After our epic hike to Vernal Falls, we decided we needed fortification, and what better fortification can there be following a big walk than the traditional hiker’s refreshment of a luxury cocktail? Fortunately for us we were mere minutes away from a venue which could provide such items in abundance and appropriately luxurious surroundings, the Majestic Yosemite Hotel.
The Majestic is an interesting hotel, not least because it recently changed its name from that which it’s had since it opened in 1927, the Ahwanhee, which is a Native American word meaning Five Stars. (Joke – it actually means Place of the Gaping Mouth, which is almost as inviting. If you’ve ever been to Yosemite you’ll understand why the original inhabitants named this huge, steep-sided, mountain-girded valley thus). The name change came about when the National Parks Service decided to change its hospitality provider and the old provider refused, in a fit of petulance, to hand over the name.
This goes against accepted business practice, at least in the business I work in, of trying to avoid ending client relationships with any phrase beginning “And another thing….”, even when said client has been the instigator of the termination, since such conversations tend to have the effect of ensuring that they will never darken your door again even if they subsequently realise they made a terrible mistake in leaving you in the first place. Playing nice when you can does tend to mean that erstwhile clients can morph back into actual clients surprisingly frequently. Delaware North, the previous provider, had apparently never read “Barbara’s Big Book of How To Succeed in Business”, because they huffily took their
ball name and went home. Undaunted, the new provider made a virtue out of a necessity and gave their hotel a spiffy new name which did not hide its light under a bushel.
For the Majestic is indeed majestic, and bang in the middle of Yosemite. It was originally planned to be much larger, but Donald Tressider decided it should be an “intimate” hotel with only 100 rooms, and he got to decide. Who he? and why he get to decide? I’m glad you asked me that. Donald Tressider was the husband of Mary Curry. Who she? Mary Curry was the daughter of Mr and Mrs Curry (Really? Wow!), but that is in fact significant, since the Currys, two schoolteachers, were the people who originated tourism in Yosemite in 1899. During the summer holidays they would take a wagon-load of supplies, camping equipment and guests from Merced and head off on the two week trip to Yosemite for a summer in the valley. They were astonishingly successful, and their son-in-law Donald took over the running of the company when the National Parks Service awarded it the hospitality concession in 1925.
He was thus the person who decided on the look and style of the hotel, which is now commonly known as Parkitecture, for the obvious reason that it is very common in National Parks. When you first see it, you initially think “Disney”, because Uncle Walt copied it for a number of his hotels, and there are crappier versions of it all over the place, but the National Parks Service did it first and did it best. The Majestic Yosemite Hotel is stunning, and all the nicer for not being a mahoosive hulking monolith right in a gorgeous and picturesque spot. When it was first built it suffered from financial problems due to various issues around the building process, including having to beef up the roof so it wouldn’t collapse under the weight of snow in the winter, and the Tressiders’ solution was pleasingly bonkers – in order to drum up business they launched a grand annual ball.
This is the Bracebridge Dinner, which takes place in December and purports to be the Christmas gathering of a fictional Renaissance Lord, Squire Bracebridge. Well, of course they did. They were in the middle of California on the site of a Native American village in a valley which looks nothing whatsoever like anything the United Kingdom has ever seen in a building designed as a fusion of Art Deco, Native American, Middle Eastern, and Arts and Crafts – of COURSE they launched a dinner in which everyone wore Elizabethan dress presided over by Donald Tressider got up like Henry VIII. As if that weren’t nutso enough they also roped in Ansel Adams as the Squire’s jester, which he enacted by climbing, impromptu, the stone pillars in the dining hall up to the roof beams thirty four feet above. Yes, that Ansel Adams. Bonkers. And inspired. It is still considered one of the United States’ foremost Christmas dinners, and at one point was so popular that tickets were allotted by lottery, with one year a reported 60,000 applications for the coveted 1,650 seats.
To get it going they invited large numbers of celebrities and dignitaries to the first ball with a complimentary night in the hotel. It was only after the guests had departed the following day that they discovered that their high-end clientele had nicked everything that wasn’t nailed down. This is not unusual behaviour in the wealthy*; Queen Mary, the wife of George V, was notorious for going into shops, pointing at things and saying “I like that”, and then waiting in a meaningful way for the shopkeeper to give it to her. They used to hide all the expensive stuff if they knew she was coming. In a similar vein, when Terence Conran opened his restaurants on the south bank of the Thames in the 1980s they were very popular with financial types, since they were only a short stagger across Tower Bridge from the City of London. That was in the days when you could smoke in restaurants, and the Chop House in particular provided customers with lovely zinc ashtrays adorned with an embossed cleaver, the symbol of the restaurant (“Chop” House, geddit? Oh, they were crazy times, all right). The staff pretty soon learned to check the tables as their Masters of the Universe clientele were leaving so that they could stop them at the door and relieve them of the ashtrays which had accidentally ended up in pockets and handbags.
But I digress. More tomorrow!
*It’s how they become wealthy.