As Christmas approaches each year, Rick Hume can think back to a time when he and several of his college buddies were welcomed at a California inn and given an opportunity to share the marvelous story of Jesus’ birth through song.
It all happened just before Christmas in 1975. Hume was singing in a group called Sounds of Grace, comprised of college students from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly-SLO) along the central California coast and the non-denominational Grace Church.
The group was caroling outside a local mall, the Madonna Plaza shopping center, on a cold, wintry night. Shivering in the freezing conditions, the traveling troupe moved to the entrance of a hotel along U.S. Route 101 known to many in California: the Madonna Inn.
The Madonna Inn, founded in 1958, can be found between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It grew from 12 rooms when first built to 40 in two years and was expanded to 110 uniquely themed rooms after it was destroyed by fire in 1966. Today, visitors can stay in rooms with distinct themes such as the Fabulous Fifties, Safari, Just Heaven or Caveman, to name a few, each decorated to fit its motif.
It just so happened that the Madonna Inn was owned by Alex and Phyllis Madonna, who also owned the shopping center.
Time to come inside
Standing in front of the hotel adorned in pink with its Swiss-Alps exterior (the Madonna family loved the color pink), Hume and the chorale group of about eight students sang carol after carol for guests of the inn as they walked from their cars to their rooms or those who stopped in to eat at one of the restaurants.
As Hume recalls, Phyllis Madonna came out after a time and invited the Christy Minstrel wannabes inside, asking them to sing for the dinner patrons in the pink dining room. Happy to be out of the cold, Hume said the group agreed, and like the Von Trapp children from “The Sound of Music,” they stood on the steps overlooking the dining room, singing their carols.
Mrs. Madonna took her newfound minstrels downstairs to one of the shuttered restaurants where she fed them hamburgers, malts and desserts that remained from the pastry shop.
Another opportunity to sing
After feeding the group, Mrs. Madonna asked them to sing again at a later date only to more people. She wanted them to sing for the entire town of San Luis Obispo.
“You know we have this mountain behind the hotel. Would you be willing to meet next Saturday up at the top? We’ll provide some microphones and speakers, and you can sing your Christmas carols to entire town,” Hume recalled Mrs. Madonna saying to Sounds of Grace.
Being college students, they did not give the offer much thought and agreed to sing the next week. The following Saturday, without advertisement or warning, Sounds of Grace sang Christmas carols to the town, further expanding a ministry that saw them sing at churches, prisons and on a local radio station in San Luis Obispo.
“We didn’t know what would happen. We were just singing Christmas carols,” said Hume, now an elder at Laguna Beach Presbyterian Church. “We were just delighted someone wanted to listen to us.”
Singing at the Madonna Inn and from the mountain towering above it was no small feat at that time. Hume noted that it was a big deal in the 1970s. The inn was a place everyone knew about as a honeymoon destination, a place to eat or spend the night, or as a tourist attraction for the many people who wanted to stop in just to take a quick peek at the unique rock waterfall urinal in the men’s restroom.
“We certainly knew of it as students. It was a fancy hotel, and a lot of people stayed there,” Hume said. “We were a conservative group that sang mostly a cappella, and we were performing at a time when Christian music really was starting to take off.”
Recalling a time of growth
Hume noted that being part of the school of architecture at Cal Poly-SLO certainly was demanding, but he always made time to be part of church activities and perform with Sounds of Grace.
“That was as much a part of my education and growth as anything,” Hume said. “It was good for me. It’s a shame when people don’t have time to involve themselves with those kinds of extracurricular activities.”
Not only did he sing with the group, Hume also served as its chaplain, often delivering a message when the performances were finished. Some were in churches and others were for civic organizations. Sounds of Grace performed in prisons, and Hume gave one message that was heard by Charles “Tex” Watson, a central member of Charles Manson’s “Family” involved in the murders of seven people on back-to-back nights in 1969.
“It helped mold me to be the Christian I am today,” Hume said of the opportunity to be part of a group sharing the Gospel through music and the preached Word. “It really helped me learn more about leadership, how we can provide the Gospel message to those who have heard it and are blessed by it but also to those people who were unchurched.”
Today, Hume is a landscape architect, and his days of singing publicly have, for the most part, come to an end.
“I still do when asked but that’s not so much who I am these days,” he said, noting the message of God delivered through song remains a powerful way to share Scripture.
As a member of the Cal Poly-SLO College of Architecture and Environmental Design Board of Directors, Hume has to attend meetings at the San Luis Obispo campus from time to time. His trip of some 250 miles and five hours from Laguna Beach takes him right by the Madonna Inn and the mountain he and the rest of Sounds of Grace sang from nearly 40 years ago.
Hume said he heard that singing carols from the hills overlooking the Madonna Inn had become a tradition, but that might just be hearsay. Though not sure of that himself, he said the experience nearly 40 years ago made an impact in his life, one he fondly recalls these days.
“That particular experience was one of many that affected my life in such a positive way. God uses such experiences to help make us who we are, and that was one I’ll never forget,” Hume said. “The fact that Mrs. Madonna asked us to sing on her mountain, that’s something I’ll away cherish. To be a part of that blessing at that time, it was certainly exciting and fulfilling to be part of that.”