Story by Nell Campbell and photographs by Hal Boucher
This December marks Hal Boucher’s 66th year as the photographer for the Biltmore (Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara). Born in Flint, Michigan in 1926, his birth coincided with the construction of the Reginald Johnson-designed hotel, which opened on December 16, 1927. Johnson was the architect for several notable Santa Barbara buildings, including Bellosguardo (the Huguette Clark estate), Miraflores (now Music Academy of the West), Cate School and the Santa Barbara post office on Anacapa Street, his final commission in 1937.
As a very young boy, Boucher’s interest in photography was inspired by the photographs in LIFE magazine, especially images by Margaret Bourke-White, which he kept in scrapbooks. “Photography has been a passion of mine since I was eight years old, when my mother gave me my first camera. As a teenager working for the Flint newspapers, I would regularly cut classes to look for an unusual shot to be published in the paper,” he says.
After finishing high school, Boucher was drafted into the Army during the Battle of the Bulge. He was assigned to Infantry Training Replacement School in Texas and sent to the Philippines to serve as a scout for planning the invasion of Japan. The end of the war saved Boucher from serving as a scout, but a shortage of troop ships delayed his return to the U.S. He eventually returned via a Liberty Ship in late 1946 to San Francisco. From San Francisco, Boucher had a choice of returning to Flint or any place else that he wanted to go. He chose Los Angeles and enrolled in Fred Archer Photography School. In 1947, after a year at the school, he and his roommate, Ed Schuster, a fighter pilot, learned that their credits would transfer to Brooks Institute of Photography. Brooks—then located downtown on State Street, above Kernohan’s Toy Store—was founded in 1945 after World War II, and many of the students were on the G.I. Bill. Ernie Brooks Sr. greeted the two fellows himself and enrolled them in five minutes.
On the same day as enrolling at Brooks, Boucher found a job with MacAllister Studio, where he worked 40 hours a week doing all the printing while also attending Brooks. After graduating in 1949, Boucher was hired as a photographer for the Santa Barbara News-Press—for $1.25 an hour. His first assignment was to photograph Bing Crosby, who was arriving at Stearns Wharf by boat after a hunting trip on one of the Channel Islands. Boucher was at the wharf with his Speed Graphic camera lined up for the shot when Crosby disembarked. He took one shot and was ready for a closer shot when Crosby saw his camera, blocked the lens with his hand and said, “No publicity.”
In December 1949, Boucher’s second News-Press assignment changed his life. He was sent to the Biltmore Hotel to photograph U.S. Senator William Knowland. Robert Odell, the Biltmore’s owner, offered Boucher a job as staff photographer. For five years, Boucher worked for both the Biltmore and News-Press. Sometimes he worked 100 hours a week and often did not leave the News-Press building until 3 a.m..
In 1950, the Biltmore began publishing a quarterly newsletter, “Dia y Noche.” The four-page glossy newsletter had articles and photographs of hotel guests. Photos of guests were sent to the society editors of their hometown newspapers. Odell wanted to publicize business leaders and politicians, not show business celebrities.
In spite of Odell’s wishes, Boucher did photograph many Hollywood stars who stayed at the Biltmore, including Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Gregory Peck, Candice Bergen, Ray Bolger, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner. Figures from the political realm visited the hotel as well, including Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Ronald Reagan and Earl Warren. In 1952, Boucher photographed 17-year-old King Faisal II of Iraq with a bicycle on the front lawn of the Biltmore.
Subjects from the literary and journalism world included Aldous Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut and Herb Caen. Among Boucher’s favorite clients who hired him for weddings and family photography are Brad Hall and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Cynthia Wood, and Bradford Dillman and his wife, the former Suzy Parker, who was a favorite model of photographer Richard Avedon. Parker also was the only person Boucher ever allowed to see his office at the Biltmore.
Biltmore Beach Club, later renamed Coral Casino, opened on July 24, 1937. The exclusive private club played an important role in the Santa Barbara social scene after World War II. General Manager Gilbert “Icky” Outhwaite was legendary for organizing theme parties like the aquacade party with synchronized swimmers, the blessing of the shrimp fleet party and a Venetian-themed party, complete with gondolas in the swimming pool. Boucher’s classic black and white photographs of the people, the place and the parties are now featured throughout the Coral Casino.
Boucher married Louise Heitfeld at Montecito’s Mount Carmel Church on July 5, 1952. On June 2, 1953, Boucher was photographing a minor league Dodger game at Laguna Ball Park when the announcer came on the loudspeaker and said that Louise was having a baby. Catherine was the first of their four children, followed by Carrie, Tom and Jon. In 1954, the Bouchers bought a house for $18,000 (once the servant’s quarters of the Billings estate). Louise assisted Hal with his photography business to the end and, to quote writer Nick Welsh after Louise’s death in 2013, “sat on every design review committee in city history.”
Hal continues to live in the house and work every day at the Biltmore.
The quality of Hal Boucher’s images and a lifetime spent pursuing his craft make him a living legend in the annals of Santa Barbara photographers.
Originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.