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The Villages
Saturday, June 12, 2021

A customer’s tales of a famed hotel and its celebrity guests

Lisa DeMarco

Etta was the oldest person I had ever met. I made her acquaintance for the very first time at the Diner when a few of the attendants from the home she lived in brought her and a couple of her besties in for a special surprise luncheon. Etta was turning 102. At the time, she was a resident in an assisted living community in Mount Dora.  

Born on February 13, 1899, Etta had moved to Lake County in 1999 from North Central California after her only other local living relative passed away. Here she could be close to her son and daughter-in-law.  As a beautiful and still vibrant woman, she immediately made her presence known when she entered a building. In the short time, I had the pleasure of serving her and her buddies, I could tell that she was still an active, independent woman. She walked with a beautiful, wooden cane hand-sculpted into a giraffe, but the way she stepped made it seem more like an accessory than a medical safety device. To me, she was pure elegance.

Don’t get me wrong though, you don’t earn that many decades on the planet and not pick up a little bit of sass. Of course, that is what made us instant friends.

The minute I complimented her on her tastefully arranged outfit – that I would definitely borrow, especially considering she was my size – she laughed and said, “Oh, little girl, this old thing? I bet it’s older than you are.” 

To which I replied, “Well, girl, it’s still looking good!”

After that, she would come to the Diner as often as she could get a ride. Obviously, for her safety, she did not leave the ground without supervision. On the flip side, I could visit her any time I wanted to, and so I did. We would meet in the garden or clubhouse in her community. Sometimes she would invite me to her home, but only as long as she found it fit enough for visitors. Those days I got to see a whole different side of Etta.

She had her dining room table set up like a craft table in a craft store. She had several tidy piles of every adult coloring book sold along with dozens of plastic containers filled with crayons, pencils, and markers in every color made. Meticulous to a fault, I could only imagine what talents she possessed during her younger years.

In addition to all the fabulous stories she had to share and her illuminating glow of positive energy, what made Etta so appealing to me was that she was a 35-year veteran server! 

When she started talking about working in the Saint Francis Hotel in San Francisco back in the 1920s, I instantly connected. Like a power surge, my creative brain went into overtime. I had heard about the earthquake in 1906 and the fires that followed, but Etta recalled all the devastation firsthand. “I remember many of the area’s iconic buildings were destroyed, but luckily for my family, the Saint Francis Hotel stood strong.” 

She explained that although the hotel was badly damaged, it was quickly cleaned up and rebuilt with grand additions of towering wings with suites and apartments for long-term living. Another thing the hotel was known for among the socialites was its commemorative Magneta grandfather clock that was installed in its place of honor in the lobby. The first master clock was introduced to the West, and over a century later San Francisco society still flocks to meet “under the clock tower.” 

Some tales Etta would share with me would get my journalistic fact-finder mind going for days. With her, I never really knew if she was just making up stories to mess with me because she knew I was gullible enough to respectfully believe anything she told me. Most of our conversations involved events that happened 40-years before I was even a thought of, so who was I to question whether it was fact or fiction? However, I must admit that the few times I did verify her facts, she was dead on.

The coolest FACT Etta ever shared with me was that in 1938, a time-honored tradition of coin washing was instilled at the Westin San Francis Hotel. The company operated the world’s only silver coin cleaning operation as a special amenity to its guests. It began, she said, when the hotel’s general manager insisted that all silver coins, the currency of the era, be cleaned to keep the ladies’ gloves from getting dirty. Periodically, the change would be collected to be washed, polished, rinsed off, and dried before it could be carried back to the front desk.  

“Back then, people thought my family and I were a lot wealthier than we were because we usually paid for things with shiny money. In the area, only people that could afford to stay at the Westin generally carried around mint-clean money. Unless, of course, you happen to be a Westin employee that was lucky enough to get that big of a tip,” she’d laugh, just before adding, “Oh yes my dear, back then, I was that good!”

Although there is no way for me to confirm how great of a waitress Etta actually was, I can honestly tell you that if only half the stories she told me were true, then this lady lived one hell of a life. 

Presidents, musical superstars, movie producers and celebrities, kings and queens from around the world, they all stayed at the hotel. Etta and her parents saw most of them while serving in some capacity during their decades employed at the hotel and while working in its many areas of food service.

“So, my parents were hired at the hotel before it was even open. Someone had to prepare everything for the Grand Opening. My mom and dad were part of the original crew, so sure, I grew up around a lot of big celebrities you’re probably too young to know,” she’d say – dropping names like Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Al Jolson, and the infamous Rosco “Fatty” Arbuckle. 

All of whom I was actually aware of, and extremely interested in learning more about. I never interrupted once she started unwinding her tales, out of fear that we would either run out of time before her nap, or mid-sentence she would outright forget what she was talking about. She was 102!! Believe it or not, I sat quietly.

My favorite stories to be told were the ones when Etta talked about the supernatural. She swore that the Westin San Francis Hotel had paranormal activity. “Even back then, before cable television, the internet, and shows that publicized rare phenomena and hauntings, some of my friends in laundry and housekeeping and I encountered spookies all the time. Some still give me the creeps when I think about it over 70-years later,” she said. 

“The ghost of Virginia Rappe and Al Jolson were seen more than a few times by many different people over the years,” she said with such conviction. 

Again, who was I to question this woman who lived through these events, when at the time, I was only 30-years old?! Still to this day, I can honestly say, neither in New Jersey or Florida, in my 40-years in the hospitality industry, did any of my customers survive an earthquake, die mysteriously, get murdered, or attempt to be murdered while I was on the clock. Yet, Etta and her folks were privy to all kinds of early-day scandals while they were delivering room service or serving in one of the hotel’s restaurants, banquet halls, or lounges. They witnessed all kinds of odd things they never realized would end up becoming part of America’s history. A century later, my generation will be most remembered for is 2020!

Laugh on. Peace out.

Lisa DeMarco is a columnist for Villages-News.com and a waitress at Billy’s Cafe.


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