Love, music, mystery: the story behind the Don CeSar
Ever wonder how the famous hotel got its name? Behold our three-part story.
By Lane DeGregory, Times Staff Writer
Published March 9, 2008
ACT I: LOVE'S FATE IS SEALED
Set in 17th century Spain, an opera tells of a raven-haired gypsy and her disheveled knight.
- Charles II bass, the king of Spain
- Maritana (soprano), a beautiful gypsy singer
- Don Cesar (tenor), a penniless knight who survives by his sword
- A public square in Madrid in the 1600s
Once there was an opera in three acts: a timeless tale of love and luck and eternal devotion.
It was called Maritana.
The show premiered at London's Drury Lane in November 1845 and ran for more than 50 nights. Within a year, audiences were applauding it in Dublin and Vienna, in Philadelphia and New York.
"The production of an opera so famous, and yet so novel, as Maritana caused an unusual excitement last evening, and filled the Broadway Theatre in a highly satisfactory manner," the New York Times wrote on Oct. 20, 1854.
The curtain opens with a gypsy girl, Maritana, surrounded by a chorus imploring her, "Sing, pretty maiden, sing!" Soon, her strong soprano voice fills the streets.
The king of Spain follows her song and finds that her face is even more beautiful than her voice. Bewitched, he throws the gypsy a gold coin.
Meanwhile, a broke knight named Don Cesar gets into a sword fight on a holy day and is sentenced to death.
In a plot twist that could work only in an opera, the gypsy Maritana shows up at the execution and falls in love with Don Cesar.
She sings. The firing squad gets distracted. Don Cesar escapes and reunites with his true love. In a surprise ending for an opera, the king is okay with it all and everyone lives . . . you know.
The end! Or it would have been, if not for the student who fell in love with the show a half-century later.
- - -
ACT II: A MONUMENT TO HIS LOVE
A young student becomes so smitten with the opera - and perhaps the leading lady - that he names a grand hotel after one of its characters.Characters:
- Thomas J. Rowe, opera lover and builder with a dream
- Mary Lucille Rowe, his wife, left behind in Virginia
- Lucinda, a Spanish soprano who played Maritana in London - if you believe the legend, and you might want to be careful about that
- An empty stretch of St. Pete Beach, 1920s
- An opera house in London, around 1900
Once there was a man who fell in love with the opera Maritana - and, some say, with the leading soprano.
She was a spectral Spanish beauty whose voice, they say, captivated him from a London stage.
He was a shy college student who grew up in Ireland.
The story goes that the couple met around 1900 in front of an ornate fountain outside the Royal Opera House and made plans to elope. But their romance was star-crossed. Her parents whisked her away.
He found his way to Florida, where he built her a castle by the sea.
Here's what we know is true:
In the early 1900s, an American student named Thomas J. Rowe returned from college in London and went into business. He built commercial buildings in New York, then moved to Norfolk, Va., where he married the daughter of a rich landowner.
He never loved the woman, whose name was Mary.
At 47, his health failing, Rowe left his wife and headed for Florida - with $21,000 in his pocket.
He settled in St. Petersburg and drove across the new wooden toll bridge to Pass-a-Grille. Surveying the open swath of sand and the mellow surf, he decided this would be the home of his grand hotel.
Rowe paid $100,000 for 80 acres stretching from Boca Ciega Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1926 he unveiled plans for his masterpiece: a 10-story, 312-room Moorish palace, with private baths, penthouse suites and a ballroom for 1,000 dancers.
"One of the most ambitious undertakings on the west coast of Florida," the St. Petersburg Times reported when the hotel opened two years later. "The first great hostelry to be built directly on the surf of the Gulf of Mexico."
Rowe named his hotel the Don Ce-Sar - "after a role in an opera he had liked," the Times said.
For 80 years, statesmen and stars have slept there: Presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush, Ann-Margret, Sophia Loren, Tom Petty. You can, too, for about $350 a night.
The roads surrounding the hotel still bear the names of the opera's characters: Don Jose Street, Maritana Drive. Hotel guests can still waltz in the King Charles Ballroom and dine in the Maritana Grille.
It's a pretty good story: An ambitious builder names his crown jewel after a swashbuckling opera hero.
The hotel has an even better one. Here's what the tour guides tell you:
Rowe himself was a tragic hero, the victim of a forbidden romance, heartbroken and determined to build a monument to his lost love.
"During Mr. Rowe's last year at the university in London, he saw an opera which was written by another Irishman," concierge Kendal Sims said recently on one of her weekly tours of the Don CeSar. "The girl who played the heroine was a Spanish beauty with long, black hair named Lucinda. He went backstage and met her. Every night after that, he'd meet her after the opera. He'd wait for her by a fountain.
"One night," the tour guide went on, "they planned to elope. But Lucinda never came. Her parents, who were Catholic, found out their plans. And Mr. Rowe was Protestant. So they grabbed her and fled back to Spain and he never saw her again."
He paid homage to his darling by building the fountain on the fifth floor - "a replica," the tour guide said, "of the one outside the London opera house where Mr. Rowe would meet his love.
"All those years later," she said, "he was still madly in love with Lucinda."
Opera historians, and newspaper reviews from New York and London, confirm that Maritana was performed on both sides of the Atlantic for a decade before and after 1900. But there is no mention of a soprano named Lucinda. Nor any evidence Rowe fell in love with a singer, or even saw the show there.
The concierges say they got their information from a pamphlet distributed by the Don CeSar's marketing department.
The marketing department says it got the story from a book called Ghostly Encounters: True Stories of America's Haunted Inns and Hotels, by Frances Kermeen.
Kermeen, by e-mail, says, "I got the information from my PR contact at the hotel."
But wait - there's more!
The tour guides say Rowe frequently returns to his old haunt.
"Staffers tell of seeing a young man and woman suddenly appearing and walking hand-in-hand on the terraces of the hotel or on the shoreline, and then just as quickly - disappearing," says a pink paper distributed on the hotel tour. "The man is wearing a summer suit and Panama hat, and the woman has long dark hair and wears a Spanish peasant gown. . . . So sleep well, but listen for Lucinda and Thomas as they stroll under the evening shadow of the Don."
A widowed opera singer took that tour one day and heard the story of Rowe and Maritana.
It didn't matter, really, if it was true, she said. Her life was the reprise to that opera.
- - -
ACT III: A TIMELESS LOVE SONG
A soprano from Gulfport resurrects the long-dead opera and soothes her broken heart.
- Priscilla de Figols, soprano opera singer in New York, winters in Florida
- Alberto Figols, tenor opera singer, her husband
- Kendal Sims, concierge at the Don CeSar
- A New York apartment, 1962
- The Don CeSar hotel, 2007
- A Gulfport cottage, 2008
Once there was an opera singer who toured the world singing duets with her one true love. When she lost him she thought the music had stopped for her - until she toured Thomas Rowe's pink palace and came under the spell of Maritana.
Priscilla Gordon, a Virginia native who studied voice at the New England Conservatory in Boston, had just finished a tour of Italy when she arrived in New York in the early 1960s.
Alberto Figols, a Spanish tenor who grew up in Honduras, was already in the city, having made his name performing for U.S. ambassadors and Fidel Castro.
"One day, he appeared on my doorstep and said, in Spanish, that he'd lived in Milano and our mutual friend had told him to find me," Priscilla said. "I didn't speak Spanish. So we talked in Italian. We went for a long walk, all over the city. When we got back to my apartment, I couldn't find my keys. It was just like that scene from La Boheme. So that became our opera."
She called him, "Amore," her love. He called her "Tezoro," his treasure.
"His voice was so beautiful, just soaring; he always sang with such passion," she said softly. "It was part of the reason I fell in love with him."
England and Italy, Spain and Sweden, Mexico, France, Germany - the Figols family toured more countries than Priscilla can count. They sang in Carnegie Hall and recorded two records.
After a Town Hall recital in 1964, the New York Times wrote, "Miss Gordon . . . had a basically clear voice marred by a breathy edge and some unsteadiness. But she sang with considerable musical discipline. . . . Mr. Figols . . . had a light, sweet voice and clear enunciation. These were nicely suited to songs by Italian and Spanish composers."
Once they found each other, they never needed anyone else. "A soprano and tenor can carry an opera. And it was so romantic, singing with him all those years, having him pour out that passion to me," Priscilla said.
"Only in the operas, the soprano is always the one who dies."
In the fall of 2006, when Alberto was 75, he flew to Spain to visit his sick sister. Distracted by her illness, and without his wife to look after him, he ignored his diabetes. He collapsed when he got back to New York and died within days.
"I scream and yell at him sometimes," Priscilla said last month. " 'Come home!' I howl at him. It's horrible. 'You can do it!' I shout. Then I play this game with myself: My husband is just resting. He's sleeping. I'm keeping him very much alive."
Every evening, in her Gulfport cottage, Priscilla slides a video into the old projector atop her tiny TV and watches him singing to her. She has dozens of videos, all sorts of operas. But almost always, she ends her long days with La Boheme.
Last fall, a friend invited Priscilla to tour the Don CeSar, in whose shadow she and Alberto used to stroll. She gasped when she heard about the opera - even before she knew the plot. She thought she knew every opera. But she had never heard of Maritana.
As concierge Kendal Sims spoke, Priscilla's mind raced. A young soprano. A handsome knight, or student, or tenor - what did it matter? Their stories were the same. She was Maritana. And Lucinda. She was the opera singer destined to sing their stories. With her daughter's help, Priscilla tracked down a copy of the score.
She had a vision: an epic show, performed in the great hall of the hotel, where guests in dripping swimsuits and Bermuda shorts could bask in the music of a 19th century classic, sung by professionals, accompanied by a six-piece orchestra.
In December, she pitched a plan to the Don CeSar's marketing department. After all, the hotel's 80th birthday is 2008. All she needed, she said, was $20,000 and free rooms and meals for her cast.
The hotel declined.
Priscilla scaled back her vision. The production would be in a Presbyterian church, not the Don CeSar. Instead of a cast of professionals she would share the stage with a single mezzo-soprano, another recent widow she had met in a grief group.
Not long ago, Priscilla sent out a news release announcing a March 10 performance: " 'Internationally acclaimed soprano' Priscilla Gordon de Figols with Mary Moore at the piano, will do a 'reading of excerpts' from the opera, with interpretations of the plot."
At age 70, the widowed opera singer will become the budding gypsy girl, crooning to her handsome suitor; and she will be the ephemeral Spanish soprano, enchanting the man who would build her a monument. On the stage of that Gulfport church, she will be Maritana and Lucinda, more real than either ever was. She'll sing each song to her own beloved tenor.
She'll tell the love story, in three acts, spanning three centuries: the Don CeSar story.
And for the first time in 50 years, she'll sing solo.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825. Times researchers Caryn Baird and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.
- - -If you go
On Monday, de Figols will perform songs from the opera at the Gulfport Presbyterian Hall, 5314 27th Ave. S. Tickets are $20 in advance, $35 at the door. To reserve a ticket, call (727) 343-1981.