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Tijuana Was Once "Satan's Playground"

Tijuana Was Once "Satan's Playground"
"Satan's Playground," a new book by SDSU Professor Emeritus Paul Vanderwood, chronicles the rise and fall of the gambling industry that developed in and around Tijuana, particularly the Agua Caliente Resort and Casino, as prohibitions against alcohol, horse racing, gambling, and prostitution swept the United States.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The level of violence in Mexico over the trafficking of illegal drugs has exploded in the last few years. Fighting between drug cartels and between the cartels and Mexican authorities has resulted in thousands of deaths. It's a situation that remains extremely dangerous. Given that background, it's almost romantically nostalgic to remember an earlier time when Tijuana was thought of as an exciting escape for Californians. The 1920s was the era of prohibition in the United States, when it seemed everything was illegal up north and nothing was off limits across the border. During the 20's and '30s, Baja, California was the home to a famous resort for partygoers, celebrities and gangsters all looking for a good time. My guest is SDSU Professor Emeritus Paul Vanderwood, author of the new book, "Satan's Playground: Mobsters and Movie Stars at America's Greatest Gaming Resort." And, Paul, welcome to These Days.

PAUL VANDERWOOD (Author): Thank you, Maureen. Happy to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now why did Tijuana come to be called Satan’s Playground in the 1920s?


VANDERWOOD: Well, it really wasn’t called Satan’s Playground by very many people. Most people went there to have a good time and it was a playground, period. But the preachers and others who were opposed to that kind of morality that was practiced there labeled it Satan’s Playground. In fact, they put up signposts along the road to Tijuana, warning people that they were headed for Satan’s Playground and down below if they continued to play on that playground.

CAVANAUGH: Now there was a lot of reform going on in the United States of American during the 1920s. What were the reformers trying to reform and what were their tactics?

VANDERWOOD: This was the so-called, Maureen, the so-called Progressive movement that swept the United States during that time period, really started, let’s say, around in the late 1800s and swung into the early 1900s, and they were trying to reform politics. The bosses that controlled cities, they wanted to democratize politics and other areas of the political scene and the economy but they also attacked the social setting in the United States and were trying to morally reform us and stop people from gambling, stop people from going to horse races and dancing too closely. And so the culmination of this, which everybody knows about, was prohibition, which came about in 1920, that was liquor. But before that, there were a great many prohibitions put into effect, not by the federal government so much as by cities and counties and different states and so forth. So the process of trying to remake Americans into socially more acceptable people began about that time.

CAVANAUGH: Now, but in Southern California, just across the border, you – all of these restrictions were not in place. Tell us what was going on in Tijuana in the late ‘20s and ‘30s.

VANDERWOOD: Well, Tijuana had always been a place where people from Southern California and other parts of the United States and visitors to the area and so forth went for various kinds of events. They had bullfighting down there, for instance, which was prohibited in the United States. They had bare knuckle boxing, which was prohibited in the United States. And so when these reforms occurred in the United States and people were prohibited from going to horse races and dancing and drinking and that sort of thing, it was really quite natural that entrepreneurs would go south of the border, many of them, these entrepreneurs, were American, working—importantly to notice—working with Mexican officialdom to establish places where these Americans who wanted to live the high life could have a good time. So a big, so-called industry, we could call it, started and, again, the culmination of this was the establishment of this wonderful resort called Agua Caliente, which was rivaling, oh, Monte Carlo and Deauville in Europe and during the ‘20s and on into the ‘30s.


CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with SDSU Professor Emeritus Paul Vanderwood about his new book “Satan’s Playground.” And I’ve got to tell you, you have some just marvelous pictures in this book about what Agua Caliente looked like. Who built it?

VANDERWOOD: Well, it was designed by a very young person, 19-years-old, actually, named Wayne McAllister. It was California Mission Revival, which had taken – gotten its start, of course, right here in San Diego during the 1915 Exposition, that type of building. We see it now. It exists still in Balboa Park. So it was transferred then south of the border and it was really an architectural marvel. It was a bit of a mishmash, okay? They had all kinds of styles there. Art Deco was very popular. The buildings themselves were this Mission style but in the interiors of them were Art Deco and the owners imported tiles from Spain and they brought over chandeliers from Italy and they had Louis XV furniture. It was kind of a, as I say, a mishmash of interior decorating but it was really luxurious and really beautiful and people loved to go there.

CAVANAUGH: And what precisely was it? Was it a gambling house? A racetrack? A hotel? Or all of the above?

VANDERWOOD: All – all of the above, okay. If you think of Las Vegas today, the idea of these gambling entrepreneurs is to get people to a place where they can spend a period of time, a long weekend or even maybe even a week, and they can’t really get away. What can you do other than, in Las Vegas, for instance, you’re out there in the middle of the desert but you’re sort of stuck in the desert. And the idea was to get people to Tijuana, keep them there for a weekend or longer. And so they established many different kinds of activities there and they had the horseracing and they had beautiful hotel and bungalows, they had bridge matches and high stake gambling, of course, was the thing that made the money and was the most important from the entrepreneurial point of view, the most important aspect of the entire spa. But people went there to swim and to dine on, you know, they had French menus and they brought entertainers from New York City and from Paris over to entertain people, I said over there. So it was an all-purpose kind of establishment.

CAVANAUGH: Now when you say ‘they’ went there, who went there? Because you have, as I say, a group of pictures in your book, “Satan’s Playground,” that were publicity photographs that were generated by the resort of all the celebrities who came to visit and I saw Bing Crosby, frequently, actually.


CAVANAUGH: Many, many of them movie star names of the 1930s. Who – how were these people attracted to Agua Caliente?

VANDERWOOD: Well, it wasn’t just the movie stars who went. The movie czars went. Carl Laemmle went, Joseph Schenk went there for instance, Warner went there. So the movie industry was attracted to that kind of enterprise, high profile publicity, but also diplomats, aristocrats, maharajahs, the Secretary of the Treasury went there. And almost anybody who was anybody, so to speak, blue bloods, so to speak, went there. But, also, we went there. Maureen went there, Paul went there. We all went there and we had a great time, and we rubbed elbows with these people and we were close to them. It was just a terrific atmosphere to be among.

CAVANAUGH: And not only the famous but the infamous. There were some noted mobsters to be spotted at Agua Caliente.

VANDERWOOD: Well, the mobsters, once Caliente became known – Agua Caliente was making so much money. It opened in 1928 and they were making millions of dollars in that first year. They made about $10 million in that first year alone, in 1928 to ’29. The mobsters wanted their cut, and they wanted to get their share of this revenue. And so it wasn’t only the well-known mobsters like Capone and Bugsy Siegel who went there but these kind of petty monster – petty mobsters went there, people who had flaked off of these mobs in Chicago and New York and Philadelphia went there. They enjoyed it, they saw the money, and they wanted their take.

CAVANAUGH: Well, talking about a take, your book opens with a notorious robbery that happened when thieves tried to hit a car that was bringing receipts from Agua Caliente to a bank in San Diego. Tell us about that.

VANDERWOOD: Well, they – This was a robbery that occurred on a place called the Old Dike. It’s on the borderline between National City and San Diego, paralleling what is now Highway 5. Main Street, National City, went across a kind of a swamp area there and a group of mobsters, two mobsters, part of a gang, really, held up the money car. The money car was simply the car that was transferring the weekend receipts from Agua Caliente to a bank in San Diego. And they killed the guards and it became very important in San Diego because it was reported they used machine guns. And it was the first time that machine guns were used in – were heard in San Diego. You know, and San Diego said, gosh, this is pretty terrible that the mob is here but how wonderful we’re getting all this national publicity. And so it was a huge event in San Diego. As the story began to unravel, they caught these two guys and they were part of, as I say, a larger gang and all the gang was brought home and brought to court. But one of the gangsters un – when he was on the witness stand, told of a scheme that he was part – when they held up that car, it was part of a scheme by actually the owners of Agua Caliente to blow up, to rob and then blow up their own resort because they thought that the Mexican authorities were getting too rambunctious in taking extortion from them, there was a lot of revolutionary movement in Mexico. They were afraid that the resort was soon going to collapse. So they invented a scheme where money would be kept at the resort over a long weekend or over a period of time. And now how would they keep that money there which could then be robbed? And they decided that by robbing the money car, it would create such a stir in the city of San Diego and the environs that the people in Agua Caliente then would have an excuse to say, hey, we’re going to keep all our money now in Agua Caliente until we get the security situation worked out. But then they had planned actually to rob their own place and to blow up the place and then retreat to Florida for a better life.

CAVANAUGH: Now never a dull moment.

VANDERWOOD: Right. It’s quite a story.


VANDERWOOD: It’s quite a story.

CAVANAUGH: …what I’m fascinated with, Paul, is this book is so rich with stories and characters, all the people who were involved in the building and the idea of Agua Caliente, all the visitors and so forth, what amazes me is that you’re still finding out information about this. You have a blog going about Satan’s Playground, people are contacting you, like my father has memories of Agua Caliente. Tell us about that.

VANDERWOOD: Well, it’s wonderful when that happens, isn’t it, Maureen? That you get some feedback. And so they read the book or they hear about the book and they find one of their relatives is mentioned in the book, whether he be a bootlegger or whomever, they want to know more about them. So they blog you or they call you on the telephone and they ask you, do you have anymore information, some – on their particular relative. These – some of them are genealogy people that were studying, you know, family history and are not hesitant to bring in the dark side of their particular families. And, if I might say so, Maureen, tonight I’m going to give a talk at the San Diego Historical Association in Balboa Park at six o’clock, and I know there are going to be people there who are going to pepper me with stories about Agua Caliente. It’s going to be just terrific.

CAVANAUGH: In the relatively two minutes we have left, do you think you could tell us, do you have a favorite character?

VANDERWOOD: In this story?


VANDERWOOD: Well, my favorite, I guess, would be maybe James Crofton. He was one of the border barons. He was one of the owners of the place, and he had come out of a little tiny town in Oregon up on the Columbia River, and wandered down into the San Diego area and was a circus pony rider for awhile here and then he got into gambling and he opened up his own gambling establishment. And eventually he just worked his way up from really nothing to become a millionaire. I mean, he – he’s the American dream, the American story, James Crofton is his name.

CAVANAUGH: Did he get – have a good end?

VANDERWOOD: Well, not so wonderful. He got into a very bad – in 1932, he was in a bad plane crash and he was flying down to Mexico City to meet with the Mexican president because these connections between Agua Caliente and high political people in Mexico was very strong. The plane crashed and he was very, very badly hurt, as was a lady with him. Well, who was the lady? It wasn’t his wife. You wouldn’t expect him to bring his wife. But it was a Mexican movie star. So he later recovered, divorced his wife, married the movie star, but he never really did recover from those terrible – He got banged up pretty badly in the crash. He never did recover from those injuries.

CAVANAUGH: Paul, fascinating stories. And you can read them all. The book’s name is "Satan's Playground: Mobsters and Movie Stars at America's Greatest Gaming Resort." Now, Paul Vanderwood, as he says, will lecture and sign copies of his book tonight at six at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park. Thank you for telling us about it, Paul.

VANDERWOOD: It was my pleasure, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to comment, please go online, Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.