Memories of Marfa 1955, Part 1 with Marcos Pena

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Courtesy of Richard C. Miller/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images. 

Marcos Pena, a native to Marfa, Texas, born August 3, 1936 worked at The Hotel Paisano until he retired later in life. In 1955 he was making $0.36 an hour. When the train arrived on July 5, 1955 it was like a boomtown. The townspeople were all excited about the movie coming to Marfa. They were already building up the set for “Giant.”

In 1955 the town was segregated so African Americans and Hispanics couldn’t go into the same places to eat as white people, or use the same bathrooms, or even drink out of the same fountain. If you weren’t white when an Angelo came down the street you got off the sidewalk. Marcos himself was exposed to derogatory remarks that were prevalent at the time. All of which was going on during the time Hollywood came to Marfa. The cast never called him anything but Marcos. When he was first hired at the hotel, he didn’t have a lot of respect. Mrs. Mallan who owned the hotel at the time was from New York, when she hired him she said, “ I am going to hire you to work here, but if I don’t teach you anything I am going to teach you manners. The best were, “Yes, ma’am, Yes, sir, please and thank you” that sort of thing. And that is also the way he later went on to bring up his own children. The Palace Theater was for the white people and the Texas was for Mexicans. They only had a movie 2 or 3 times a week for the Mexicans and if they ever let a Mexican into the Palace Theater across the street they had to be upstairs, they couldn’t be downstairs where the white people were.

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The following two images used with permission from CMG Worldwide.

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The hotel was always full of people. They had a crew out of El Paso, Gillespie Catering Service that was there just to do all the cooking for the people involved in the film. While working at the hotel he got to meet most of the stars in the film. To him they were all a people just like him. He got real friendly with Chill Wills and Mercedes McCambridge who he used to take to church on Sundays, Saint Mary’s, the catholic church in town. She was beautiful lady and when the movie was over she offered him a job and offered to take him to CA to work.

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Dean and other dining at The Hotel Paisano.

The stars would take their meals at The Paisano. What he remembers most about the summer of ’55 is the people lining up at the windows of the café, there at the Paisano trying to take a look at the movie stars. The hallways of the hotel were decorated with their framed, autographed pictures from previous movies, but people were stealing them. Rock Hudson came over. Where he made money, and he appreciated it was with Elizabeth Taylor, when he’d take her breakfast in the morning. The Chamber of Commerce when she first arrived in Marfa, gave her a silver bowl, engraved from Marfa this and that, a personal gift to her. She kept it at the makeup room. When he took her breakfast there it was always full of money. She would just reach over there and give him a handful of money. That was his tip. Then Marcos got to meet Michael Wilding who was married to Elizabeth Taylor at that time. Elizabeth was staying at the hotel and so was Rock Hudson. Taylor’s husband came over and took her out of the hotel, rented a private home here in Marfa, and moved her over there. It is the house still standing in front the elementary, it belonged to Mrs. Barton, the big white two-story house on the corner of West Columbia and Gonzáles. James Dean and Chill Wills rented out a house at 811 Columbia and North Mesa Street.

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Current street view of the home where Elizabeth Taylor stayed.

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Current Street View of the home where James Dean and Chill Wills took up residence after the Paisano.

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Courtesy of Richard C. Miller/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

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Used under permission from CMG Worldwide.

Marcos first met James Dean when they wanted to go rabbit hunting. James Dean was real friendly, a happy guy, wild. He was young and full of life. Marcos carried their luggage and took their meals to the set. There was a pool table in the basement of the hotel and they’d play there of the evenings sometimes. Marcos had a room there in the basement and it was where he slept. Dean was pretty good at pool but mainly liked to have fun and mess around. When they were making that movie the Paisano hotel did not have a swimming pool then. That area was where the catering companies kept their stock of fruits and vegetables that kind of stuff, and there was a window that was a form of sunlight for the basement. James Dean used to like to crawl out of that window just to kind of mess around and would go out there and snag fruit and bring it back to the pool room where they were playing. Dean seemed to enjoy his stay in room 223. Marcos remembers Dean driving over to the ice plant in Marfa from time to time. Jake Edwards who owned a Chevrolet dealership in town supplied the brand new cars for the stars to use while they were in town. They liked to hang out was at Carolina’s (The Old Borunda Café*) for Mexican food right there on highway 90 on the corner of Dean Street and San Antonio.

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Courtesy of Richard C. Miller/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images.

Restaurant

The Old Borunda Café was the first Tex-Mex Restaurant in history. It opened on July 4, 1887 with 3 owners/cooks over the 89 years it was in operation. Today it is the home of Para Llevar.

Many thanks to Marcos Pena for sharing his memories, his son Jessie for collecting them for me, and Joe Duncan for informing me that Marcos would remember a lot from the Summer of ’55. Thank you all for your time, patience, and kindness. As well as the current owners over at Para Llevar for further information and Dorothy Schultz of The Fairmount Historical Museum for helping me locate the image of the cast dining at The Paisano. It is also my hope to be able to bring part 2 at a later date with memories from other Marfa locals.

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