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.
And 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 in the midst of 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 — mud slides 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, Jeff Bridges, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Stewart and Rob Lowe either live there or own part-time homes there. Acclaimed chef Julia Child lived there late in life.
“I have a very pleasant existence in Montecito,” Dick Wolf, the 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.
And about 90 miles (145 kilometers) southeast lies 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 stars. While it has grown, it has also 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 wealthy — the median home price among current listings is more than $4 million.
“Most of those homes, I would say, do not have flood insurance,” Kelly Mahan Herrick, a local real estate agent, told NBC News. “This is the most catastrophic thing we have been through.”