by Mel Fenson
Gallup, New Mexico’s famous star-studded El Rancho Hotel is in the heart of the west and Indian country. Built by the brother of movie magnate D.W. Griffith and opened on December 17,1937, the hotel quickly became a gathering place for movie stars and a base for Hollywood crews, who were shooting western films on location. The hotel is just off Interstate 40, on historic Route 66 (Gallup’s Main Street).
Big Hollywood names, such as Ronald Reagan, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Kirk Douglas are among the numerous stars, listed on the hotel’s guest register. The El Rancho’s guest list has also included: Doris Day , Gene Autry, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, Jack Benny, James Cagney, Jane Fonda, Jean Harlow, Jimmy Stewart , Joan Crawford, Lee Marvin, Mae West, The Marx Brothers, Rita Hayworth, Rosalind Russell, Spencer Tracy, Tom Mix, Tyrone Power, W.C. Fields, and other movie stars.
Among the many movies filmed in the Gallup area are: the 1940 film, The Bad Man, an MGM film which starred Wallace Beery and Ronald Reagan; Sundown, a 1941 Wanger film, starring Gene Tierney; The Desert Song, filmed in 1942, with Dennis Morgan; Pursued, starring Robert Mitchum, filmed in 1946; Streets of Laredo starring William Holden and William Bendix, filmed in 1948, and others filmed as late as the sixties, such as, The Hallelujah Trail, which starred Burt Lancaster and Lee Remick, filmed in 1964. All of their autographed photographs hang on the walls of the El Rancho.
The accommodations at the El Rancho provided for every need of its elite guest list, including superior service, excellent food prepared by Fred Harvey-trained personnel, cocktails, and even gaming tables.
Stars arrived in Gallup in the luxury of Sante Fe Railway passenger trains. Upon arrival they got a taste of the western frontier, when they were met by wagons, carriages or buggies to be transported to the El Rancho. Chauffeur driven limousines also arrived from Hollywood on Route 66 - for use in the daily trips to filming locations.
The local Gallup population provided support for film crews, working as stand-ins, extras, location employees, delivery boys, guides, stock suppliers and Navajo interpreters. Local retailers made money during the filmings, selling everything from toothpaste to Indian jewelry, and of course, cowboy hats, boots and other western gear.
Rumors abounded in Gallup about the quantity of alcohol that flowed night and day when certain actors were residents of the hotel. According to El Rancho night employees, for example, actor, Errol Flynn worked all day and drank all night. So Gallup became a working holiday location - a safe distance away from Hollywood and radio commentator Walter Winchell’s intrusive gossip about their personal lives.
The El Rancho starred along with Hollywood and the movie industry from 1940 through 1964. By then, the appeal of the western hero was fading. Technicolor and large screens were relpacing the old flickering black and white images, and the wild west was becoming accessible by automobile along Route 66 and the almost completed Interstate 40.
However, the El Rancho’s western ambience, its star-studded history, and the many historical and picturesque Southwest sites within a day’s drive still attract many visitors to the hotel from across the country and internationally. Nearby sites include: Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo reservation; the Zuni Pueblo; the Acoma Pueblo (Sky City); the Hopi mesas, and the ancient ruins at Canyon DeChelly. Also nearby are the Petrified Forest, the Painted Desert, and other interesting sites. Gallup is also the site of the world-famous Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, which has been held each August for more than 80 years. It is also the headquarters for the Red Rock Balloon Rally held each December.
The hotel is now owned by Armand Ortega and Ortega Family Enterprises, which started with early trading posts throughout Arizona and New Mexico, then expanded into hospitality and retail businesses.
Step into the lobby of the El Rancho Hotel today and you’ll still feel the presence of Hollywood stars from days gone by. Look out into the distant prarie that surrounds Gallup and you can imagine cowboys and Indians riding hard across the horizon as Hollywood film crews capture their images on film.