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History: Litchfield's a Sign of the Past

From fancy family resort to seedy motel, the hot spot changed with its neighborhood.

The Litchfield sign at 737 East Francisco Blvd looms large near Highway 101. In the 1950s, the big bands who played at Litchfield’s Bermuda Palms loomed larger: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and their orchestras made the Bermuda Palms a leading Bay Area night spot.

Built by millionaire construction magnate Irving “Whitey” Litchfield in the late 1940s as a “hobby,” Litchfield advertised his motel as  “California’s Las Vegas, a complete hotel resort: luxury swimming pool, color television, nightly dancing and clean, sun-drenched rooms for less than $10 a night.” The 99-cent Sunday brunch attracted families from throughout the county.

One of the first developers in the San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood, Litchfield expanded his motel with the Flamingo Ballroom, Camelia Dining Room, Bali Hai Cocktail Lounge, Mural Room for private dining and Continental Room for conventions.

The Place to Go

Harold Lezzeni, who worked for Litchfield as a part-time bartender, recalls, “It was high class. It was the place to go in Marin County. A lot of people from San Francisco would come over to see big name entertainment and first-class strippers like Lili St. Cyr.”

During the 1950s and early 1960s, the Bermuda Palms was a favorite spot for celebrities and community gatherings. In 1954 Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Wayne and Robert Mitchum stayed while filming "Blood Alley" at China Camp. Governor Goodwin Knight spoke at a Republican dinner in 1954. That same year the Novato Rotary Club saw its beginnings at the Bermuda Palms at a dinner hosted by the San Rafael Rotary.

In 1960 the American Association of University Women held its California convention at the Bermuda Palms and Marin County educator Valerie Ansel was honored at a retirement dinner attended by over 600 people.

At the Bermuda Palms in February 1960, Rosalie Asher, the attorney for the Caryl Chessman, prepared her death penalty appeal in the world-renowned case to abolish capital punishment. Richard Nixon visited while campaigning for California governor in 1962.

Boxing Training Camp

Whitey Litchfield had been an amateur boxer, and at times during the 1950s, he converted his establishment into a training camp. It was frequented by well-known boxers, including Sugar Ray Robinson, Bobo Olson, Rocky Marciano, Max Baer, Rocky Castellani, Paddy DeMarco and Joey Maxim. Don Cockell trained there for his World Heavyweight Championship bout against Rocky Marciano on May 16, 1955.

A sports enthusiast, Whitey sponsored Litchfield’s San Rafael Braves in the semi-pro Western Baseball Association and helped establish the San Rafael Little League ball field. On March 15, 1959, in the Bermuda Palms swimming pool, Robert Foster set the then world’s record for staying underwater: 13 minutes and 42.5 seconds.

The Rock Era

In the 1960s, the ballroom, known intermittently as the Euphoria and Pepperland, featured some of the biggest groups in rock:  the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa, Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs, Joy of Cooking, Captain Beefheart, Leon Russell, Elvin Bishop, Clover, Joy of Cooking, Commander Cody, Linda Ronstandt, Quicksilver, Hot Tuna, Pink Floyd, Tower of Power, Chuck Berry, Sly and the Family Stone, Country Joe Macdonald, Van Morrison, Youngbloods and more.

On July 28, 1967, the Sons of Champlin played at a “Giant Dance Concert” to benefit Litchfield’s San Rafael Braves. The Grateful Dead’s studio, Le Club Front, was located a couple of blocks away.

The Decline

As drugs and prostitution invaded in the 1970s, the area began a sad slide downhill. Police raids and red-light abatement proceedings targeted the Bermuda Palms. The Canal neighborhood grew dangerous, and residents talked of forming a vigilante group to run the drug dealers and prostitutes out.

Whitey Litchfield claimed he lacked support from police and fought local politicians for years to keep the Bermuda Palms open.  He used his marquee as a personal message board to politicians and the community: “Bermuda Palms declared war on drugs before US Govt with no help from San Rafael” and “Vote for Dave Zappetini. He’s the Clint Eastwood of San Rafael.”

Finally in 1988 Whitey closed his motel down in desperation and kicked out all tenants save those placed there by the county welfare department. His marquee read, “I have sinned. Please forgive me. I have created a haven for humans. Don’t judge me too harshly.”

“Whitey was a nice guy,” Lezzeni said, “but he was a thorn in the side of the City of San Rafael. They tried to make Whitey take down his sign many times, but he was feisty. He stood up for it, and they were never able to make him do it.”

Moving On By

Irving “Whitey” Litchfield died on Feb. 28, 1995. A horse-drawn carriage carried his coffin to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church where Whitey was honored by more than 200 attendees. His memorial service program was printed on a racing form, and his going-away party at the Bermuda Palms mirrored the ballroom’s heydays.

Although Whitey and his beloved Bermuda Palms are now long-gone, as you drive past the Litchfield sign, you still might be able to catch faint rhythms from your youth rising above the freeway din. 

Editor's Note: In a previous version of this article, the Canal neighborhood was referred to as the Canal district. Glen Miller was also listed as one of the performers who played at the Bermuda Palms, which is incorrect.

Alex Horvath April 06, 2011 at 07:58 PM
Great story!
Don Dressel December 27, 2011 at 10:56 AM
I remember growing up in Bret Harte in the early 60s and going to litchfields for their smorgasbord. I sure do miss those days and my old friends Don Dressel Jr.
Perry Litchfield June 03, 2012 at 08:36 PM
Marilyn, You have done an amazing job of reporting on my father's past. Thank you for this tribute.
Rick Fraites February 20, 2014 at 10:33 AM
June: You need to find a good hobby. This is a great story and you muck it up with vacuous comments unrelated to the content.
Bud Weisser June 30, 2014 at 03:50 PM
Hey Perry are you related to Dean Litchfield who formerly lived near Stonestown in SF? Went to school w/Dean in the '60s-'70s. My 2 cents is your place has long been closed and is a mere ghost of its former greatness. Why prolong the memory w/a shell of its former self? Well its your property so don't move on. Rick: right on. Extremism -- right or left -- is a mental disorder. Today's GOP would consider Reagan-Bush as "too liberal."

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