The Day Queen Elizabeth Visited Santa Barbara

Royalty at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse March 1, 1983

I first heard from society columnist Beverly Jackson about Queen Elizabeth’s March 1, 1983, visit many months before the queen was to arrive. Beverly was a personal friend of the then British ambassador to the U.S. and his wife.

It was a big secret, all hush-hush. The queen would be traveling up the coast from Mexico on her 412-foot-long yacht, the Britannia. Thinking it was probably way too big for S.B.’s harbor, I called the harbormaster to ask if a yacht 412 feet long could get into the harbor. She said, “Oh, you mean the queen’s yacht?” No, it couldn’t. Inquiries had already been made by the queen’s staff. So much for the visit being a big secret.

Beverly Jackson was shown a copy of the queen’s schedule for one day. It was filled with the time she’d get up, where she’d go when, when she’d leave, etc. There were 10-minute intervals marked “retire” throughout the day. These were times when the queen would have a chance to go to the bathroom. The Ambassador’s wife said: “Queen Elizabeth is the only woman in the world who knows six months hence what time she will be going to the loo.”

The queen was coming to Santa Barbara because she and Prince Philip had entertained President and Mrs. Reagan at her weekend place, Windsor Castle.

Windsor Castle | Courtesy

The President and Mrs. Reagan had asked the queen and the prince to visit them at their weekend place.

Rancho del Cielo | Credit: Courtesy

By February, just about everyone in Santa Barbara was all a-twitter about the queen’s impending visit. I was mayor at the time, and I was a bit a-twitter myself. I knew about city affairs such as the budget and urban planning, but I knew nothing about greeting British royalty. There had been a big brouhaha in San Diego when that city’s mayor put his hand on the queen’s shoulder to guide her — no one touches the royal person.

I called the British consul general in Los Angeles: “How will I get her to go where she needs to be?” The consul general said she would walk imperceptibly ahead of me, and I would indicate where she is supposed to go from imperceptibly behind. He also said that she has a sixth sense about where she needed to be.

I asked the consul, “Do I shake the queen’s hand?” He said, “My dear, no one shakes the queen’s hand. The queen shakes yours.”

While preparations were going on, I received a phone call from a man who identified himself as a newspaper correspondent in London. He wanted to know what I was going to wear. I was astounded. “You want to know what I’m going to wear?” I asked incredulously, before telling him I’d be wearing a hunter green suit. When you see the colors the Queen is wearing, I’ll let you decide if that call was from a reporter or if it was from Buckingham Palace. (I don’t recall discussing my earrings. Their similarity was purely coincidental.)

The queen was to arrive at S.B.’s harbor by a launch from her yacht anchored offshore. However, severe winter storms had filled the harbor entrance with sand, and at low tide you could just about walk from the end of the breakwater to Stearns Wharf. The rough seas were not conducive to a safe and pleasant arrival by boat. Instead she flew from Long Beach to the Santa Barbara airport, where she was greeted by President and Mrs. Reagan. The Reagans left for their ranch, and she was then driven to the courthouse, where she was to spend 15 minutes. I had one and a half minutes to welcome her and make a presentation from the city.

There was a tape of God Save the Queen to play on the courthouse bells. There was lots of discussion about when to turn it on. The timing had to be just right, because people are supposed to stand during its playing. We had no idea the two CHP cars that arrived first were far ahead of the queen’s motorcade, so we played the tape, and everybody stood until she actually arrived.

All the streets around the courthouse were closed. Coming the wrong way up Anacapa, her car stopped at the curb closest to the big arch. At a podium at the steps to the sunken garden, the queen would be given gifts, and she would be introduced to 12 “distinguished” members of the community.

As you can imagine, there was much debate and politicking over whom these notables would be. Their names had to be submitted with a sentence or two about each of them weeks before to be cleared by the White House and by Buckingham Palace. Beverly suggested a polo player who had played with Prince Philip and Prince Charles but had never met the queen. Dame Judith Anderson had been in Australia when she was made a Dame and had never met the queen. She was about 85 and wore a dress made especially for the occasion that was not especially warm. I tried to find a spot in the courthouse where the chilled Dame Anderson could warm up while she waited for the queen.

All of these people were terribly excited. The crowd was extremely cheerful and full of happy anticipation despite the fact it was raining. Fortunately, the rain stopped a bit before the queen got to the courthouse. I was told more people waited to see her at the courthouse here than in Los Angeles at City Hall.

Just three of us were waiting at the curb when her limousine pulled up: my husband, myself, and a Secret Service man. He said they still hadn’t decided if the queen was going to go to the Reagans’ ranch. A stream had to be forded at least once, and a car had washed off the road into the rushing water not many days before. (The driver’s body was not found until quite a while later.) We had heard from the very beginning that the Secret Service didn’t want President Reagan to go up, and the President wasn’t too enthused either. I heard later that the queen insisted on carrying through with the plans. She didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

When the queen got out of the car, Mike Deaver, deputy chief of staff to President Reagan, presented me and my husband to her. It became instantly clear to me that she had no clue about where she was to go, even though a red carpet was there for her to walk on. I awkwardly leaned forward from a little behind, making sweeping gestures with my hand and arm to indicate the correct direction.

Credit: Courtesy

She seemed rather uneasy. This surprised me since she had gone through this sort of event so very many times. I later heard that the flight from Long Beach had been very rough and that she really didn’t feel very well.

I’d been told by an Englishwoman living in Carpinteria whose sister owned a gift shop across the street from Windsor Castle frequently patronized by the queen, “Don’t be surprised if the queen looks miserable. She always looks miserable except when she’s on a horse.”

The queen was very gracious, and although she sometimes looked serious during her time at the courthouse, she did not look miserable. Actually, she smiled — a genuine smile — quite a bit.

Her first question when she got out of the car was, “Have people been waiting long?” (They had.) There had been a big destructive storm the day before, and she commented on seeing cars in water up to their rooftops in Long Beach. She asked if there had been much damage. (There was.)

As we walked the short distance to the top of the steps where the presentations were to be made, I realized that the Queen was another middle-aged woman with kid problems. (Some of hers were not behaving very well at the time. Neither were some of mine.)

The Santa Barbara County supervisors and the Santa Barbara City Council members’ presentation, which was to be made en masse — “Your Majesty, may I present the Santa Barbara City Council,” with a sweep of my hand — couldn’t be done. They had gotten all out of order, and the queen kindly shook the hands of many of them, plus those of Assemblymember Jack O’Connell and State Senator Gary Hart. Senator Hart’s daughter was standing next to him, and the queen leaned down to shake her hand, too.

To find the queen, look for her hat in the lower center of the crowd. | Credit: Courtesy

Then she got in the car and was driven off to lunch at the Reagans’ ranch.

By the way, all that security did not make me feel one bit secure. Note the grim expressions on the faces of the two security men (pictured below) — one to her right and another behind the queen on her left. There are two more in front, constantly scanning the crowd for trouble. I later received a dozen photos from the Sheriff’s Department taken from the roof of the courthouse. I had been completely unaware of the almost one dozen sharpshooters who were posted up there in case of need.

Credit: Courtesy

I started walking back toward the big arch. A Secret Service man said the queen and Prince Philip would like me to be at the Mission at 3:15 p.m.

We were at the Mission at the appointed time, having been directed to come in the back way. A Secret Service man took us down one hallway with double partially glass doors at the end into another hallway with more double partially glass doors at its end.

In the second hallway there was another Secret Service man. I’ve never seen anybody look so deadly serious. That man firmly told us to go back where we’d come from. The man we were with said, “You don’t understand. This is the mayor and her husband. The queen asked them to come here.” To our considerable alarm the other Secret Service man said, “If you come any closer, I will have to shoot you.” The first man was about to protest again, when he suddenly said, “Oh. Of course.” They each got on their radios.

As we stood in the hallway, nervously wondering if we would be allowed in, we could see through the two sets of doors to the queen and Nancy Reagan in the mission archive library, looking at the mission’s historic documents.

At last we were cleared to enter. Still unsettled but much relieved we walked in. The queen graciously presented me with a gift of a lovely enameled travel alarm. Prince Phillip gave my husband leather-framed photos of himself and of the queen.

The queen made it safely to the ranch, but not after a lot of concern from the Secret Service. The agents did not want her to go to the ranch at all.

A few weeks later the tile mural made for the queen’s visit, the one on the right, was installed on the wall of the county clerk’s office (pictured below).

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