"R.E. Griffith's Hotel El Rancho was built in 1937 as a haven for Hollywood's famous. His well-known brother, D.W. Griffith (director of such classics as "Birth of a Nation"), encouraged using El Rancho as a base for crews and stars on location because of its access to western landscapes and the rustic elegance of the hotel.
El Rancho's elegance included superior service and food of Fred Harvey-trained personnel, accommodations for roughing it in comfort and gaming tables and liquid refreshments in the tradition of the Old West.
Stars arrived in Gallup in the insulated atmosphere of Sante Fe Railway trains. But soon they learned about the frontier in a journey to the El Rancho by wagon, carriage or buggy that met every Santa Fe passenger train. Chauffeur driven limousines arrived from Hollywood on Route 66 for use in the daily trips to the filming locations.
Although Gallup citizens mirrored the nationwide awe of Hollywood idols, direct contact in a hometown setting created a more natural relationship. The local population worked as stand-ins, extras, location employees, delivery boys, guides, stock suppliers and interpreters. Retailers sold everything from toothpaste to Indian jewelry, including, of course, proper cowboy hats. And Gallup become a working holiday away from the Hollywood image. And the distance from radio's Walter Winchell meant no gossip of their lapses from idolized stardom.
Rumors abounded in Gallup about the quantity of alcohol that flowed night and day when some actors were residents of the hotel. According to El Rancho night employees, Errol Flynn worked all day and drank all night. John Wayne usually headed straight for Monument Valley, so the only rumors about his actions circulated the reservation in the Navajo language.
Howard Wilson could have translated those observations, but he didn't. Howard Wilson and Bert Cresto were indispensable in attracting Hollywood studios to Gallup and El Rancho. Not only did they provide general transportation, extras, location and housing arrangements, and interpret the Navajo language, they provided equipment, advice, and filled in as actors on occasion. When Leone Rollie, stand-in for Marilyn Maxwell in "New Mexico" (1950), was assigned to ride a stagecoach in a chase scene along the base of the red rocks, Bert Cresto offered to ride with her. The hair-raising ride at breakneck speed, with Navajos in pursuit, still appears in film and on TV. That stage-coach careening along the edge of the Rio Puerco has become the classic western pursuit. It was shot in one take.
El Rancho was linked to Hollywood and the movie industry from 1940 through 1964. By 1964, the lure of the western hero was fading. Brilliant technicolor vistas were relpacing dramatic, stark images in black and white. The mysterious west by that time was readily available by automobile along Route 66 and the almost completed Interstate 40.
Hollywood's interest in western drama is like the title of the 1989 film shot in Gallup, "Enid is Sleeping." However, Armand Ortega's restored Hotel El Rancho is once again duplicating the star studded years. But this time the stars are travelers along Route 66.