The Panama Canal Review - November 2, 1956
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"Mrs. Roosevelt and I think it advisable for several reasons to go to (the) hotel," said the cabled message from the President of the United States one October day, 50 years ago.

No major crisis would occur here today if a President declined an invitation to be the Governor's houseguest and indicated his preference for the Tivoli Guest House - but this is 1956 and the Roosevelt cable was sent in 1906.

The Tivoli - the hotel of the message - was nearly completed but not all of its equipment had arrived. Its permanent manager had not been selected and it was not staffed to serve ordinary guests, much less a President of the United States who was breaking precedent by leaving the country during his term of office.

Somehow or other things worked out, and when President Theodore Roosevelt and his party stepped onto the wide front porch of the Hotel Tivoli on November 15, 1906, there was a suite waiting for them directly above what is now the Fern Room.

Actually the President and Mrs. Roosevelt spent very few hours at the hotel or in their suite. Luncheon had been prepared for them at the Tivoli for the day of their arrival but it was long after lunchtime when the President and his party finally arrived.

They had come ashore at Cristobal's flag-decked Pier 11 from the USS Louisiana, the country's "biggest and newest man-of-war," that morning, crossed the Isthmus in the old De Lesseps special car La France, and had left the train near the Tivoli at a special station - so that the President could disembark in Canal Zone territory.

Instead of going to the hotel, they had headed directly for La Boca where, after a cruise aboard the tug Bolivar past the islands at the Pacific terminal, the President and Mrs, Roosevelt had dropped in at an employees' mess for luncheon. An enthusiastic reception in Panama City, speeches from a stand in front of the Cathedral, a dinner at the Presidencia, and an evening reception at the Commercial Club had filled the rest of the day.

The old records don't show it, but it must be assumed that the Roosevelts had breakfast at the Tivoli the next morning before "Teddy" began his first day "on the line" in a pouring downpour which put two feet of water on the shop floors at Bas Matachin. It is certain that he met that night at the Tivoli with "our leading officials" - as the invitations were worded to such dignitaries as Chief Justice Mutis Furan, Superintendent of Schools C.C. O'Connor, and Chief Sanitary Officer Col. W.C. Gorgas.

It is also probable that the President breakfasted at the Tivoli on November 17 before he took off again along the line, "dressed in a negligee white suit, khaki leggings, and a Panama hat," for a day which did not end until late that evening when, after a speech in Mt. Hope and two in Cristobal, he finally boarded the launch for the Louisiana.

Most Zonians believe that the President and Mrs. Roosevelt were the Tivoli's first guests. Actually they were preceded by several days by the Chairman of the Isthmian Canal Commission, Theodore P. Shonts, Mrs. Shonts, and their two daughters; by Joseph Bucklin Bishop, the Commission's Secretary; Reed B. Rogers, its General Counsel, and Mrs. Rogers - all of whom were guests at the hotel.

After the departure of the President's party and the Commission officials, things calmed down for a while a the Tivoli and preparations continued for its opening to the public. In December a group of U.S. Congressmen arrived, to spend what contemporary journalists called "Roosevelt days," looking over the Canal work.

Although they had apparently been having a strenuous time, the Congressmen were not so worn out that they could not attend a New Year's Eve dance, given at the Tivoli by the Culebra Club. This first public function - as near a formal opening as the Tivoli ever had - drew a crowd of nearly 500 and was the fore-runner of the many gay balls and parties of the next half century.

Later, the Tivoli Club was formed and from towns along the line came the younger Zonians for its parties, on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month. The girls, dressed in party gowns and carrying their dancing-slippers in fancy bags, came to town in labor cars and each girl, old-timers declared, had at least three chaperones!

Fred DeV. Sill, well-known old-timer, recalls that when rooms were scarce on weekends the men from Culebra and Empire and Gorgona thought nothing of stretching out on Tivoli billiard tables to spend the night.

It was at one of the Tivoli dances, in 1908, that the daughter of the American Minister slipped out of the ballroom, while the band played a "bunny hug," and, in a room in the north wing, was married to Adm. Harry H. Rousseau. A few minutes later she was dancing again; it was not until several days later that the marriage was revealed.

The first register of the old hotel, like the plaque which once decorated the "Roosevelt Suite," has disappeared, but a good many of its guests will long be remembered.

There was the Prince of Wales, now the Duke of Windsor. Martin L. Richards, Chief Pantryman at the Tivoli and the hotel's senior employ, remembers peeping at the Prince's party during a formal dinner on the second-floor porch. He doesn't think he will ever forget the "men in uniform, with many medals, and the lovely ladies."

There was young Charles Lindbergh, here with his Congressman father when he was only 11 years old. He registered himself, and his childish signature is one of the Tivoli's prizes.

There was John Barrymore during the early 1930's. Kenneth O. Sealey, who has been at the Tivoli for 35 years and is now its telephone operator, recalls that Barrymore tipped him $5 for a bottle-opener that had cost 10 cents.

There were the "Duke and Duchess of Balboa" - Mr and Mrs. Theodore McGinniss - who lived in the "Roosevelt suite" for many years. There was E.W. Scripps, founder of the Scripps-Howard newspapers, here on his yacht. He ensured good service by distributing $10 gold pieces in advance to the Tivoli staff. The service,  R.K. Morris remembers, was excellent.

There was another heavy tipper, a man remembered by the staff only as a Mr. Alves, a British mining operator. Telephone operator Sealey, however, amazingly recalls that he was in room 140. He drank quantities of Vichy water and rewarded good service with $5 and $10 tips.

There have been movie actors, generals, congressmen, admirals, and just plain tourists. (For years the Tivoli served luncheon to several hundred every time a cruise ship put into port.) There were politicians refugees; at one time, four ex-presidents of Panama were refuged there.

During the war years, the Pergola Bar was crowded with intelligence agents, each trying to find out what the other knew, newspapermen, who were doing their best to sort fact from fiction, and contractors, each trying to find out what his rival was likely to bid.

The Hotel Tivoli was started during the latter half of 1905. It was built, according to a letter from Governor Magoon to ICC Chairman Shonts, "to supply quarters for the employees in and about Panama and while the building is adapted to commercial purposes, that use should be made secondary to the use for which it was erected . . . It is desirable that some of the rooms should be reserved for visitors to the Isthmus who have some claims upon the Commission and possibly open to the general public."

Originally designed for "metal and plaster," the hotel was changed to a frame structure with a brick center-section - recently uncovered when the building was redecorated - when Chief Engineer John F. Stevens ordered that "no money be spent on frills." The central rear three-story wing was added in 1911, at the same time the hotel was able to boast of its first elevator; hot water was piped into all bathrooms the following year and in 1913 the present porte-cochere replaced the covered front steps. What is now the Pergola Bar, originally covered with an awning, was added the same year, but did not serve liquor until 1936.

Before the hotel was finished there was talk of having it operated, "by some good hotel men" who would "take it off our hands, running it as a commercial proposition," but nothing came of it and, during the construction period, it was run by the Division of Labor, Quarters, and Subsistence.''Its first manager was Jackson Smith, head of the Division, who soon delegated his duties to J,M, McGuire, familiarly known as "Molly," Later managers included Peter Geyer, W.T. McCormack, who ran the hotel for many years, Andrew Johnston, John McEwen, James E. Lewis, Donald J. Hendrick, and P.S. Thornton. The present manager is H.J. Chase.

At the end of January 1951, the old hotel went out of business as a commercial enterprise.

Presented by CZBrats
December  21, 1998

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