Out of the Shadows

PALM SPRINGS 75TH ANNIVERSARY - Some of Palm Springs’ lesser-known residents have made a big impact on entertainment, politics, and business

Golfer Ben Hogan; Paul G. Hoffman, head of the Economic Cooperation Administration and former Sudebaker Corp. president; President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his friend Paul Helms on the golf course at Tamarisk Country Club, Feb. 10, 1954. Photo by Conrad Hug, the official photographer at El Mirador hotel.

Photography courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives

Palm Springs 75th Anniversary logoYou may not know BILLY STEINBERG by name, but you certainly know his songs. A man was originally intended to sing “Like a Virgin,” but Madonna made it her first big hit in 1984. Two years later, Steinberg wrote “True Colors” for Cyndi Lauper, and he has since been writing top-10 hits. Steinberg grew up in Palm Springs and credits the city for creative inspiration.

“I really treasure my memories of driving around town, listening to all my favorite music with friends,” he says. “It’s the love for those songs that inspired me to write songs myself.”

Steinberg does not come from a musical background; his father was a prominent grape grower. “We had vineyards in Indio, Coachella, Thermal, and Mecca,” he says. “I only left the farming business because my songwriting career took off.”

Even after writing between 700 and 800 songs, Steinberg continues to look for that elusive hit. “It’s not that difficult to write a good song,” he says. “But it is difficult to write a memorable one. It continues to spur me on — to come up with that one special song that’s on everyone’s lips.”

PEARL DEVERS, who also grew up in Palm Springs, is an entertainment entrepreneur who produced a variety of projects, most famously The Rosa Parks Story, starring Angela Bassett. She was introduced to Parks by another Palm Springs native, WILLIS EDWARDS, and later served as her publicist. “She took me down into her cellar in her Detroit home and showed me boxes of letters from big-name producers — most of them unopened,” Pearl recalls. “I contacted the most likely candidates, and got the picture made.”

Today, Devers heads the Heritage Edutainment Foundation, seeking to shed light on overlooked contributions of people of color.

Edwards grew up in Palm Springs and was Devers’s business associate on The Rosa Parks Story. Both charming and cajoling, he pushed civil rights issues into the national spotlight. He also worked on many political campaigns for the Democratic Party, and was standing beside Bobby Kennedy when the presidential candidate was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968. Those who worked with Edwards — from Jesse Jackson to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley — described him as “The Fixer.”

He was proudest of arranging, with Devers, for the presentation of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Rosa Parks. In the late 1980s, Edwards contracted AIDS and almost died, but new drugs saved his life. After that, he was fearless in speaking to the black communities around the nation about how difficult living with the disease truly was.

He was 66 when he died in 2012. In his obituary, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised Edwards, saying, “He fought the unjust for justice, spoke boldly in the places of silence, and stood tall and fearless as a leader when others cowered.”

Anyone who grew up in Southern California during the 1950s probably remembers the claxon of the Helms Bakery Trucks patrolling the neighborhoods. Founded by PAUL HELMS, the bakery provided a much-needed service in those days, bringing baked goods directly to customers’ doors. By simply placing the big cardboard H in your window, the driver knew to stop. Helms trucks were a distinctive butter-yellow, and inside were sumptuous glass-covered drawers full of pastries and breads.

“Oh, my,” remembers Paige Brown Kelly, a former Palm Springs resident. “I would take my allowance and meet the truck far down the street and buy him out of doughnuts.
Then I’d go into some alley and gorge, making sure my brothers and sisters didn’t get a bite!”

Helms had come to Southern California for his health in the 1920s, and soon discovered the delights of desert living. He built a large second home in Smoke Tree Ranch, and in 1954 welcomed Dwight Eisenhower there for a golfing vacation, when the president dubbed the Helms home as the Western White House.

Helms Bakery and its fleet of yellow trucks disappeared with the coming of the supermarkets, when it got too expensive to send its trucks to far-flung locales. Helms died in his Smoke Tree Ranch home in 1957.

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