The Cambrian
Posted on Thu, Sep. 29, 2011

A flight of fancy fundraising

CAMBRIAN PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
By Kathe Tanner | ktanner@thetribunenews.com

In a bow to 1940s history and modern-day fundraising, the 1943 C-47 “Gooney Bird” plane with 19 passengers aboard lumbered briefly under the fogbank, making a perfect landing on the 4,400-foot-long paved airstrip on the Hearst Ranch in San Simeon.

The passengers, some in costumes from the 1920s-1940s, had taken the short, historic ride Saturday afternoon from Paso Robles to the Friends of Hearst Castle’s 12th annual “Enchanted Evening” event at the former estate of powerful, enigmatic media magnate William Randolph Hearst.

The original plan had been for the World War II aircraft to circle the towers of the historical monument’s 115-room La Casa Grande in a flashback photo op.

But Mother Nature took hold of the controls: Dense, drippy fog made that scenario impossible from a safety standpoint. Nevertheless, the promotional flight still was history making in its own right, based on what the plane is and was.

The plane, owned by about 20 pilots who call themselves “The Gooney Bird Group,” is usually on display at the Estrella Warbird Museum in Paso Robles. According to Gary Corippo, a member of the group and a cofounder of the museum, the plane was built in Tulsa in 1944 and arrived in England two weeks after the invasion of Normandy. It flew in every European drop after that, Corippo said.

After the war, the plane was owned by the French for five years, the Belgians for eight years and then sat with 25 other war-ready planes for 35 years at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport. A man from Edmonton, Canada, purchased the aircraft, and the Gooney Bird group bought the plane in 2009, restored it and brought it to Paso.

Hearst’s flight out
It had been almost 65 years earlier that a flight presumed to have been in a sister plane — Hearst’s own modified DC-3c, a civilian model of the Gooney Bird— departed from that same field, carrying “The Chief” away for the last time from the San Simeon “ranch” he loved so much.

Author David Nasaw wrote in his nearly 700-page book about Hearst, “The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst,” that on May 2, 1947, as Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies, “were driven down the winding, 5-mile roadway from San Simeon’s hilltop to the landing strip below for their flight to Los Angeles” and her house in Beverly Hills, “Marion noticed that tears were streaming down the Chief’s face.” She leaned over to wipe away the tears. “ ‘We’ll come back, W.R., you’ll see,’ ” she said. “They never did,” Nasaw noted in the book. Hearst died in Beverly Hills at the age of 88 on Aug. 14, 1951.

According to research by Hoyt Fields, the Castle’s museum director, and Mike Weakley, retired pilot and Friends of Hearst Castle board member, chances are 99 out of 100 that Hearst’s departure plane was indeed the DC-3c he’d bought a year earlier for $200,000 and spent another $70,000 modifying, including putting in a taller cargo door. The tall, stout-but-stylish Hearst reportedly said, “This is the only plane I’ve ever entered without having to remove my hat.” Weakley said the DC-3 was Hearst’s third and final plane. The others were a trimotor Stinson he bought in 1935 and a Vultee.

According to Castle records and anecdotal memories, only one other DC-3 has landed at the Hearst strip since Hearst’s departure. In 1996, a DC-3 was used during filming of the large-format movie “Hearst Castle: Building a Dream.” The movie is shown at Hearst Castle Theater; most tour tickets include the film.

Memorable experience
Some aboard Saturday’s flight, including some world travelers, said they could sense the historic links during the flight. Cambria travel agent John O’Regan said he enjoyed the trip, but was most awed by the Gooney Bird’s landing on Hearst’s airport. “Landing on that strip was on my bucket list,” he said. “I couldn’t help thinking of all those celebrities who had landed there before.”

World-class channel swimmer David Yudovin and wife Beth, also Cambrians, said that throughout the flight, they had the sense of the young warriors who had been transported in the aircraft in wartime. “It had been a working warplane. You sit along the side, facing in, just as the soldiers did,” he said. Even the parachute cord is still in place. “You felt the link of the history of the plane to the history of this place, Hearst Castle. It was amazing.”

Doyle and Cindy Souders, who live in Cupertino but have a second home in Cambria, were among the flight’s passengers and fundraiser’s guests dressed in period costume, including his pin-striped suit and spats.

The fundraiser’s mission
Despite the heavy fog-cum-drizzle and chilly occasional breezes, many attendees said the $300-a-plate, outdoor fundraiser was magical. It included a wine-and-appetizer reception on the terrace below the 18-room Casa del Sol guest house, a four-course dinner by New West Catering of Buellton served under mist-filtered colored lighting around the iconic Neptune Pool, live music from San Luis Jazz, and two performances of synchronized swimming by the national championship Unsyncables team from Southern California, complete with retro, flower-covered swim caps.

However entrancing the fundraiser’s events were, the bottom line was raising money for Hearst Castle art restoration, education and other Friends of Hearst Castle projects. State Parks funds for restoration are tough to come during these fiscally strapped times. Grants are few and far between, the state has slashed funding for maintenance and restoration and even those people who endorse Friends’ causes probably have less disposable income to donate. Nevertheless, bidding was lively during the silent and live auctions. Figures were far from complete Sunday afternoon, but Sue Rauch, Friends managing coordinator, was estimating then that the auctions raised between $70,000 and $80,000.

Donations from Friends are crucial to overall restoration and specific projects, according to Hoyt Fields, museum director. For instance, Friends is trying to match state investment in the current $1 million restoration of the 16th century Spanish ceiling in the Morning Room, off the Castle’s Refectory (dining room). This year alone, according to Friends President Bob Kitamura, the group wants to at least match the state’s investment of $50,000 toward the painstaking, multi-year project.

“It’s been a difficult couple of years,” Kitamura said. “But we’re doing our best,” even though that means cutting back on some of the group’s priciest previous at-the-hilltop fundraisers, such as the Holiday Feast in the Refectory.

Fields said that, while Friends’ donation levels vary year to year, from about $25,000 to $350,000, “they give all they can, and their level of commitment is invaluable. We know and appreciate that they are there to lend a hand, to fill the gap” in state funding.

In the past, Friends has paid to digitize more than 9,000 papers of Castle architect Julia Morgan, installed outdoor lighting for night tours and events and donated to conserve and restore many Castle antiquities. Friends also supports educational programs and restoration/maintenance of the historic buildings and grounds.

Near the end of the night, Superior Court Judge Melinda Stewart of Santa Clara and Raymond Lagger, a neurosurgeon from San Francisco and Hawaii and a Friends board member, agreed that Hearst and his architect would have been pleased to see so many people enjoying his Castle. Looking out over the Neptune Pool, Stewart said the beauty of the mist-laced event and the enjoyment of the crowd “are enduring proof of their mutual genius. This is spectacular, very special.”


© 2011 San Luis Obispo Tribune and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.sanluisobispo.com


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