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June 08, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Close of Hyatt Rickey's sends groups to new locations Close of Hyatt Rickey's sends groups to new locations (June 08, 2005)

For years, hotel was at the heart of the community

by Jocelyn Dong

When Hyatt Rickey's shuts down for good next week, it'll be closing the doors on nearly six decades of Palo Alto history.

The sprawling hotel on 15.84-acres of land along El Camino Real is being demolished to make way for 185 homes.

Rickey's has seen it all over the years: President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore stayed there, as did numerous celebrities, including entire NFL football teams. Athletes like Jesse Owens and Willie Mays attended awards ceremonies at Rickey's, and community groups -- the Chamber of Commerce, the YMCA -- regularly hosted their Tall Tree and Red Triangle dinners there. High school clubs celebrated the year's end at the garden-style facility, and a nonprofit used the resort for its annual "Festival of Trees" holiday fundraiser.

In its heyday, when people thought of community functions, they thought of Rickey's.

The hotel also hosted conventions for a broad range of groups -- gay rodeo riders, string-picking banjo players, knife collectors, and law librarians.

"It has to be thousands and thousands" of organizations, said Rickey's General Manager Michael Abney.

One of the mainstays, however, has been the Palo Alto Rotary Club, which has been meeting at Rickey's since 1948. For that group, "Mondays at Rickey's" became a Palo Alto tradition. This Monday, the Rotarians paid tribute to the hotel at their weekly meeting, recalling the good old days when lunches were just $2.

"It's been such a part of the community's life," said Stephen Player, associate director of planned giving for Stanford University and a former Stanford football player. "Anytime any big event happened, it would be at Rickey's."

Pam Brandin, the club's president, recalled that Rickey's founder John Rickey used to be a Rotarian. She complimented the staff for being "incredibly generous partners."

"We're just heartbroken they're closing," she said.

More than being a mere meeting place, the hotel represented friendships formed and relationships cultivated, another Rotarian said.

In more recent years the hotel lost its earlier cache, ceasing to be the focal point it once was as groups chose other venues, sometimes in other cities. But to the end, the Rickey's staff seemed to endear themselves to their guests nonetheless.

In April, the Northern California Association of Law Libraries, a chapter of the American Association of Law Libraries, held a two-day continuing education conference there. Chapter President Pam Rino had just five months to pull together an event that normally takes one year of planning. Rickey's staff helped immensely, she said.

"We had a positive experience with them. ... They had every piece in place for me," said the librarian, who works at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. Rickey's closing "is a real loss."

She also praised the resort's relaxed feel.

"It's really a unique space; it's a very old -style set up. It gives you an opportunity to walk around. It doesn't make you feel trapped ... in windowless, airless rooms," Rino said.

For Jim Strickland, president of the Peninsula Banjo Band, Rickey's is the place where he discovered the current love of his life: banjo playing.

It was at Rickey's in 1996 that he attended the Annual Banjo Jubilee, a five-hour fast-fingered banjo concert, which draws upward of 750 fans. He was hooked.

One of Strickland's fondest memories happened the year the crowd exceeded expectations. The hotel had to roll back the room divider and give the band the whole ballroom. "It was the first time that happened," Strickland said. "We felt great."

In recent years, Hyatt Rickey's entered into a protracted debate with neighbors and the city over its plans for expansion. That process left a bitter taste in some people's mouths -- which has also become a part of Rickey's legacy.

"Man, there's no chance I'm going to buy real estate in Palo Alto, the way they treated Rickey's," said Floyd Oatman, a former president of the band.

Oatman compliments the hotel staff for helping his group find a new venue for their annual event, which had already been booked at Rickey's for Sept. 18. The concert will now take place at the Hyatt's San Jose hotel, and Oatman said the company even reimbursed him for fliers and other materials he'd produced prior to knowing Rickey's was closing.

Likewise, the Bay Area Knife Collectors Association had to relocate its annual fall conference. They stayed in the area, however, moving across the street to the Crowne Plaza Cabana -- with Rickey's help, said event coordinator Doug Isaacson.

Even on the eve of the hotel's closure, one annual ritual still will take place. Parents of Stanford students will flock to the hotel this weekend, in town for graduation. Rickey's is booked solid, according to Michael Abney.

Next Monday, the Rotary Club will have its last meeting at the resort. In July, the group will gather at a restaurant at the Palo Alto Golf Course and in August, they'll try out Ming's. Senior Staff Writer Jocelyn Dong can be reached at jdong@paweekly.com.


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