Building on a legend
’The House That Errol Flynn Built’ has a colorful history, one its new developer-owner pledges to preserve
Tucked away underneath 300-year-old oak trees, nestled serenely north of Chico between Rock Creek and Keefer Road on 250 acres, is a white “adobe” house with a red-tile roof. It could be mistaken for any of the old Spanish missions along the California coast.Until recently the building was sheltered by the shade of a half-dozen giant black-walnut trees, its walls hugged by creeping ivy. A cornucopia of fruit trees grew out back—pomegranates, apples, figs, peaches and apricots. Acres upon acres of kiwis created a vast green sea, which led to golden hay fields and water flowing over rocks. Eventually the land rose into yellow hills dotted with valley oaks, stretching as far as the eye could see.
Hidden from Keefer Road by kiwi vines and eucalyptus trees, the house goes unnoticed by casual passersby. But this house holds its secrets. Little do most Chicoans know that actor Errol Flynn stayed here in the years leading up to the filming of The Adventures of Robin Hood, and that for the past 30 years the house was owned by the family of former Playboy Playmate Barbi Benton.
This old house is special to me, for another reason: My great-grandfather C.W. Keene (granduncle of Assemblyman Rick Keene) built it in 1931, and it’s where my grandmother grew up.
So I was disturbed when I found out that last year the house and the 250 acres surrounding it had been sold to local developer Steve Schuster. The news didn’t sit well with me—the fate of my family’s history and of the open land (once part of the original Keefer Ranch) was in the hands of someone who might tear down the old house in favor of a new one, chop down the trees to make room for landscaping, tame the wild land and all but raze the history that lives there.
So I decided to find out just what Schuster had in mind for the house. What I learned was that he indeed had big plans to change the property, but that in his own way he loved it just as much as I did.
In the early 1920s, C.W. Keene, his young wife Nadine and their baby girl Clarine came to Chico by way of San Francisco for the same reason many do: to heed the call of the great wide open and raise a family in a quieter, simpler fashion.
Keene bought 1,200 acres on what his friends in the city derisively called “a pile of rocks.” When the Keenes arrived in the heat of late May, they found little more than wild country and an old farmhouse on stilts with pigs wallowing in the mud underneath.
Nadine (who was John Sutter’s great-grandniece) had been raised in a Roman Catholic convent in downtown San Francisco and married at the age of 13. She had to learn quickly how to live off her land. With a horse and wagon, traveling to the grocery store was an arduous journey, so she farmed vegetables, planted fruit trees, and learned how to use a gun.
Nadine’s younger daughter, also named Nadine but called “Babe,” remembers: “She used to lie out there with her .22 in the reeds by the pond and wait for those rabbits to come down for a drink. Then she’d pop ’em off one at a time. She became a real good shot.”
In the beginning, C.W. tried raising turkeys, but they all died (including a whole cart full in a wagon accident). Nadine, on the other hand, found some success when she discovered that potatoes grew well on a little hill she named Potato Island. Eventually she had enough to trade for sacks of produce that came in on “the steamer” via the Sacramento River in Marysville.
The trip to Marysville took three days in their horse-drawn wagon. In the summer, they endured the valley heat and dust; in winter, they suffered through driving rain and the chill of tule fog. They slept on the road, with only the protection of the wagon. The two little girls would fuss and whine, suffering from hay fever in the spring and colds in the winter.
When they finally arrived in Marysville, they’d stay at a dingy place Nadine called “the flophouse"—a big room with rows of cots. C.W. would go out at night and play poker, while the girls rested up for the long journey back to Chico. All of this for groceries.
At the onset of the Great Depression, the Keenes became very wealthy. C.W. had opened a furniture store in Gridley and also had become a sheep rancher, but it remains a mystery as to how they collected as much as it seems they had.
In 1931, when the old wooden farmhouse burned down, Keene designed and built the house of his dreams, with decorative oak specially ordered from San Francisco, an industrial-sized wood stove from Chicago, a cold storage room powered by a rooftop Chicago Aeromotor windmill and insulated by concrete walls a foot thick, and a living room as elegant as any one would find in Hollywood. “That darn living room,” Babe recalled, “was big enough to have a ballroom dance in.”
Whether they knew it then or not, the Keenes’ life would soon become very glamorous indeed.
In 1937, actor Errol Flynn came to Chico to film The Adventures of Robin Hood. But many people didn’t know that he had already spent several years enjoying the refreshing waters (and other liquids) up at the Richardson Springs Resort, where my grandmother Clarine, then a tall, gorgeous teenager, worked as a singing waitress. Apparently Clarine made quite an impression on Flynn, for he was soon spending a lot of time at the Keene ranch.
C.W. Keene, always the charmer, brought out his finest bottle of whiskey for Flynn, and the two men—sharing their love of liquor and beautiful women—became fast friends. C.W. and Flynn passed the time hunting for deer on the ranch or cruising Bidwell Park on horseback, flirting with young ladies and inviting them back to the house for dinner parties.
(In an exhibit on the filming of Robin Hood, the Chico Museum featured a picture of Flynn at the Keenes’ house, his drink resting on a baby-grand piano. The picture is now missing, but the Keenes’ granddaughter Patricia Walters, of Durham, recalls that the stain left by Flynn’s glass was no laughing matter to Nadine, who never forgave Flynn for ruining her piano.)
Babe, the younger daughter, was around 10 when Robin Hood was filmed. Because her older sister worked at Richardson Springs, Babe got to spend the summer out there, hobnobbing with Hollywood. She “got kind of spoiled,” she said, playing the piano for the cast and crew. They’d watch movies on the outdoor screen, play shuffleboard, and have dances in the ballroom.
“Sometimes I wish I could go back to those days,” she said. About Flynn, she says he was very nice, but “he couldn’t be bothered by a little kid like me. So I’d just look at him.”
Some years ago, before she died, I had a conversation with Clarine about a story my dad always told me. “Grandma,” I ventured, “I heard Errol Flynn gave you a hundred-dollar tip.”
She hooted and cackled, and after a long drag on her long cigarette replied, “Oh, honey, he gave me a lot more than that!” and continued giggling like a schoolgirl.
I was surprised and confused by her reaction, and I realized that there was a whole lot more to that story. Grandma, like the house she grew up in, held her secrets well, and she didn’t explain her strange reaction. So I asked others in my family, and they laughed at me. “Didn’t you know,” they said, “that she and Errol had a thing going?”
I’d thought she was just his waitress; I had no idea she was his mistress. It was then that I learned about Flynn’s weakness for very young women—Clarine was no exception.
In addition to the stain Flynn left on Nadine’s piano, his womanizing and drinking were no fun for the mother of two girls, especially when her husband was behaving no better than his friend.
C.W. took to driving around town in his white Cadillac convertible accompanied by a cute young woman in a nurse’s outfit. He told everyone he needed her by his side because of “a bad heart.”
Nadine moved out and took Babe with her. The Keenes began divorce proceedings in the year following the filming of Robin Hood, and in 1939 they were officially divorced. Clarine, after making an impromptu marriage to a truck driver, also moved out of the house. C.W. married his “nurse,” and by the mid-1960s he, too, abandoned the Keefer house, leaving nothing but memories.
In 1969, Dr. Marvin Klein, an obstetrician from Carmichael, purchased the Keene house, along with 250 open acres, in order to fulfill his late wife Helen’s dream of farming kiwis (she called them her “babies") and to share it with his two children, one of whom is Barbi Benton. (Barbara Klein’s stage name was chosen from a list of “suitable” options given her by an agent in 1970, when she appeared in the German movie How Did a Nice Girl Like You Get in This Business?)
Benton, who was the longtime companion of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner, used her celebrity to drum up business for the Emerald C Kiwi Corp. She appeared fruit-in-hand on talk shows hosted by Dinah Shore, George Hamilton and Joey Bishop and filmed promotional spots for Kiwi Growers of California.
Klein had only recently started his medical practice when he purchased the Keefer Road estate and didn’t have money to throw around; however, with 65 acres of kiwis to plant, he had a lot of expenses and a lot of work to do.
In order to produce good fruit, Klein told me during a phone interview, one male kiwi plant must accompany every six or seven females. He couldn’t get what he needed in the U.S., so Klein traveled to New Zealand to bring back live cuttings. And when the first crop was finally harvested, five years after planting, it yielded only 36 kiwis.
For 35 years, Klein and his merry band of farmers worked the land at the Emerald C Kiwi farm, while Klein grew his medical practice in Carmichael and earned enough money to build two hospitals and a medical center. He never did live in the house, instead hiring a couple to tend to it and manage the farm.
One day, about a decade ago, Klein needed some work done on the roof. By happenstance, local roofer John Miskella, Babe’s son, got the call to come out and fix “the house that Errol Flynn built.” Recounting the event, Miskella laughed. “Errol Flynn didn’t build that house,” he said, “My grandfather, C.W. Keene, did.”
For the past 30 years, people have been driving up to the house and asking, “Is this the house that Errol Flynn built?” No one knows who started the rumor, but Miskella has a guess: “Sounds like a smart real estate agent who fed someone a good line of shit.”
While Benton made a fortune in the movies and magazines, the kiwi business never provided a substantial income. As Klein says, “there’s no money in kiwis, really.” But with 40,000 plants, Emerald C played in the big league of kiwi farming. According to Klein, wholesale prices peaked 10 years ago, when kiwis sold for 60 cents per pound; now, he says, you’re lucky to get 20 cents per pound.
Last year, developer Steve Schuster, of Schuster Homes, purchased the 250-acre ranch on Keefer Road, original house included, and filed a plan with Butte County proposing a subdivision called, fittingly, Emerald Sea.
Schuster has been building in and around Chico for 22 years, ever since he came here to attend Chico State at age 18. But if there are “always builders that make everybody look bad because they just build junk,” Schuster said, he “only builds middle- to high-end stuff.” Emerald Sea promises to be anything but cheap. And this time, Schuster is adding a very personal touch: he plans to live there. Not in his development, but on the 77 acres he is reserving just up the hill, on a lake, “up by itself.”
Schuster is a man who appreciates open space. He gave me a tour of the property, ending at “the lake” (a reservoir for irrigation built some time before the Keenes’ residency). “I bring my son fishing here,” he said. “This is where I thought was beautiful.” He admired his unblemished view of golden pastures dotted with valley oaks and said blissfully, “I love the view up here. I love the pond. It is … awesome.”
Simply talking about this land gave Schuster a youthful glow. His wolf-dog Sashi ran to the lake’s edge and plunged in. “Are you a happy dog, Sashi?” he asked, his smile suggesting the feeling was shared.
To my relief, Schuster said he did not consider the Keene house “a teardown.” (Just hearing that word sends chills up my spine). On the contrary, he has already moved his family into it and restored it to its original glory, adding modern gadgets and improving existing architecture along the way.
As far as long-term plans for the house, he said he hopes to keep it for the rest of his life. He loves it there.
We talked about Errol Flynn and how he partied in what is now Schuster’s elegant living room. “The good old days,” Schuster commented, as his angelic toddler son tried to show me something he made.
We talked about the dam up on Rock Creek that still has to be controlled by hand and the “spider web of pipes and gate valves” that Francisco “Poncho” Martinez, Emerald C’s farmhand since 1979, controls. “Without him,” Schuster confessed, “we wouldn’t have a kiwi farm.”
Schuster has officially joined the ranks of North Valley farmers. “Last year we had a great year,” he boasted. “We had 5 million kiwis.” He said his kiwi sales make up 1 percent of the entire U.S. kiwi stock, and that “if you buy kiwis at Costco, there’s a one-in-10 chance that every kiwi you buy comes from this farm.” Even so, he “didn’t make any money at it.”
He said he doesn’t plan on keeping all 65 acres of kiwis, but he’ll plant 25 acres of grapes and eventually hopes to have a vineyard. Nothing major, he said: “It would be a small deal, because it’s Chico.”
For the housing project, he proposes a circular drive around which “middle- to high-end” homes will be built.
“How many?” I asked, petrified.
“I think there’s 24,” he said. (He’s sought permission from Butte County to build 34.) “We’re doing a gated community. You’ll drive in through the vineyard, so it’s not going to feel like you’re driving into a subdivision.”
He hopes the Keene house will eventually become a tasting house for the winery when he moves up by the lake.
As our tour neared its end, I was worried about my great-grandmother’s fruit trees and afraid to ask what would happen to them. But Schuster surprised me by pointing out each and every one of them, naming them as he did so.
"[The apples] hadn’t been pruned, so we pruned them all back hard. We’re going to have a bigger garden next year,” he said, then pointed to a giant oak tree in his backyard. “That’s at least 300 years old.”
“Wasn’t there another huge one right in front of the kitchen?” I asked, recalling a tree that towered far above the house.
“Oh. Yeah. That was just a black walnut.” There were a half-dozen or so more of them in the backyard, but they were removed to make room for a swimming pool. (The pool was the only feature of the property he avoided showing me.)
I asked my family what they thought of Schuster’s plan. They were ambivalent.
“I think he’s in it for his own monetary benefit,” John Miskella said, “but you can’t blame the guy. If our family had stuck together, this wouldn’t have happened. I suppose if we were in his shoes, we’d do the same thing. I’m OK with it—as long as they don’t build a Kmart.”
Rick Keene, who didn’t know anything about the house until I called him, is excited to have some of his newly discovered roots preserved. “I’m thrilled that the house is still there,” he said. “I’ll have to go out and see it.”
Babe, who lives in a mobile-home park on Lassen Avenue, took a drive down Keefer Road 13 years ago to view the property and hasn’t been back since.
“All that development just makes me so sick,” she complained. “Now they’re building more? It’s already developed clear down to the hay field, down to the creek, across the creek. They’re absolutely ruining all that open space.I remember it as a little girl. … I remember Mama and Papa clearing rocks out of those fields. … Now every inch there’s a house.”
But she had a confession: “That’s an awful big house. I never liked it.”
The big, white house on Keefer Road, the home where my grandmother grew up, the house that Errol Flynn did not build, now belongs to the future. It has seen a small family struggle and played host to Hollywood, survived Chico’s hot summers and kept its guests warm and dry in winter. Part of Chico’s history is preserved in that house, and some of my family’s, too. The land around it has been tilled, sown, trodden, and now it could be built upon. The house, at least, will live into the future as a reminder of our past.