SANTA BARBARA, CA – The little real estate office opened on E. Canon Perdido Street in the go-go 1970s, when Santa Barbara was still a small community of young middle-class families, tousled surfers, and kids in cutoff shorts riding bikes along the sidewalks on either side of State Street. “The bikes were all Stingrays back then—three speeds, long seats, and handlebars up to here,” laughs Carlton Griffith, who with UCSB pal Steve Chalmers founded Doorway to Hell Realty in 1974.
It was a difficult startup.
“We were digging change out of the sofa in those first hectic months, just to pay rent on the office space,” concedes Chalmers with a smile. Last week the two longtime Santa Barbara business partners hung up the CLOSED sign for the last time. “It’s definitely bittersweet. We had a good ride.” The two gentlemen, older now, nod their heads. “And we did it our way,” says Griffith with a rueful smile.
Griffith and Chalmers worked hard to differentiate themselves from the dozens of other real estate and homebuilding outfits just then popping up in Santa Barbara like wildflowers after a spring rain. The town had been “discovered”, and would soon be branded The American Riviera. Griffith explains the prospect-pursuit model the two young entrepreneurs developed to secure their piece of the Santa Barbara market.
“We would walk the client through the property, pointing out the structural soundness, the design niceties, the views. We would tout the school district.” Griffith grows animated. “To this day the pubic schools in this town are exceptional.” One can imagine the two extolling the virtues of a property with the guileless enthusiasm of true believers in the product. Griffith continues.
“And then as the prospect was putting pen to paper, Steve would pretend to go into a trance—you know, eyes rolling back, his entire body suddenly rigid with violent spasms. Without warning a great heaving geyser of black sludge would erupt out of Steve’s mouth—usually covering the startled client with acrid slime. Then in a sort of shrieking basso profundo, Steve would tell the prospective buyer that the house was built over the doorway to Hades.”
Despite the novelty of their selling proposition, Doorway to Hell Realty never really gained traction in the burgeoning, and frustratingly whimsical, Santa Barbara market. “Who can understand this place?” Griffith laughs. “Success here is a roll of the dice. You would think a town as gorgeous as this would sell itself.” But of course it’s the journey that finally exalts, and not the arrival. The two friends have no regrets.
“Hey, I would do it all over again,” says Griffith, to which statement Chalmers nods emphatically, adding firmly “We wouldn’t change a thing.” And with that the two longtime Santa Barbara business partners and friends look at each other. And smile anew.
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