San Diego’s Historic ‘Caliente!’ Mural in Peril

In September, San Diego Magazine, with the help of 12 “big kahunas of the art world,” assembled a list they called the “100 Works of Art to See Before You Die.” It appended all the usual suspects including a dam, a clock, the shelves used to display Tequila bottles at a downtown restaurant, and a statue likeness of Tony Gwynn.

One online commenter referred to the collection as nothing more than an “execrable assemblage of hopeless sleaze and cheese.”

I fantasized about what I’d have chosen had I been deemed worthy enough to contribute and came up with my top three: the commemorative wall near 14th & J streets, Downtown, celebrating our town’s African-American cultural heritage; the guerilla “Save the Ocean” mosaic, aka the “Surfing Madonna,” for its intricate beauty and for having pushed all the right buttons; and the vintage Agua Caliente racetrack mural located on the western wall of Downtown’s California Theatre, for a slew of reasons—chief among them a close family tie.

Vintage Caliente Racetrack image via art.com

My maternal grandfather, Enrique Martínez, was a successful accountant who, in the 1940s, became the general manager of what was then the signature of all things class: Tijuana’s Agua Caliente Racetrack.

For those who’ve been victimized by a series of dollar shots at an Avenida Revolución bar, it might be hard to think that Tijuana once attracted the Hollywood and high-society elite. But the Agua Caliente Tourist Complex (which the historic casino and racetrack were a part of) did just that.

Baron Long's match book. Image via antiquegamblingchips.com

It was built in the 1920s by U.S. investors Baron Long (part owner of Downtown’s U.S. Grant and L.A.’s Biltmore Hotel), boxing impresario James Coffroth (who was instrumental in bringing the Star of India to dock in San Diego) and Wirt G. Bowman (who at one time was the landowner of Rancho Peñasquitos), and it catered to adventure (and booze-hungry) co-nationals during Prohibition.

Later, the property was taken over by legendary San Diegan John S. Alessio, the ultimate rags-to-riches story who, according to an obit in The New York Times, started off shining shoes fresh out of grade school.

So, it was with great surprise that I came across a news article on KPBS saying that the City’s Historical Resources Board approved a proposal by a private company to paint over the sign and replace it with a beer advertisement.

See, the theater has historical status, but not the mural, though 50-plus years after its creation, it’s achieved informal public-art status.

Cathy Winterrowd, the HRB’s senior planner disagrees. The report quotes her justifying the decision by saying the mural “does not itself have historical significance.”

Clearly Ms. Winterrowd didn’t do her homework.

Before we became “America’s Finest City,” and before the Convention & Visitors Bureau came up with such multi-million dollar duds as “365 days of Ahhhhhhh!” and “Happy Happens,” as the San Diego History Center will let you know, SD was “The Gateway to Old Mexico,” an unofficial motto the piece alludes to.

Tijuana’s gold guild has long since faded, and that mural is the only public testament of how good things once were. How Tijuana and San Diego were intrinsically intertwined. Sister cities to the core—BFF’s even.

My family’s connection to Caliente came from my father’s side, as well. He owned the print shop that made the race programs. Alessio affectionately called him “Junior,” and in one piece of correspondence sent during Alessio’s incarceration for what The Los Angeles Times referred to as “one of the largest tax evasion prosecutions in the Western United States,” he told my dad he loved him as if he were his own son.

With support from Save Our Heritage Organisation, I started a petition at Change.org. I also wrote a letter to Victoria Hamilton, executive director of the city’s Commission for Arts & Culture—and one of the “big kahunas” in the aforementioned piece of SD Magazine fluff—and cc’d it to the Commission’s financial supporters, the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, as well as Governor Jerry Brown to boot.

Two days and 250 signatures later, the permit was rescinded.

We’re far from the winner’s circle; the mural’s future could still be in jeopardy unless it gets deemed historic, so I urge you to sign the petition.

Historic Caliente mural. Image via SOHO.

The 40-by-80-foot sign is also one of the boldest love letters in history—from Alessio to his wife Edna. In April 1956, he unveiled Caliente’s “fabulous 5-10,” a precursor of the modern-day pick-six wager. When Alessio met Edna, she worked at Kress’ five-and-dime store, a stone’s throw from the iconic sign.

In fact, their song was  “I Found A Million Dollar Baby (in a Five-and-Ten Cent Store).

Their relatives got wind of the petition and recently, when they gathered for their annual holiday brunch at Mr. A’s, got involved.

In regards to the mural, Alessio’s 20-year-old grandniece Sarah Frontiera recalled a line said by Mr. Alessio to son “Bud” as it was being painted: “You see that? Once they put it up, it’ll be there forever.”

As for who’s behind its execution, the family didn’t know. I then got an email from a man named Pedro Moreno. He’d heard about a T-shirt silk-screening event I was hosting to further the cause.

He said his dad, José Jesus Moreno, was one of the painters and was assigned the task of painting the detailed roses in the horseshoe-shaped “C.”

It felt like discovering the Holy Grail, or old Rose going back to the  Titanic wreckage, and that moment of childhood excitement when you find your first toy at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box combined.

Pedro brought an arsenal of shirts, some twenty-five total, to be silkscreened and told me about his father’s uncredited body of work during his tenure at Pacific Outdoor Advertisement which also included signs along Interstate 8 before they became standardized.

He said the shirts were for a family reunion the following Friday. “We always do it on my father’s birthday, and this year it’s particularly significant, as he would have turned 100,” he said.

Before he left, I shook his hand, wished him well and asked him to let me know how things went.

“Oh, I don’t have to tell you,” he replied; “you’ll be there. Like I said before, this is a family reunion.”

 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of San Diego CityBeat. Featured image by Dan Soderberg/SOHO.

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