By Tom Morrow
In early 1983, I was director of communications for the venerable Hotel Del Coronado, across the bay from San Diego.
The historic hotel is world renowned and one of the nation’s oldest, continuously operating resorts. It still holds the record of being the largest wooden structure in America.
In 1958, when I was in Navy boot camp at the San Diego Naval Training Center, I remember that Director Billy Wilder was filming “Some Like It Hot” at the Del. I kept tossing the idea of some sort of event using that movie around in my head. It had been 26 years since the film was shot at the hotel, but it was exactly 25 years since it’s release. I needed a big bash that would make news.
Planning out loud, I told my boss, “I’m going to invite Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis to be here as guests of honor,” I explained. “I’ll put them up in our finest suites for the weekend and build a celebration and dinner party around them.”
I ended up paying $1,500 for Billy Wilder’s phone number; Jack Lemmon was listed in the Beverly Hills directory.
Tony Curtis? I had to get him out of the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs.
I dialed Wilder’s number and the familiar thick German voice on the other end told me I had dialed correctly. Wilder answered his own phone.
I quickly told him why I was calling and that I had arranged to hold a fund-raising dinner that would generate monies for the new editing suite out at San Diego State University. The staff at SDSU said they would be willing to name the facility after Wilder if he were willing to participate.
He had one question: “Will Mr. Lemmon be there?”
“Absolutely, sir,” I heard myself promising. “Yes, indeed, Jack Lemmon will be there.”
After a few more minutes telling of the various aspects, I hung up and quickly called Jack Lemmon’s number. It was his office and his gatekeeper told me she would pass along my request.
Lemmon called me a couple of hours later. I told him what I had planned. He had just one question: “Will Billy be there?”
“Yes, of course,” I replied. “I just talked with him two hours ago. He was most anxious that you be there as well.”
I told both of them I had arranged for complimentary air transportation on PSA and that I’d be sending tickets.
“Oh, don’t bother, Tom,” Lemmon replied. “Billy doesn’t like to fly. I’ll rent a ‘stretch’ (limo) and we’ll drive down.”
Lemmon sounded quite pleased that we would be celebrating what many film critics call “the greatest comedy ever put on film.”
The fund-raising dinner on Saturday evening was a sell-out. More than 500 people jammed into the hotel’s big ballroom.
The black-tie affair was a smash hit. A 10-minute video of Wilder and Lemon interviews, along with clips from the movie brought a standing ovation, and the dance band capped the evening.
On Sunday morning, Wilder asked me to join him on the hotel’s garden court for breakfast. He invited Lemmon to join us — it was just the three of us. We spent nearly two hours visiting, telling stories from the various movies they had made together.
“I’ve never spent a dull moment with Billy,” Lemmon told me in confidence. “He the smartest and most interesting man I’ve ever known.”
Earlier, I had placed a box of imported cigars in Billy’s suite. He was quite appreciative of that gesture. The only time he didn’t have a cigar in his hand was during the dinner on Saturday night.
By noon on Sunday most of the guests had departed and the biggest single event in San Diego memory had ended.
A number of years later, when the SDSU film department had finally finished the Billy Wilder Editing Facility, I was called by the school and asked if I would contact Billy and invite him to come and officially open the facility. I was the only one who had Billy’s phone number. I felt like charging them $1,500.
When I called, Billy answered the phone. This was in 1989 – six years later.
“Mr. Wilder, you may not remember me, I’m Tom Morrow, the guy who set up the 25th anniversary cele…”
“Of course I remember you,” he interrupted. Hey, you got any more of those great cigars?”
He was a charmer.
My “Some Like It Hot” event was important to me as it was the first of what has become standard in celebrating vintage movie anniversaries. Before my celebration, nothing of significance in that vein had been done. And I did it with two Hollywood legends.