A house for sale in Newport Beach that has been advertised since September as Wayne's residence — he owned it but never lived there — has yet to find a buyer.

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