History and Creativity Are Alive at the Exclusive Coral Casino
By Megan Waldrep | Photography courtesy of the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club
In some private homes in Montecito, California, paintings of the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club hang as a tribute to days gone by. The Coral or the Casino, as it’s called by real locals, has been one of the most exclusive private clubs in California for almost a century, and the story behind it is pretty juicy.
Robert Odell, the main shareholder of the Pacific States Savings and Loan Company who acquired the Santa Barbara Biltmore Hotel in foreclosure in 1935, was a native Nebraskan whose boisterous personality rubbed Santa Barbara country club owners the wrong way. Instead of vying for approval, Odell redesigned the hotel’s former Biltmore Beach Club into the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club as a private place for affluent families and the Hollywood elite to relax. He authorized the building of a larger-than-Olympic-size saltwater pool, a thirty-foot high dive was installed, and, in front of two-story cabanas, steam-heated sand took the place of decking. Today, the high dive and sand are gone, but the glass double doors open to a modern scene where an intimate world of California glamour and intrigue remain.
One treasured decision from the Odell years was the hiring of Hal Boucher as the club’s resident photographer. Boucher was to the Coral Casino what Bill Cunningham was to the New York Times. He captured a revolving door of families and celebrity members, including Bing Crosby and Zsa Zsa Gabor, along with famous visitors like Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Benny Goodman, Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, Lana Turner, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Even the Kennedys called Boucher to take photos while vacationing on their honeymoon nearby. In personal photo albums, debutantes pose for Boucher in long white dresses with handsome escorts on the former dance floor under the stars, and his iconic images of swan divers still float around the internet and inspire to this day. Starting in 1948, Boucher came to work every day until sickness befell him in 2019, the last year of his life.
Most of the original staff worked at the Casino for decades, and it’s those personalities who gave the club a small-town feel in its prime. For example, Hedi in the front office was known for running a tight ship, and it was she (not the parents) who decided whether young boys were too grown to enter into the locker rooms with their mothers. Or there was Trudy, “with the big red hair,” who ran The Raft snack bar and would chase you out if you were caught inside without a towel, wetting the floor.
“The Raft is where everybody gathered, and you didn’t have to dress up,” says Daphne Moore, a Coral Casino member since the 1940s. “You could have ice cream and cheeseburgers and just be happy.” The Raft’s menu offered simple fare such as chips, milk shakes, or the Mickey Mouse (a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich). Hot fudge sundaes were served later in the day, but braver souls sipped the Whale Watcher, a potent rum drink ordered at the poolside bar. Moore drifts back to fond experiences she shares with her family even now—not only did she and her brother take swimming lessons in the iconic saltwater pool, but her children and grandchildren have, as well. Her family, including her parents, is just one example of members representing four generations at the Casino.
During World War II, the US Army Air Corps used the Biltmore hotel as a “redistribution station for reassignment of overseas returnees.” Soldiers could stay up to fourteen days for $2.41 per day, which included breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Men in uniform were occupied at the Casino by the passing celebrities, ping-pong games overlooking the beach, and California beauties who frequented the club. Because of this and many other events, the Coral Casino was designated a historic landmark in 2003.
Coral Casino underwent a $65 million renovation by award-winning architect Peter Marino to emphasize the club’s original scale, light, and feel.
After a forty-year ownership by Odell, the club changed hands several times before Ty Warner, founder of Ty Inc. and inventor of Beanie Babies, bought the Biltmore in 2000. With that, the Coral Casino underwent a $65 million renovation by award-winning architect Peter Marino to emphasize the club’s original scale, light, and feel.
A complete restoration means the menus at the Casino have been elevated as well. For example, Tydes restaurant offers panoramic views and seasonally inspired cuisine; Fins is a casual walk-up kiosk for juices, smoothies, and healthy bites; and at the Coral Reef Bar, you’ll watch the sun disappear into the Pacific while you’re bellied up to the 275-gallon saltwater aquarium bar.
Membership to the Coral Casino is coveted and it isn’t easy to get in. The waiting list is long, you must be referred by a member or grandfathered in, and the initiation fee, which was three hundred dollars back in the 1940s, is now in the hundreds of thousands (and that doesn’t include annual dues). But there is a loophole for nonmembers to enjoy—the Coral Casino and Cabana Club is now part of the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara, and depending on their room category, guests can enter without an additional fee.
In 2017, the same year as the Coral Casino’s ninetieth anniversary, fine art and aerial photographer Gray Malin shot a 1960s-inspired series evoking an endless summer with vintage bathing beauties in dreamy peach, turquoise, and pink hues. (Photos with titles such as Beach Ball Splash, Après Swim, and Lounging Ladies are possibly already tacked on your Pinterest boards.) He’s not the first notable name to make the Casino a creative hub. In the 1950s, Louis Vuitton presented white-gloved models down a runway atop the pool and another presentation in 2008 showcasing the Louis Vuitton Cruise collection for the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club’s grand reopening.
Throughout changing ownership, modernizations, and renovations, what’s unalterable are the locals coming for a swim, the visitors unwinding in chaise longues with drinks in hand, and the families savoring quality time under the sun. The Coral Casino is a place where the past and the present coexist. And on any warm California day, you’ll hear lifelong members finish conversations with words they’ve uttered many times before: “I’ll see you at the Casino.”
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Megan Waldrep is a freelance writer who recently traded life on a thirty-four-foot sailboat in Mexico for a vintage Airstream in Carpinteria, California. She also writes a relationship blog called I Heart under the pen name Elizabeth Rose. What does all this mean? Find out at MeganWaldrep.com.