Monday, April 23, 2007 | Tijuana developers are dismantling the original downtown bullring, a landmark built in 1938 on the eve of the World War II explosion in border tourism. It dates to the pre-World War II era when Americans were less worldly, little traveled and eager to view the Mexican border as a landmark rich in glamour and adventure when few Americans had yet visited a foreign land.

Long before Las Vegas became a sparkling wonder of the night world, prohibition led Southern Californians to escape on weekends to bars and bottle shops south of the border. A two-lane asphalt highway sparkled on weekend afternoons with shiny convertibles. We gawked at sporty roadsters, hoping to identify platinum blonde film actresses whose hair blew tresses in open roadsters as they made their ways to the Caliente casino and race track. Even before Las Vegas, the movie crowd had discovered Caliente as a smart and deliciously public escape on daring border weekends.

They drove down Highway 101 through 50-mile speed limits and a few clusters of stoplights, on through the villages of National City and Chula Vista. Waiting in line at the border was a part of the parade, a prelude to the inevitable gawking at the Caliente track crowd. Thoroughbreds ran there then, not dogs. Here, we reasoned, were the real playgirls and playboys of Hollywood, out on the town. San Diegans had never seen so much glitz.

In World War II and on into the ’50s, demand from the north sustained dozens of Tijuana bars and houses of prostitution, with little red lights blinking cordially in their windows. It was the movie colony’s most public escape to wickedness. When the military thronged into San Diego during World War II, the Eleventh Naval District’s military police forces added their warning posters to Navy personnel. But at the same time, being realists, Navy stations provided prophylaxis facilities, going and coming.

The Agua Caliente spa became as chic with the movie crowd of that era as Las Vegas strives to be today. Rita Hayworth was the first of the Hollywood entertainers to play Tijuana night clubs. Lana Turner made her mark too.

Caliente’s raucous attractions quickly spilled down the coast to Ensenada. Even Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe looked in, and of course were thoroughly looked at. From Los Angeles there came the weekly crowd to lay down two-dollar bets at the racetrack, to scream at the bullfights and to cavort until dawn in the casinos and in their upstairs bedrooms.

The border was flagrant and primitive. For restless Americans, simply crossing into Baja California could seem a renunciation of the Depression years.

In the 1950s, Rex Smith, a New York author, flew in on weekends to attend Tijuana bullfights; he published a scholarly book contrasting the corridas of Mexico and Spain. I even convinced my minister father, during a visit from North Carolina, that he could not gauge the depths of border depravity until he joined me in attending a bullfight. We didn’t stay past one kill. But for many tourists, those bullring afternoons seemed the essence of Mexico.

Anything or sometimes even anybody might be sold to the unrestrained Yanqui visitor, under the illusions that were flagrant in Prohibition years, especially in a site that was as difficult to reach as Caliente.

On walls of La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla, which became the chic overnight stop of the early Hollywood commutes across the border, you can still find faded images of film stars beside their open cabriolets. In registration books there you find more trails of these early movie generations, en route to the hot waters of the Agua Caliente spa and the and the croupiers of ballrooms sparkling with crystal chandeliers.

Los Angeles had not yet become a great weekend town. As long as prohibition prevailed north of the border, Baja California served as the movie colony’s Las Vegas.

Now, I’m told, a single bullring will be enough for the tourist crowd in Tijuana. I doubt that Tijuana brothels are any less thronged; instead, they have gone upscale. Tijuana police have made sidewalk solicitations less common. No one has explained this trend to me, but I deduce that the rewards of enforcement have been more widely dispersed. Mexico continues to learn from the examples of their neighbor to the north.

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