Burning bright for seven years, a Depression-era venture in Tijuana lit up the blueprint that Las Vegas would follow. The old Agua Caliente is the subject of Satan’s Playground: Mobsters and Movie Stars at America’s Greatest Gaming Resort, a new book published in June by local historian Paul J. Vanderwood. Agua Caliente opened in 1928, and a year later, writes the author, “Its casino was said to be grossing at least $2 million a month, ten times that in today’s dollars.” “For glamour and panache, [the resort] outdid even the celebrated Monte Carlo and France’s aristocratic Deauville.” At full development, Agua Caliente had a casino, hotel, separate bungalows, a spa, tennis courts, swimming pools, golf course, and its own airport. A racetrack, where gambling on both dogs and horses took place, was added in 1929.
While Las Vegas reels today under a bad economy, Agua Caliente felt the Great Depression as a slight drag at most and kept on churning out big profits. “West Coast cities,” writes Vanderwood, “were far less damaged by the catastrophic downturn than eastern industrial centers. San Franciscans and Southern Californians still found Agua Caliente within reach and a delightful diversion from depressing realities elsewhere and doomsday talk everywhere.”
Vanderwood’s book makes clear what the most important factors were in Agua Caliente’s meteoric rise. There was Prohibition, which went into effect in 1920 and was not repealed until 1933. Americans’ supply of booze plummeted overnight. Even before Prohibition, segments of society all over the country were already demanding an end to drinking and other vices. Prostitution, erotic dancing, boxing, horse racing, gambling at cards, roulette, and dice were all coming under the moralistic glare. Huge niches in the market for pleasure were opening up.
Needless to say, shrewd entrepreneurs honed in on the opportunity. In his book, Vanderwood follows the backgrounds and business careers of the three American “Border Barons” who eventually developed Agua Caliente. Wirt Bowman was the politician of the group. Bowman had come from Nogales, which straddles the Mexico-Arizona border. He had once been the city’s mayor and had financial interests in the railroad that connected Arizona to Sonora’s big cattle ranches. His political experience and connections south of the border would later come in handy for Agua Caliente’s negotiations with Mexican government officials.
Baron (his real first name) Long was a seasoned veteran as well, but in the hotel, nightclub, and restaurant businesses in Los Angeles. Shortly before the Jazz Age got underway, he bought the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego. Long already had an interest in Tijuana’s first horse-racing track and the Sunset Inn next door, where dancing and gambling prevailed. Both businesses sat right on the border.
The last of the Border Barons, and at 32 the youngest Baron when Agua Caliente got off the ground, was James Crofton, who came to San Diego from Washington State. He had already become involved in gambling establishments in Nevada and Mexicali. When Agua Caliente first opened, Crofton acted as a barker, hustling up business on the streets of San Diego. Bowman and Long liked Crofton at first, largely on account of his youthful energy. But by the time the resort was coming undone, from late 1935 to 1938, tensions among all three Barons were high.
In deciding to make the Border Barons central characters of his book, Vanderwood had to resist a temptation. “Lots of books today are celebrities’ stories,” Vanderwood tells me, as we sit in the den of his La Mesa home. “Americans love celebrities.
“Then my historical sense took over,” he continues. “Nobody had ever written about Agua Caliente per se or about the Border Barons.” The first review of Satan’s Playground took umbrage. “The reviewer complained,” says Vanderwood, “that I should have done more with celebrities. ‘We want more on Hollywood. He’s got too much about those Border Barons, who are insignificant figures.’” Vanderwood says that his publisher, Duke University Press, was very angry about the review.
Vanderwood says he found it difficult to find good stories about the celebrities who came to Agua Caliente. And the good but brief stories he did find, ones about Bing Crosby, Gloria Swanson, Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, and others, Vanderwood put in the book. A late chapter is called “Hollywood’s Playground.”
But another story line easily compensates for the shortage of glamorous titillation. From beginning to end of Satan’s Playground, Vanderwood follows a gangland-style heist and its repercussions, especially for the thugs who pulled it off. On May 20, 1929, two robbers trailed the shipment of a week’s profits at Agua Caliente on its way to a San Diego bank. They hijacked the car carrying the dough and murdered the driver and guard inside. The ambush took place on what was then called the “Dike,” in National City. The subsequent getaway took the thieves up to 32nd Street, where they turned right and hustled to their hideout in a quiet San Diego neighborhood. There a local doctor attended one of the robbers, who had taken a bullet in his shoulder during the shootout.
San Diegans wondered if they were about to be inundated by Chicago-style Mob violence. Three months earlier, the famous Saint Valentine’s Day massacre and the tommy gun used in the crime had horrified the country. Now, in San Diego, the new submachine gun made its appearance again, as the Dike thugs used it first to shoot out the tires of the money car they were chasing and then to murder their victims.
The heist, the capture of the hijackers, their trial, and their ultimate fate are skillfully narrated. In between, Vanderwood sandwiches chapters on the Mob’s influence in San Diego, the corruption of San Diego officials during Prohibition, the effects in the border area of Mexico’s revolution between 1910 and 1920, the vice business in Tijuana before Agua Caliente, and the resort’s “gestation” and later development.
If Vanderwood writes like a journalist, that’s because he spent the early part of his career working as a reporter for the Scripps Howard News Service. In the mid-1950s, the company sent him from his home in New Jersey to Memphis, Tennessee, to cover the budding Civil Rights movement. Although he interviewed Martin Luther King, sat in on his sermons, and covered the notorious Medgar Evers murder trial, Vanderwood says it was difficult in those days to see the big picture of how the country, and especially the State of Mississippi, were changing.
In 1964, the U.S. State Department recruited Vanderwood for a visit to Latin America to help figure out why so many early Peace Corps volunteers were returning home in the middle of their assignments. Afterward, he decided he wanted to teach Latin American history and went to the University of Texas, where the history department strongly encouraged him to become a “Mexicanist.” In 1969, with a Ph.D. in hand, Vanderwood landed a job teaching mainly Mexican history at SDSU. San Diego was a good fit for the new teacher, since during his graduate work, he had focused on the U.S.-Mexico border region.
Vanderwood retired from teaching in 1989 to focus again on writing, this time books on the border region addressed to a wider audience than his former colleagues in the teaching profession. Despite the popularization, he confesses to being tugged back toward academic standards. It shows up in Satan’s Playground’s extensive use of documentation. Fortunately for the general reader, Vanderwood uses endnotes rather than the page-bottom footnotes that can distract scrupulous readers into checking every reference.
I ask Vanderwood what made him want to spend so much time on Satan’s Playground. The period from the start of his research to the book’s publication lasted four years. “While teaching at San Diego State,” he tells me, “I always had a core of students who came up from Tijuana to take courses.” The students had often gone to Catholic schools on the American side of the border, such as St. Augustine High. “They would be in my history class,” Vanderwood continues, “and I’d talk to them informally about Tijuana. Right from the beginning, they’d give me interesting historical data about their city. One of the things they kept mentioning was Agua Caliente. They said, ‘We used to have this fabulous resort and spa, but nobody’s ever looked into the history of it.’”
What happened to Agua Caliente? Vanderwood tells me that Lázaro Cárdenas, president of Mexico from 1934 to 1940, closed only the casino in late 1935. By 1938, he had expropriated all the property at the resort, except the racetrack, which continued to operate. “But Tijuana was dependent on Agua Caliente,” says Vanderwood. “Almost everybody worked at Agua Caliente or in jobs that were ancillary, such as at gas stations and other businesses that served the resort’s visitors. So when it closed, all these people were put out of work. There were riots on the street over that, and people were killed.
“One of the things that Cárdenas did in response was to establish on the old Agua Caliente grounds a technical institute for young boys, the sons of former workers, to go and learn a trade. This was in 1939. It was a government school, and the boys’ education was all government financed. In fact, they had some extraordinary teachers right at the beginning because the Spanish Civil War had occurred and Spanish Republicans, the liberals in that fight with [Generalissimo Francisco] Franco, came to Mexico as refugees. Many of them were university teachers. The president of Mexico sent those teachers to that school. It was very good for the boys.”
Today, there are several junior high schools and a high school near the site. A racetrack called Caliente still operates. The races are all dog races.
But the luxurious resort of the 1920s and 1930s is not entirely forgotten. Vanderwood tells me that a New York broker of the old casino’s poker chips contacted him recently. “The guy wanted me to verify whether a particular chip really came from Agua Caliente. I said, ‘Well, it’s got AC on it.’ Then he said my book was helping him make a lot of money.” ■