Armand Ortega was 13 years old and working a part-time job near his home in Holbrook, Arizona. His daughter, Amelia Ortega-Crowther tells the story:
“Dad went to Gallup with some of the guys he worked with to have dinner at the El Rancho Hotel. In those days, they had gambling there. It wasn’t legal, of course, but they had roulette wheels and poker tables. They were raided every now and then, but not the day my dad was there.”
After dinner, the men left Armand in the lobby and went off to drink and gamble. Amelia continues, “Dad sat in the lobby…which was fabulous in those days, thinking ‘I love this place. I’d love to get something like this for my mom.’”
El Rancho on Route 66 was built in 1936 for R.E. Griffin, brother of famed movie director D.W. Griffin. From its first day, the hotel was where movie stars, directors, and crew stayed when shooting films. It had a rustic elegance, permitting guests to “rough it” in comfort, and boasted superior service with staff trained by the Fred Harvey Company.
By the 1960s, lure of the West had faded. Its lore was no longer the realm of the silver screen. More people had cars and came West to see for themselves. El Rancho survived without the mystique of Hollywood to support it, but it grew less and less popular.
“Fifty years after the hotel opened, they had a bankruptcy auction,” Amelia says. Ortega was there. “My dad purchased it for $500,000. That was a good price for 1987, but still a lot of money.”
It took him 46 years, but Ortega finally bought the hotel he thought was so fabulous he wanted it for his mother.
Where he got the funds is an important part of this story. Amelia explains, Armand’s father worked at the Arizona inspection station and would tell the family at dinner how many cars had driven by. Ortega got the idea of opening a trading post, which he and his father did in Lupton, right on the New Mexico border. They sold food, trinkets for tourists, and Native American jewelry.
The Native American jewelry became the focus of Ortega, and he began expanding into other markets: Deming, Tucson, Winslow, Santa Fe, and stores in California, Texas, and Kansas. He also contracted with J.C. Penney and Macy’s to provide jewelry for their stores. “At one time,” Amelia says, “Dad had 200 stores in Penney’s and another hundred in Macy’s.”
Now he also owned El Rancho. He restored the hotel, adding bathrooms to each room. Previously, bathrooms were communal at the end of the hall. Some rooms were enlarged to accommodate the bath. Most of the furniture acquired with the building was unusable, so Ortega had a company in Grants build new furniture for him. Rooms today have heavy, rustic night tables and dressers. Each bed has a wagon-wheel headboard. While all this was done in the late 1980s, it has the look and feel of the 1930s. Still, rooms have modern flat-screen TVs and WiFi connections.
As a youth, Ortega had been impressed with the lobby, which had lost its luster by 1987. So he restored it the way he remembered from 1941. The lobby has a second-story perimeter balcony. There are Navajo rugs hanging over the rail. Photos of movie stars are mounted on the wall, and it’s like wandering through a picture book of classic Hollywood. More than 300 stars were guests at the hotel. The floor of the lobby is covered with richly textured carpets. Mounted deer heads hang from support posts on either side of the gracefully curving wooden staircase to the second floor. Between the two flights is a massive stone fireplace.
Amelia began working in the family business right out of college as bookkeeper. “When Dad bought El Rancho,” she says, “I lived in Gallup. My youngest daughter had just entered kindergarten so Dad put me to work. That’s how I became manager here.”
After 14 years, she moved to Flagstaff and commuted twice a week. Her sister, Anna, had joined the business and had been managing the restaurant. “Gradually my sister took over everything,” Amelia continues. Then a year ago, Anna asked Amelia to come back to work. “At first, I thought…I’m retired. This is not a good idea.” But her sister convinced her and now they alternate, each working every other week, although, Amelia is quick to note, Anna is the main manager.
If you like to immerse yourself in history, you can dive into the deep end at El Rancho. You can sit in the lobby evenings and listen to a remarkable player piano that incorporates xylophone, maracas, drums, and horns with the keyboard. You can wander about, looking at artifacts like a museum. There’s a 1930s cigarette dispenser and a stamp machine issuing two-cent stamps.
Check out El Rancho’s web site at historicelranchohotel.com. Room rates are from $92 to $117 and, since each room is named after a movie star, you can request the room named after the Hollywood legend you remember best.