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Tuesday September 25th, 2018 7:02PM

California's Montecito has drawn celebrities since Chaplin

By The Associated Press
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Montecito, the California coastal enclave devastated by this week's deadly mudslides, is known as Oprah's hometown. But it was Charlie Chaplin, the biggest star of another era, who helped make it a haven for celebrities.

At the height of his fame in 1928, Chaplin led a small group of investors who built the Montecito Inn, which he called "the cream of the coast," a posh getaway two blocks from the Pacific Ocean that became a local landmark. In its lobby is a life-sized statue of Chaplin.

Since early Tuesday, like much of the rest of Montecito, the statue has been knee-deep in mud.

The deadly mudslides that ravaged the town came a month after a massive wildfire drove many residents from their homes and blackened the nearby mountains. With no vegetation left to absorb the rain, the slides came quickly amid a torrential downpour.

At least 17 people died and about 500 homes were damaged or destroyed. The stark images of streets filled with boulders, downed trees, wrecked cars and obliterated houses generated international attention and sympathy to the community of 9,000 people that in normal times values its privacy.

Tennis legend Jimmy Connors was among those who were stranded and had to be airlifted from the area by the Coast Guard.

"Montecito — fires burn — rain comes — mudslides and devastation — evacuated today by helicopter — thoughts and prayers for all!!!" Connors tweeted.

Oprah Winfrey, fresh off a Golden Globes speech that inspired calls for her to run for president, posted Instagram photos of the shin-deep mud in her yard and video of rescue helicopters flying overhead.

She is a star among stars in the town that is teeming with them. Ellen DeGeneres, Al Gore, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Stewart and Rob Lowe either live or own part-time homes there.

"I have a very pleasant existence in Montecito," Dick Wolf, creator of the "Law & Order" television empire, told The Associated Press in 2014.

Nearly a century ago, Chaplin made his first visit and fell in love with the area and its Mediterranean climate, ocean views and canyon serenity.

Just to the north are hot springs that had been treasured for centuries by the native Chumash Indians, Spanish settlers, and starting in 1855, a handful of wealthy Americans who thought they had healing power.

To the south is the Pacific Ocean and to the west is Santa Barbara and its city amenities.

About 90 miles (145 kilometers) southeast is Los Angeles, where Chaplin, his fellow Montecito Inn investor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and other silent-film stars worked.

These are the same features that make the area so appealing for modern celebrities. While it has grown, it also has resisted growth — shunning excessive development, billboards and fast food outlets. Its downtown is a small collection of bistros and boutiques.

In 1942, Chaplin, age 53, married 18-year-old Oona O'Neill in a Montecito wedding that both dazzled and scandalized the country.

Since then, Kim Kardashian West, Melissa Etheridge and Jessica Simpson are among the many who have had Montecito weddings.

The town has resisted annexation by Santa Barbara, instead remaining unincorporated. Its population is mostly older and overwhelmingly white. And it's wealthy — the median home price among current listings is more than $4 million.

While most homeowners have fire insurance, very few typically have flood insurance, Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams said. Officials urged them to get it as the storm bore down, though only a handful did.

Jeff Bridges, among the town's famous residents, said his house took a hit.

"Our home has been severely damaged, but we are safe, and so thankful for that and for the first responders who are working tirelessly to save people," Bridges tweeted Thursday. "We are heartbroken over the loss of lives in our community. Your prayers and best wishes are most appreciated."

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