The Party Never Ends

Fun, sophisticated events define a city that loves its celebrities, modern architecture, Native culture, and philanthropy

The now-defunct Palm Springs Hotel & Apartment Division at the Desert Circus parade 1969.

Photography courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives

Palm Springs 75th Anniversary logoFrom a homespun Western week to an internationally famous film festival and philanthropic galas that draw big stars and big bucks, the thread of having a roaring good time, often for a good cause, weaves through 75 years of successful events in Palm Springs.

It began four years before the town became a city, with Desert Circus, a weeklong party that had the whole town dressing like cowgirls and cowboys. Fines paid by those who were caught out of Western wear went to local charities. A long line of stars — Natalie Wood, Lucille Ball, Chuck Connors, and Red Skelton — appeared in the Palm Canyon Drive parade, at El Mirador’s Desert Circus Ball, and in the bleachers at the rodeo. Look closely at YouTube footage of the 1950 parade, and you’ll see Bob Hope, grinning at the camera from the back of a convertible. The highlight of the 1934 rodeo was a chariot race between Frank Bogert and Les Moore.

After almost 50 years, the folksy Desert Circus had passed its prime, ceding ground to more sophisticated, and inclusive, events. The 1980s brought the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the White Party, and a spring break that put the city’s patience to a test. VillageFest, the Festival of Lights holiday parade, Evening Under the Stars, and the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards launched in the 1990s. The 21st century has so far given birth to Dinner in the Canyons, Modernism Week, Palm Springs Fine Art Fair, and a retooled spring break.

Here’s a month-by-month look at the events that have become synonymous with “season” in Palm Springs.

Dinner in the Canyons, the signature fundraiser for the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, signals cooler weather and the beginning of the desert’s social season. Held in the heart of the tribe’s ancestral home, the Andreas Canyon palm oasis, it eschews fancy décor for a view of the city lights, with clear skies and bright stars.

The grown-up child of the Desert Circus parade, the Festival of Lights nighttime parade turns 22 this year, and draws crowds of up to 80,000.

Palm Springs Art Museum opened in 1938, and annual dinner concerts that began in 1976 evolved into the institution’s annual gala in the late 1980s. This and the awards gala for Palm Springs International Film Festival are perhaps the oldest, and certainly best known black-tie blowouts in town.

Although the museum’s event takes place in March, the film festival’s festivities help ring in the New Year. The highlight of an action-packed 12-day schedule, the awards gala honors many of Hollywood’s leading actors and attracts international media coverage. Recent honorees include Brad Pitt, Helen Mirren, George Clooney, Natalie Portman, Kate Winslet, Javier Badem, Carey Mulligan, Jennifer Lawrence, Ben Affleck, and Naomi Watts.

The event has inspired at least five other desert film festivals, including Palm Springs International ShortFest, Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, Native FilmFest, CinemaDiverse: The Gay and Lesbian Film Festival Palm Springs, and American Documentary Film Festival.

Modernism Week, the only such event in the country, is an 11-day celebration of midcentury modern design, architecture, and culture, spotlighting the city’s extraordinary number of architecturally significant residences and commercial buildings. In addition to the tours, lectures, and parties, the Modernism Show & Sale, begun in 2001, the new Modern Living Expo, and Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Council symposium anchor the fortnight of activity.

Unfolding alongside the Modernism Show & Sale at Palm Springs Convention Center is the relatively new Palm Springs Fine Art Fair, featuring more than 50 galleries exhibiting paintings, sculpture, photography, and installation works from artists around the world, as well as a lecture program and artist appearances.

The Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards gala celebrates its 20th year in 2014. One of the most anticipated parties of the social season, it raises funds — a whopping $1.375 million this year — for Desert AIDS Project. It is named for the late Palm Springs interior designer and philanthropist Steve Chase.

Spring Break began after World War II and continued every year until riots in 1986 changed everything. With national networks broadcasting images of rock-throwing college students, the city had enough. Efforts to tame the crowds culminated in the infamous 1991 “thong ordinance,” banning thong bikinis on city streets. In 1992, the city closed Palm Canyon Drive in downtown for a “Harvest Festival,” billed as clean, family fun. Partying college students moved on.

Then the recession changed everything again. In 2009, the city began promoting spring break and today touts itself as the place that “practically invented spring break.”
The White Party, billed as “The largest gay dance party in the world,” celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. Its sibling event, Dinah Shore Weekend, turns 23. It is widely considered the largest lesbian event in the world.

AIDS Assistance Program’s annual Evening Under the Stars gala brings headline entertainers to historic O’Donnell Golf Club. Cyndi Lauper helped sell out the 20th anniversary event this year.  

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