Image: Mission Inn & Spa
Bob Torrez  /  Mission Inn & Spa via AP
The Festival of Lights at the Mission Inn & Spa in Riverside, Calif.
updated 12/4/2008 12:30:52 PM ET 2008-12-04T17:30:52

Bette Davis was married at the Mission Inn, as was Richard Nixon. Ronald and Nancy Reagan spent their wedding night here, and the list of famous people who've stayed here over the years includes Humphrey Bogart and Harry Houdini.

But celebrity connections are just one reason to visit this National Historic Landmark. This time of year, there are 3.5 million reasons more. That's the number of lights that go up for the holidays. The Mission Inn's Festival of Lights, which is considered one of the country's largest and most elaborate displays, has turned the inn into a holiday must-see in Southern California.

Tens of thousands of people attend the lighting ceremony each year the day after Thanksgiving each year, and many more come through the grounds before the festival ends Jan. 4. The lights depict toy soldiers, elves, swans, Santa and many other figures and beloved symbols of Christmas.

The hotel takes up an entire city block and looks like a cross between a California mission and a European villa. The grounds include courtyards, bell tower, clock tower, rotunda, chapels, fountains, restaurants and spa. And besides its famous past guest list, the inn has its own quirky history, thanks to its eccentric former owner, Frank Miller, who let his pet macaws have the run of the place and filled the hotel with treasures from around the world.

The current owner, Duane Roberts, started lighting the inn for Christmas in 1993, a nod to his childhood, when his parents drove him around the city to look at houses the local newspaper listed as having the most elaborate displays.

"I remembered that and thought that with the beautiful architecture of the Mission Inn that it would be something outstanding and special for the community," said Roberts.

Roberts says it takes work crews 10 weeks to put the displays up, and another three weeks to take them down, at a cost of some $250,000.

But the display has put Riverside on the holiday map, resulting in national media coverage from "Good Morning America," AOL and others. It's also a big draw, both for locals who drop by to see the spectacle, and for out-of-towners filling the hotel's 239 rooms.

"It gets everybody downtown every night," said Nancy Fiveland, a lifelong Riverside resident and a docent at the inn who leads tours. "It's a really neat family thing."

For Roberts, not only is it "something that binds the ... families with the community and the Mission Inn," but it has prompted so many people to book rooms at the inn during the holidays that it more than pays for itself.

"A lot of people who have relatives in the area, ties to the area, they used to stay at people's homes or some place else, they're now staying here because of the lights," he said.

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The holiday lights have also helped the inn maintain its luster as a 21st century attraction, and not just as a monument to 20th century glamour. But the guest list of famous names that made the place a winter destination for Hollywood types and others remains impressive: Henry Ford, Amelia Earhart, W.C. Fields, Clark Gable, and even public figures and intellectuals like Booker T. Washington and Albert Einstein.

"It's a monastery, a museum, a fine hotel, a home, a boardinghouse, a mission, an art gallery and an aviator's shrine," humorist Will Rogers once said.

The inn is eclectic, a reflection of Miller, the man who once owned it. A world traveler, he brought back to the inn an 18th century gold-leafed altar from Mexico, a 7-foot-tall Buddha, and a bell dating to the year 1247. And if Miller saw something he couldn't bring to Riverside, he had his staff make a replica, said Fiveland. That helps explain a spiral staircase said to be modeled on the one inside the arm of the Statue of Liberty.

Miller also, as the story goes, built some doors at the inn big enough for him to get through, but too small for his larger sister to follow him to nag him about neglected paperwork.

The inn started as a 12-room adobe boarding house in the 1870s, and began to take shape as the hotel it is today in 1903 when Miller built the first wing, called the Mission Wing. Three more wings followed, the last one completed in 1931.

Visitors, including humorist Will Rogers, apparently, often thought they were stepping into a real mission, an understandable assumption given Miller's habit of dressing like a monk (he wasn't even Catholic) and greeting them at the door. Miller also used to hop aboard trains in the area in that monk outfit and hand out oranges and brochures for his hotel, Fiveland said.

All told, 10 presidents have visited the inn, either before they lived in the White House, while they lived there or after they left. President George W. Bush visited in 1999, before he was elected, and again four years later, with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the lobby is a sturdy reminder of one presidential visit in 1909. Miller, who knew something about drumming up business, understood that visits from a president was good publicity. Unless, of course, that president was well north of 300 pounds, big enough to make believable a story he'd heard that William Howard Taft had once gotten stuck in a White House bathtub.

The last thing Miller wanted was headlines of the president turning one of his chairs into kindling and crashing to the floor. So he commissioned construction of a special chair for him to sit in. The chair remains in the hotel lobby.

That's not to say Miller was not an adept enough businessman to take an accident and turn it to his advantage.

On her tours, Fiveland tells a story of another visit that occurred about the time Taft came to town. A circus had come to Riverside, but an explosion set off an elephant stampede. Fiveland said the smaller elephants were rounded up, but the biggest elephant, named Schneider, ran toward the inn. He got as far as the inn's Garden of the Birds, where he started eating from fruit and nut trees.

"He suddenly looked up and saw his reflection in a plate glass window leading to the barber shop," she said, adding that "being a bull elephant, he had to charge his adversary."

The elephant crashed through the window before he was finally subdued, she said.

There, in the next day's newspaper, along with a photograph of the elephant, she said, was this caption: "Frank Miller, owner of the Mission Inn, says this is his only guest that he ever allowed to carry his own trunk."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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