Tuesday, October 19, 1999

Looking back at the misery of El Rancho

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Call it a trip down a very seedy memory lane. Or the retelling of a bad joke. But I couldn't resist snooping around the construction site on Beechmont Avenue, near Ohio 32, just before you head up the hill into Mount Washington.

        There's not much to see right now at the future site of the new Skytop Pavilion. Some brick work. Big machines. Dirt. By Feb. 1, a new Bigg's will be surrounded by Starbucks, Radio Shack, Subway and Fashion Bug.

        Meanwhile, everything there — even unfinished — looks better than the extravagantly peculiar El Rancho Rankin Motel that preceded it.

Ugly neon sprawl
        It was a two-story embarrassment of neon and a sprawl of giant, improbably-colored fiberglass animals. The 111-unit motel was green for most of its years, blue in later life. The purple bull was easily its most memorable icon, although even the bull was not as well-known or as colorful as the motel's proprietor.

        Rankin Harrison came here from Tennessee to go to barber school, later peddling a machine he claimed grew hair. He built the motel in the early 1940s and became news in 1945 when he applied for a dance hall permit. A judge denied his petition, fearing the combination of dancing, drinks and overnight accommodations was a “moral danger.”

        The colonel was a little guy who liked to live large, right up until the time he died after a stroke in August 1995. He claimed to be a Kentucky Colonel and the founder of the Honorable Order of Ohio Colonels. I asked him once for a list of the other Ohio colonels but he refused, calling it a “secret fraternal organization.”

        Instead of a list, he gave me a business card that said, “The Colonel & his award-winning team,” which pictured the colonel. Five times.

        Whatever kind of colonel he was, his command post was at his office at the motel. He liked riding around in Cadillacs towing Airstream travel trailers. “I like to go first-class.” He called his matching white Cadillacs with matching life-sized mustangs mounted on back “The Show Stoppers.”

        He used to telephone me every once in a while and sent me a Christmas card for several years. God help me, I used to think he was funny. Until I saw his customers.

        While the colonel was entertaining himself by throwing silver dollars, painted gold, along parade routes and ordering up special dining utensils — “I don't use silver, I want gold” — his place was filling up with the working poor. And however the colonel was spending his money, he was not spending it on upkeep of the premises.

A fire trap
        In May 1996, residents — about 300 men, women and children — were evicted from the motel. Judge Fred Cartolano said he weighed the “inconvenience” to residents against their safety. If the people aboard ValuJet had their choice, he said, they'd have chosen to be inconvenienced.

        It was more than inconvenient. Some of them simply didn't know where they were going to lay their heads that night. El Rancho Rankin was unlovely. But it was cheap. Units started at $340 a month. I keep remembering a 3-year-old in a pink nightshirt. I helped her find one of her Barbie barrettes, which her mother used to pull the little girl's blond hair out of her eyes. Her toys were stuffed into a green garbage bag.

        The place was a fire trap. Anderson Township Fire Chief J. Robert Brown said at the time he “would rather take the heat for closing the place down than standing out in the parking lot dragging out bodies after a fire.”

        Of course.

        Waitresses, construction workers, dishwashers, a nurse's aide, a mechanic, a truck driver, a grocery clerk loaded their stuff into cars and pickup trucks and U-Haul trailers. The working poor.

        I can't help wondering where they went.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and Insight Communications' Northern Kentucky Magazine.