An Interview with the Owner of The Hotel Paisano, Joe Duncan

hotelatdawn

The Hotel Paisano at dawn.

With construction beginning in 1930 El Paisano Hotel in Marfa, Texas was designed by Henry C. Trost. During the 30’s and 40’s it was frequented by tourists seeking the benefits of the dry West Texas air and cattle ranchers coming to Marfa to do business. Most notably it was the base of operations during the filming of “Giant” in 1955. Where director George Stevens, and the cast and crew took up residence. (James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson, later rented out the homes of locals, but are reported to have enjoyed a brief stay in their rooms at the Paisano).

In 2001 the hotel was brought back to life by hoteliers Joe and Lanna Duncan. The following interview and stories from the staff employed during filming are brought to you by Joe.

For those not familiar with your story can you tell us a little about where you are from? How did your early days there influence you most to be who you are today?

I am from Fort Davis, 21 miles north of Marfa. My parents had the historic Hotel Limpia in Fort Davis so I grew up in the hotel business there.

What led to the purchase of the first property you decided to save? What did you learn from the process?

In 1991 we purchased the Hotel Limpia from my family. We learned it is a lot more fun owning your own business rather working for your parents.

How many properties do you have now and which do you hold most dear?

We have owned and restored 7 historic homes and 5 historic hotels over the past 30 years. They are all special projects with their own special characteristics.

Marfa 1978_0003 (1)

The hotel as it was in 1978. Photo by Kirby Warnock.

Can you tell us how it was to purchase the Paisano in 2001?

We purchased the Paisano on the courthouse steps at a tax auction. It was a very exciting day.

Why did you most want to save that particular building?

The Paisano was our first property that we had bought that was already on the National Register of Historic Places. A very notable building.

hoteltop

Do you happen to know what dates James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor stayed there before renting houses in town for the remainder of their trip?

Not exactly. Filming of Giant started on June 6, 1955. I believe that these main stars stayed at the Paisano for only the first week or so however they were in building almost every day for meals in our restaurant.

How did the cast and crew past most of their down time at the hotel do you know?

Eating in our restaurant.

hotelobby

Do you think “Giant” will always be what people think of foremost when thinking of the hotel?

Today that is what the hotel is most known for however that may change as decades go by and the movie fades.

What do you think it is about Marfa that draws people worldwide?

I think the Texas landscape around Marfa is a huge draw. The lack of residents in the area keep it pristine and nice

What projects that you are currently working on are you most excited to show the world next?

We are always looking for more historic properties to own and fix up.

Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?

Thank you for your interest in The Hotel Paisano and Giant!

On July 21, 2021 Joe agreed to give me a tour of The Paisano, during which I was shown a few of the rooms the cast stayed in and relayed stories of their time at the hotel as passed down from the staff that worked there at the time. The train from Hollywood arrived June 5, 1955. James Dean was the first off the train to reach the hotel. He came straight through the doors and proceeded to nap on one of the couches that were still in the lobby at the time, leading staff to point it out to each other as he slept. There was also the story of how the Bob Hinkle bonded with Elizabeth Taylor over chili cheeseburgers from the local drive-in when he and the 3 stars of the film went there for supper one evening (more of which can be found in the book “Call Me Lucky”). And one of how Elizabeth Taylor stood at the doors of the lobby/courtyard waiting on her husband Michael Wilding to arrive with her dogs that had been flown in. He simply delivered them in a bit of a huff and left. According to staff at the time all of the cast and crew were very kind and polite, with James Dean being reported to fit right in. Before the 3 main stars rented out houses in town, James Dean took up residence in room 223, Dennis Hopper was in 220, Elizabeth Taylor in 212, and Rock Hudson in 211. After the other 3 rooms were renovated to become suites with the intent of the hotel becoming a condominium in later years, room 223 is the one room left that remains the most like it was during the filming.

courtyard

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