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Mae West by the Alamo.

Scorpio Sphinx The Menger 11-17-07

By Freddie A. Bowles
San Antonio, Texas  (61 degrees and raining)

Staying at a historic hotel conjures memories of aging grand dames in a city center of eroding renown. In the historic Riverwalk center in San Antonio, however, the Menger, which opened twenty-three years after the fall of the Alamo, presides elegantly over Alamo Plaza with grace, pride, and honor.

In the Pale Pink Glow of Morning,
I Conjure Up Images of Mae West.

Each morning I awake to the pale pink glow of papered walls in the Mae West Suite on the third floor of the original 1859 hotel. Blond bombshell and movie star, Mae West stayed here in the late 1930s when she starred in the play "Sex Takes a Holiday" at the Majestic Theater.

I try to conjure up images of the throaty-voiced siren amidst the fringed cut-glass lamps and elegant French provincial furniture. Did she have room service late in the morning? Were suitors lounging in the green silk brocade chairs? Did she have a personal attendant to draw her bath in the step-up bathroom of black and white tile with granite commode?

When I leave the comfort and quiet of the only room on the west side of the inner court, I walk out onto the rotunda, focal point of the original Victorian lobby, topped with a stained glass medallion of rich emerald green. I must be in Oz.

Happenstance Becomes Good Fortune.

I didn't reserve the Mae West for my stay here. My original request called simply for a single room in the original building. Believe me, the turn of events was happenstance transformed into good fortune.

The room reserved for me in the original building was charming — twelve-foot windows extending to the picture molding near the top of fourteen-foot walls, a separate Victorian bath of white and black tiles, a balcony overlooking a cobblestoned street — but it was incredibly warm, too. San Antonio basked in 80 degree weather and the west room absorbed every degree, so I called front desk for options.

History, Language, Diversity.

The kind and generous manager, Ramon G. Orendain, responded with courtly courtesy and shared with me the uniqueness of operating a National Landmark that is also a charter member of Historic Hotels of America. Ramon explained that every room in the Menger is one of a kind. As a historic landmark, the hotel must adhere to strict regulations governing renovation. For me, Ramon's narrative and the fascinating variety of accommodation represent differentiation on an architectural level! How fitting it is for my mission as a foreign language educator — history, language, and diversity right here at my fingertips.

I spent some time touring rooms hidden away in the winding wings of the building — each unique and special, from the rose room with a Victorian commode and vast walnut armoire on the third floor of the rotunda to the more modern rooms from the 60s. Each room posed a challenge to the success of my mission here — either no cell phone reception, or no desk. Having both was essential. Weary of the search, I chatted with management and agreed to return after a while to see if suitable arrangements could me made. I was quickly out the lobby door toward a very late lunch at my favorite San Antonio eatery, Schilo's.

German Home Cooking, Camaraderie.

I must confess that Schilo's has been my eatery de jour — five times so far. I just can't resist the split pea soup and homemade rye bread. Much to my delight, they were also serving Spaten Optimator, an October beer brewed once a year. Papa Fritz Schilo opened the saloon to San Antonio in 1914. The deli opened when prohibition shut the saloon down in 1917. The atmosphere takes me back to my Mom and Dad's era of home-cooked foods and down-home camaraderie (my Dad's family owned the Princess Café in a little eastern Arkansas community).

The repast put me in better spirits, so I took a walk to the convention center to see if registration had opened for the conference. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has over 9,000 members. Its stated mission is "Providing vision, leadership and support for quality teaching and learning of languages." (To read about ACTFL, 2007, visit www.aflta.org.) My mission is to find out more about the organization's teacher education standards toward the goal of helping my college prepare for its accreditation report.

The conference registration desk wasn't open, so I decided to stop by the Marriott and inquire about available rooms just in case. There was no vacancy for conference participants or anyone else, which was no surprise with such a busy weekend in store. The Marriot clerk, Eliseo, inquired about Ramon and asked me to convey greetings.

Teddy, Oscar, O Henry, and Mae.

I prefer solutions, so I decided to move forward with a room at the Menger. Upon my return, I knew my decision was the right one. The spacious lobby with its historic artifacts appeared as a living museum of antiques and collectibles, reminding me of why I wanted to stay here in the first place. History. Teddy Roosevelt recruited for his Rough Riders at the Menger Bar. Oscar Wilde strolled in the garden, dreaming of Salome. O Henry mentioned the Menger in several of his short stories — and then there is the spirit of the memorable Mae West.

The clerks greeted me with good demeanors — the air conditioning in my first room, 4016, was on. I was ready to settle in, but first I needed to extend Eliseo's greetings from the Marriott, so I asked for Ramon. He was surprised and asked how I knew Eliseo. I simply answered that I had visited the Marriott about a room.

Before I could say Fahrvergnügen, Ramon was showing me another fabulous room, and oh, how excited I was — a walnut-paneled corner room with fireplace and a four-poster bed, but alas, no desk! I was apologetic for my small needs, but Ramon was determined to find the perfect room for me, so he made a call to Patty and off we went again through the warren of rooms in the original section.

Just Ahead: an Amazing Treat!

We were back to the third floor and the rose room on the rotunda, but as much as I wanted to stay in that quaint and luxurious room, no desk had appeared during my lunch break. One more phone call from Ramon to Patty, and out the door we went to cross the rotunda where the determined manager paused at the Mae West Suite. With great modesty and some apologies, he explained that the room was officially closed because of the balcony repairs on the east side, and he feared it would be too noisy for guests.

By this hour, almost four, I was more than ready to fall on any bed and rest, so I replied that noise was not a problem since I would be at the conference during the day. Fatigue dulled my wits, but I had no idea of the treat I was about to receive.

Silk, Crystal — and Elegance.

Ramon opened the door to a lovely, pale pink living room with floor-to-ceiling shuttered windows painted a graceful white. A green silk settee sat peacefully in front of the north window. On either side of a hand-carved coffee table, matching chairs begged for company. Small tables with crystal lamps stood in the two corners by the couch. Angled unobtrusively in the southeast corner was an armoire housing the ever-present TV, its modernity softened by the antique brass floor lamp standing next to it. A subtle floral silk shade topped the lamp, which provided light for an elegant chair.

I stood almost aghast at this turn of fortune. I glanced to my left at the bedroom door and looked face-to-photo at Mae West, dressed in a pale satin gown and fur caplet, bejeweled and sassy, with her left-hand on her hip and a phone to her right ear. A placard noted her appearance at the Majestic Theater.

The bedroom was equally impressive with its white French provincial furniture, mauve silk draperies with white lace panels, and a lady's chair of pink, green, and beige silk brocade. A king-sized bed, dresser, and end tables were joined by the most important accessory, a small discrete desk.


I held my breath as I called home. Would the cell phone work? Most certainly! My dear mate answered the call loud and clear. Ramon had found the perfect room for me.

Arrangements were made for the key. With many thanks on my part and profuse apologies on Ramon's for the supposed inconvenience, I bade the kind gentleman goodbye and closed the door. With wonder, anticipation, and relief, I began to unpack for the days ahead.

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