The West, 2021: Days 18-20: Bad Taste, Birds, and Russians


If you're new to Non-Boring History, welcome! Right now, things are a little hectic. I (Annette Laing, PhD, actual historian among other things) am on the road in California, with my tolerant spouse, He Who Shall Not Be Named On the Internets (HWSNBNOTI, pronounced Hoosen Benoti). I’m reporting on our historical discoveries in my inimitable way, and I'm sending more than my usual 2-3 emails each week.

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The bar at the Madonna Inn, a homage (pronounced hommidge, not oh-maag, because I am British, not French) to bad taste with a huge sense of humor, in San Luis Obispo, California. Eyes not bleeding yet? Keep reading. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.

Roadside Attraction

When I say I’m on the road, I’m not kidding. This is California, where babies are implanted with wheels at birth, where much of one’s time, even for the most simple errands, is spent on Mad Max-style freeways, unless you’re rich enough to live in a “walkable neighborhood”, which is kind of ironic.

So, honestly, it’s just incredible that I have found a few short minutes to catch up with you, my Nonnies (devoted fans) and readers who have yet to join my personal cult. New folks are possibly wondering when the history starts at Non-Boring History.

The answer, of course, is that it already did! Dates, names, battles, presidents? I’ll get to them all eventually. But the lovely thing about Non-Boring History is that the dull stuff, like dates, is not front and center: I’m here to make history entertaining, appealing, and yet (and this is the fun part) more rigorous than much of the awful stuff taught in history’s name. I’ll have you thinking historically, and thinking (period) in no time at all!

That said, to be honest, the last few days have featured lots of driving, mostly by the ever-loyal Hoosen.

So kicking off with a story from a mid-century motel we visited makes sense. And let’s be clear: This isn’t just any old motel. It can be very hard to get a reservation here, which I bet you’re already marveling at, considering the photo above.

The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo (which we Californians call San Louee) is not named for the singer. More surprisingly, it’s not named for the Virgin Mary. It’s named for Mr. and Mrs. Madonna.

Alex and Phyllis Madonna first opened their hostelry in 1958, during the postwar travel boom, when widespread car ownership, freeways, and sunshine made California a draw for millions. I’ll spare you all the details, but note that date (see? I told you I would get round to dates) That’s three years after Disneyland first opened its very profitable gates in 1955. A coincidence? I think not. In fact, I know not.

Mr. and Mrs. Madonna had confidence, pizzazz, and an excellent grasp of what travelers wanted: Fun, novelty, good food, and maybe a sort of luxury. You certainly won’t see anything like this in your typical Hilton or Marriott property. Behold, the Madonna Inn steakhouse.

The Steak House, Madonna Inn. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

I mean, does this rock, or what?

You may well be thinking “or what”, as you close your eyes in pain. See, this is why I’m not a normal American historian. Most of them, poor dears, charged with being intellectuals in a deeply anti-intellectual country, retreat behind the walls of elitist taste and sophistication, often to persuade themselves that they deserve the glamorous and highly-paid life of an academic (hahahahahahahaaha). THIS historian, however, has no such pretensions.

So pink! So clashing! Such fun! At a time when more and more, every visit to a hotel looks the same, every room is alike, and unique hotel experiences are geared toward wealthier and wealthier customers, the Madonna Inn is still carrying the mid-20th century flag of extraordinary stays for ordinary people. Still owned by Phyllis Madonna and her family, who often hang out in a corner booth (we saw two Madonnas, as it happens, in the excellent Coffee Shop—meaning casual eatery in the old school sense). And it’s still affordable, at least on weekdays.

The same spirit that gave us Disneyland gave us a motel with 110 rooms, each of them individually decorated. A registration area that evokes Snow White. And enough pink to color an eternal supply of Pepto-Bismol. The house cocktail is pink (and is surprisingly delicious), the house cake (strawberry champagne flavor) is also pink, and ditto on the excellent taste.

Registration at the Madonna Inn isn’t the usual mundane experience! Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.

And this is all without telling you about the bathroom showers in select rooms and public urinal in the men’s room that are made with boulders. Sadly, we didn’t get to see those, even though I asked Hoosen to go get a photo of the latter, which he was strangely reluctant to do.

I absolutely want to stay at The Madonna Inn again (we were in the Rose Room, more pink!) But I don’t think Hoosen shared my enthusiasm for a return visit. He’s a good man, but he has his limits.

The Birds of Bodega Bay

Poor Swimmin (She Who Must Not Be Named On The Internets, or Swimmin Benoti). There she was, leading the normal life of a teen, when in swooped her eccentric British aunt, insisting she watch an ancient movie that was something to do with birds.

The movie, of course, was The Birds.

I did worry, of course, that the film was just too slow for a 14 year old who likes The Avengers (a version, I am told, that has nothing to do with John Steed or Emma Peel). I encouraged her to watch out for Hitchcock’s cameo, which unfortunately came very early in the film, when Hitch walked out of a pet store with his actual pet Sealyham terriers, Geoffrey and Stanley.

Okay, so Swimmin laughed at the first scene in which the birds attacked kids, but so did her mother, which prompted my sour lecture on the importance of thinking historically when watching old films, and not judging them by modern standards. Although that scene is a little bit funny.

Still, the horror grows all the way to the puzzling climax of the movie. Swimmin did allow that her sleep might be affected by the experience. Too bad, kiddo! You have now seen a classic movie, all the more to appreciate tomorrow’s trip to Bodega Bay!

The Birds was filmed in Bodega and Bodega Bay, two small towns that are four miles apart, but which Hitchcock used movie magic to appear to be one town that looks like neither of them. In 2021, there are still Things to See. The schoolhouse from which children fled, pursued by vicious crows and seagulls, is still there, now a privately-owned house but viewable from the outside. Swimmin complained that the paint colors aren’t the same as in the film.

The 1873 schoolhouse in Bodega (NOT Bodega Bay) California, as seen in The Birds, which was shot the year after the school closed in 1961. Hitchcock must have been thrilled by this example of California Victorian Gothic. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.

We encouraged Swimmin to reenact movie history by running down the schoolhouse hill screaming, as though she was being attacked by birds. She frostily declined. I pointed up at the school roof, and said, “Ooh, look, there’s a bird up there! It’s looking excited at the sight of delicious teenager!”

“Where? Where?” cried Swimmin.

She was not amused by my little joke.

She did, however, enjoy recreating the terror of The Birds alongside a Tippi Hedren mannikin in a phone booth in Bodega. This, in the interests of Swimmin’s privacy, is the Swimmin-free version:

The Tides, the little bar and grill in the movie, is still in the town of Bodega Bay, but it is no longer little.

Swimmin grinnin’ outside The Tides. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.

Still, the big tourist trap . . . . I mean, Tides complex . . . does make a few nods to the movie, like this mock-up of the original place:

Mock-up of The Tides (original) in The Tides, Bodega Bay, CA. It’s worth taking a peek through the windows, where the movie plays on a loop, and where birds lurk among the bottles in the little bar. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021.

And when you go in the gift shop, look up.

Still, though, The Birds is a declining presence in Bodega and Bodega Bay. I couldn’t find any related items to buy in The Tides gift shop. The wonderfully shambolic shop in Bodega, near the school, that sold an assortment of Birds merch when we visited in 2013, is now a gleaming modern grocery, as the owner proudly pointed out, one aimed at locals. We beat a hasty retreat to the antiques store next door, which had a few postcards and DVDs for sale.

The Birds’ relationship with Bodega and Bodega Bay was always a bit tenuous: The interior shots at The Tides, and many of the exterior shots, were filmed at a Hollywood studio.

But I won’t give up pressing Swimmin to watch old movies like The Birds, especially when I can connect them to places we visit. I have no doubt that Swimmin’s trip to Bodega Bay was more meaningful and enjoyable for having seen the movie. Not to mention that the vocabulary, pace, and technical skill of Hitchcock’s film were enlightening in themselves, and not as unconnected from the benefits of studying, say, Shakespeare as you might think. And being able to connect with the people of 1963 in your appreciation of a movie? That’s kind of cool in and of itself.

The Russians Invade California

Fort Ross, Russian River, both are hints that something unexpectedly Russian took place in California. Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

So in 1803, when California was part of Spain’s empire, some Americans proposed a joint venture to Russians. They would form a company to hire indigenous Alaskans to come south to California, and hunt otters and seals for furs and company profit.

Yeah, that happened. The Russian-American Company was founded. Russian ships then sailed down the coast of California (technically Spanish property), burying plaques that claimed the land from Bodega Bay to north of what would eventually be San Francisco, all in the name of Mother Russia. Bodega Bay was named Rumyantsev Bay. The future Russian River (as it’s known today) was named the Slav.

Unfortunately for the Russians, when they returned to the area, the RAC ships found American ships had swooped in, and the seals were no longer much in evidence.

So in 1812, the Russian-American (but mostly Russian) Company expanded Russian California to May-Tee-Nee, a seasonal home of the Kashaya Pomo people. Not that this bit of appropriation troubled the Russians any more than did their claiming land that the Spanish had already claimed.

Nor did the local Indians’ claim on the land bother the Spanish, for that matter.

Oh, and the Company hired indigenous Aleut people from Alaska to do the hunting, so the first people to arrive on site were 25 Russians and about 70 Aleuts.

Complicated? Welcome to history!

The company founded the fenced trading post that eventually became known as Fort Ross (it’s basically a corruption of “Russian”), and set up lots of cannons pointed at the sea in case the Spanish should turn up. They also established three farms between the Fort and Bodega Bay to feed the Russian colonies in Alaska. To that end, they also built a couple of windmills to grind the grain they grew. Sadly, the many, many gophers in the area made farming difficult. Those gophers’ descendants continue to dig an impressive number of holes around the site today.

Long story short, the Russians left again in 1841, selling their property to one Johann (John) Sutter, yeah, the Gold Rush guy, whose name keeps popping up on this blog. To be honest, Sutter was a nasty piece of work, so he got sort of cancelled this year, statues removed, that sort of thing. But we historians don’t cancel people (See Orwell, George, 1984, plus if we took out all the meanies, there wouldn’t be a lot of history, and even less that was interesting) so Sutter is still popping up in Non-Boring History, and will continue to do so.

Most of the buildings at the Fort Ross site today are (fun) fakes. The only building at Fort Ross that’s the Real Deal is this one:

The Rotschev House, built in 1836, was the home of the last manager of Fort Ross, Alexander Rotschev, and his wife, Yalena Gagarina, and their three kids.

Swimmin (for yes, she was there) wondered why there were four beds for the three Rostchev kids. I wish I had had a better and more cheerful answer than “Maybe there was a fourth who died.” Maybe it served as a trampoline. Probably not though.

The building survived because it was repurposed in the 1880s:

I grumbled that the chapel was too plain to be a Proper Russian Orthodox Church. My sister-in-law (Swimmin Sr.) pointed out that they were hardly likely to drag all the ornamental stuff all the way from Russia to this backwater. Determined not to be out-reasoned by a biochemist, I suggested that, surely, the priest would have shoved a few fun icons or something in his suitcase for California. Anyway, it’s a fake building, although it’s probably a good copy of the real thing, complete with a St. Basil-style onion turret.

Swimmin (not in photo) enjoyed ringing the church bell loudly.

Photo: Annette Laing, 2021

California. It’s not all blondes on the beach, you know. Sometimes it’s Russians on the beach. Sometimes it’s birds. A squadron of pelicans flew past the site, just to remind us that they’re watching. Always watching.