Open, Sesame

10. Strange nights and days of the Ali Baba Motel

A giant gold-painted Taj Mahal dome perched atop its porte-cochere—and surely packed with caramel corn—distinguishes the Ali Baba Motel from its competition on old Newport Boulevard, the neighboring Sea Lark Motor Hotel and the Costa Mesa Motor Inn. The graceful arches, fleur-de-lis emblems and extravagant tile of its Moorish architectural flourishes, its sterile cleanliness and its ghost town emptiness suggest that nothing has ever happened here. Which is far from the truth.

This is one of many Orange County buildings with a variegated past—and a weird present. It begins with the design, for few Southern California buildings have ever taken their dramatic effect from Moorish architecture. Just one other commercial structure comes to mind: Compton's now-crumbling Angeles Abbey Mausoleum, built in 1926 and similarly deserted during the day.

Thanks to the predecessors of people like Anaheim mayor Curt Pringle who were responsible for decimating that city's row of dramatically drawn mid-century motels, few Orange County lodgings from the Eisenhower era remain, regardless of their style. For survival alone, the Ali Baba—named for the poor Persian woodcutter who outwits 40 thieves in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights—deserves our consideration and tax dollars, though at $65 a night for a room, it is barely on par with Motel 6. (And, strangely, a clerk tells Weekly intern Thomas Dosier that single-occupancy rooms are all they have now. More on that later.)

The motel's exterior signs hint at its past; they have been updated to say "Ali Baba" in spectacularly uninspired red lettering on white plastic. Signs were never this drab in the 1950s, the decade during which the Ali Baba was most likely built. Its current manager, a Taiwanese immigrant who gave only his first name, Jason, guesses the structure is as old as 1950, but a real estate records search failed to yield the truth. In fact, this is the Ali Baba Motel again. During the 1980s, the structure was renamed the Sunshine Motel according to former OC Weekly graphic designer Thomas Van Do, who lived at the motel with his family for a brief period after they emigrated from Vietnam in 1975.

"I grew up down the street—the same street—and it used to be a hooker hotel, bro," says Van Do, who remembers his family being sponsored by a Costa Mesa family named the Bradys. "My dad used to tell me that nothing good happened on Newport Boulevard. At night all there was was a bunch of scabs running down the street."

The street has always had a heavy hand in the motel's fortunes and in the fate of every business along it, ever heavier since 1990 when the south end of the Costa Mesa Freeway opened far below street level. It siphoned off their trade, much as the interstates had done to Route 66 a generation before. Yet the Ali Baba remains, and somehow continues to make money. Must be the free HBO.

Jason says they still get a mix of tourists and businessmen, and as he talks an old Taiwanese woman slurping noodles from a bowl behind the counter gets up and goes into the next room. He refers me to the friend of the ex- ex-owner. She runs a "food store" next to a bar that is next to a restaurant down the street. Which bar? Which restaurant? Which street? He's sure I must know. I'm reluctant to stop leaning on the counter, which is sheer Vegas: faced in purple laminate it's pocked with scores of tiny fleur-de-lis alcoves, each an inch deep and housing a tiny light bulb. I expect a man named Newton, or Humperdinck, but he never materializes.

In fact, during my brief stopover I never see a single Ali Baba customer. No one hangs out in the glass-walled lobby; no one shambles through looking for the ice machine; no one phones for more towels. This must be crushing for the guys at Memphis, the nearby hipster restaurant—last year they told the Weekly's Ellen Griley that they think the place would make a killer boutique motel.

But the Ali Baba may have its own unique niche. A story in the August 16 Orange County Register noted the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation uses five Costa Mesa motels to house registered sex offenders out on parole. The Ali Baba is listed as one, though the Register was quick to point out that as of July 23, there were no sex offenders actually living there. Silent and neat as a well-used pin, the Ali Baba Motel looks as if no one really lives there. Anymore. The Ali Baba Motel, 2250 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-7770. $65 per night.

I beg to differ! All that tile, that chalky stucco and those high arches make this place feel like an operating room with no disinfectant. The best mid-century modern motel around is the Sky Palm in Orange—a big A-framed structure with a roof that almost touches the ground. It has the woodsy feel that all the coolest Polynesian-style buildings in the '50s did—and it still has its original sign. 219 N. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 639-6602.(Doug Theodore)

A little foreshadowing: Anyone interested in eyesores and firetraps please skip ahead to my entry on the El Don at #53. (Chris Ziegler)

 
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