HOMER, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – This is the tale of a special guest, one of the most recognizable men in America, one of the last people you’d expect to spend the night in simple, no-frills accommodations in Homer, Louisiana in 1958.
The story begins when Claiborne Hotel Courts opened in June of 1949 on the main thoroughfare through Homer and was thereafter sold to John and Rae Malone around the year 1953.
The clean, well-maintained property with a small, manicured lawn on U.S. Highway 79 typified the “motor hotel,” a relatively new invention as an alternative to the traditional hotel. Guests could park right outside their doors, a convenient and economical perk for frugal families traveling with a carload of kids and a pile of luggage.
Known for its restaurant serving steaks and home-cooked meals, Claiborne Courts served as a popular meeting place for civic groups and one of Homer’s best places for lunch after church. For years, the Malones ran a weekly newspaper ad inviting inspections of their kitchen at any time.
The motel’s 17 guest rooms hosted scores of traveling businessmen and vacationing families.
But our tale is of one special guest in particular.
“When I was four years old, I remember a man checking in for a room who patted me on the head, telling Dad I was a fine-looking boy,” John Malone, Jr. recalls. “Dad said to me, ‘Johnny, he is a famous Hollywood movie star.’ He told Dad he needed a good night’s sleep and asked him not to tell anyone he was staying here.”
The man gave John Malone, Sr. a $100 bill for the night. A typical roadside motel room at the time ran about $3-5 nightly.
The “famous Hollywood movie star” was none other than the legendary John Wayne.
At the height of his career at the time, Wayne was in Louisiana filming “The Horse Soldiers,” a film based on a true behind-enemy-lines dash through Mississippi during the Civil War. It depicted Grierson’s Raid, which charged down the length of Mississippi, disrupting Confederate transportation and communication.
The extensive publicity by Louisiana newspapers, the hordes of adoring fans, and numerous public appearances were enough to exhaust anyone. Wayne attended parties, receptions, dances, press conferences, and other events in addition to the film work.
Malone gave Wayne room 17, the closest to the front office and the small room where Malone spent many nights waiting for late-night customers. He was close enough to intervene if anyone approached Wayne’s room.
The next day Wayne was gone, back to working on his movie with costars William Holden and the beautiful Constance Towers.
The movie makers filmed in Louisiana from October to December 1958. Director John Ford shot exterior scenes in Natchitoches Parish along the banks of Cane River and in and around Natchez, Mississippi. The film company built a bridge over the river for the final scene, and many locals worked as extras.
Holden and Wayne both received $750,000 for their roles, record salaries at the time. Cost overruns, conflict, and tragedy plagued the project. Holden and John Ford argued incessantly. During a battle scene, veteran stuntman Fred Kennedy, a frequent player in both Ford and Wayne films, suffered a broken neck and died while performing a horse fall.
Meanwhile, Malone, Sr. did not reveal the secret of John Wayne’s visit to the hotel. Not that day, or the next, or the next. In fact, he never told anyone outside the family of the unlikely visitor.
Maybe it was a reluctance to brag, or adherence to a hotelier’s code that information about customers was confidential.
“My Dad did not even tell my mother until John Wayne had checked out,” says John, Jr.
The Malone family doesn’t know how Wayne chose Claiborne Courts.
“I think he just wanted to get away from all the movie work and people,” says John Malone, Jr. He was likely in Shreveport and drove out for about an hour and ended up in Homer.”
Malone says Wayne was not the only celebrity to stop at Claiborne Courts.
“In 1977, my Dad had a heart attack, so my brother Max and I dropped out of Louisiana Tech to run Claiborne Courts,” John said. “Each day after the lunch rush, we would take turns going to the bank. I headed to the bank one day as a bus turned in. I got back about an hour later and found the employees all excited. I asked Max what happened. He asked if I had ever heard of the Commodores.”
John knew the music of the funk, soul, and pop band well. The group was topping the charts in 1977 with several top-ten hits. Max Malone apparently wasn’t into the music scene like John.
“Max told me they had just left after eating in our restaurant. He had no clue who they were. I told them they sang ‘Brick House,’ but he was still clueless.”
Wayne and Towers made a quick trip back to Shreveport for the John Wayne film premiere in June of 1959. But instead of capitalizing on a “John Wayne slept here” promotional ploy, the Malones continued quietly running their business.
John and wife Rae operated Claiborne Courts for 24 years. John, Sr. died in 1980, and Rae lived another 20 years.