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Fussing with Fess

One Stubborn Texan


Determined Gentleman: Over the years I had my share of fusses with Fess Parker. Fess was one stubborn Texan and sometimes his own worst enemy in ramrodding his hotels through. But always a real gentleman. Think of what it would have been like dealing with John Wayne.

Barney Brantingham

Ex-movie and television star Parker, born in Fort Worth, was not one of those “hell on women and horses” Texans. When he’d call to complain about something I’d written, his voice was as soft as a West Texas summer breeze. And he sounded downright hurt that I’d entirely missed the point of his whole argument with the city.

I never felt any bitterness in the man, even when residents turned one of his hotel projects down at the polls. Planning a hotel, to Fess, was like an Old Master putting the last few touches on a painting: It was never quite finished. That meant, for Fess, more trips to the city of Santa Barbara’s community development offices to argue for his new brush strokes. Revised plans meant new city reviews. The delays, mostly due to Fess’s changes of mind, frustrated him no end and Santa Barbarans came to sympathize with him.

“The city was so mean to Fess,” a friend told me after hearing of his death. He died Thursday, March 18, at 85, beloved on both sides of the Santa Ynez Mountains despite anger at his proposed 2004 development deal with the Chumash that went nowhere. Because of the Indian connection it could have avoided all local planning requirements.

Most of his development wounds were self-inflicted. If Fess hadn’t diddled around so long with the proposed $90 million 150-room hotel on Cabrillo Boulevard, near his Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort, it might have been up and running by now.

The city, in all its wisdom, had decided that it would love to have a 150-room five-star hotel there, so he had no problem there. Exactly why the city thought it was a good idea, I don’t recall. But then it seemed that Fess was always trying to shift this or that feature around. Or the parking: underground, or across the tracks, or what-have-you. Then, when all systems seemed go, Fess asked the city for 50 more rooms. All hell broke loose. That would have made the place way too big, critics wailed. I already thought it was going to stick out like a 10-gallon hat on a baby.

But by the time that got resolved, resort financing started drying up. So now Fess’s dream is just a hole in the ground. It might have broken another man. But not Fess, because so many of his other dreams had come to pass:

• The highly successful Doubletree, its design more like Las Vegas than Santa Barbara, and approved only after a knock-down drag-out court battle.

• The lovely mountain-side of Chase Palm Park, built on land he donated as part of the hotel deal. The city spent something like $6 million.

• The winery he created on the 714-acre ranch near Los Olivos that he bought in 1974. He bought a hotel in Los Olivos and turned it into Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn & Spa.

I thought that Fess found real happiness in the Santa Ynez Valley and its wide open spaces. If it wasn’t Texas, it was close enough. Fess was a complex man and by no means some unlettered cowboy Disney found in a corral. He’d served in the military during World War II and earned a degree in history at the University of Texas. He studied acting at USC in 1950 on the GI Bill, aiming for a master’s degree in theater history. He had the acting itch and began taking small roles in Hollywood, where Walt Disney spotted him.

Disney picked him over James Arness for that blockbusting Davy Crockett television series. But then Disney, a rather strange man, in effect sabotaged Fess’s chances for feature film roles that would have jump-started a new career. In fact, Fess might never have settled in Santa Barbara County if two plum acting roles had planned out. After Davy Crockett, director John Ford wanted him for Jeffrey Hunter’s role in the classic Western The Searchers, with John Wayne. But studio head Disney refused to loan him out. Same thing when he had a chance to play opposite Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop. Disgruntled, Fess later left the studio.

Other men, I suppose, might have died still tasting anger, bitter over what might have been. But I think Fess was a vastly contented man, tasting joy in the fine wine he produced and basking in the love of his family. When an aircraft carrier visited here a few years ago and local VIPs spent a night aboard, Fess got the best cabin available. He was treated like a hero.

The Parker family will host a memorial tribute to Fess Parker in the Rotunda at the Fess Parker Doubletree Resort on Friday, March 26 at 2 p.m. for friends and colleagues. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that donations be made to Direct Relief International (www.directrelief.org). RSVP by Thursday, March 25, at 3 p.m., to Leslie@FessParker.com.

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