Preserving the Past

The Palm Springs Historical Society

Now in its 14th season, The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies keeps history alive with its tribute to the 1930s and ’40s. But Follies owners Riff Markowitz and Mary Jardin leave a longer-lasting impression of the past by helping the Palm Springs Historical Society preserve its collection of 25,000 photographs, 4,000 negatives, and 45 films. In addition to buying the society equipment to scan photographs and negatives, the Follies is footing the bill for restoring and transferring films to digital format and will host a 50th anniversary celebration at the Historic Plaza Theatre on Feb. 15.

“This is such an extraordinarily famous town — the depth of history here is just so enormous, and it’s slipping away from us,” Markowitz says, adding that Palm Springs has taken its celebrity for granted. “It is often that way that things of value close to us we don’t see until they are gone. It has to be preserved.”

The Follies relies on the historical society for images and newspaper clippings to incorporate into its shows and fill The Follies Footlighter, a 40-page tabloid given to each audience member. In early May, historical society Director Sally McManus showed Follies Media Relations Manager and Footlighter Editor Greg Purdy a video of a 1956 Palm Springs Rotary Club travel-ogue titled America’s Desert Oasis. Purdy thought Markowitz should see it.

The film talks about the city’s population of 10,000, four golf courses, 1,000 swimming pools, new baseball park, and soon-to-be-built aerial tramway. It shows Hoagy Carmichael, Phil Harris, and Ralph Kiner on golf outings and Louis Armstrong performing at the famed Chi Chi nightclub.

Images from the film are projected on a large screen during a Follies number called “Swingin’ Down to Old Palm Springs.” But the entire 18-minute film, with sound, will be shown to the public as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the historical society.

McManus recalls that after Markowitz saw the travelogue, she gave him a tour of the society’s archives, including the cans of 8 and 16mm films. “He said, ‘These films are priceless. They need to be restored, preserved, and transferred to video.’ I said, ‘I know, but we don’t have the money.’ Riff said, ‘We will take care of it.’”

While acknowledging the historical society has done the best it could, Markowitz was alarmed by the deterioration of negatives and films. “I just couldn’t let that happen,” he says.

Conducting an inventory of the films — covering 1938 to 1966 — and researching film restoration houses and film storage vaults in Los Angeles became a summer project for Purdy. So far, three films have been cleaned up: the 16mm travelogue at a cost of $417, and two 8mm films at a cost of $993. The estimated cost to restore all the films at the historical society is $7,600.

“All this stuff is at risk,” Purdy says. “Our hope is to restore one each month for the next few years.” He and historical society Research Assistant Geri Vogelsang go through the boxes and crates and pick out the films, preview them on a light box, and send them to one of the labs. After the films are restored, a DVD is sent to the historical society and the original film stored in a temperature- and humidity-controlled vault in Hollywood. With a phone call, another DVD can be made from the original film.

Before the Follies came to its aid, the society had no way to scan negatives; and McManus, who has been there 21 years, has not been able to view the films. “We were afraid to look at them,” she says, noting their fragile condition.

The historical society was founded in 1955 by Melba Berry Bennett, who came to Palm Springs in 1930 to run Deepwell Ranch and who McManus calls “a poet and a writer and just a very, very dynamic woman.” The collection continues to grow as people find things in their garage — or, in one case, from a garage sale in New Hampshire — and donate them to the society. In addition to photographs and films, the society houses newspaper articles, artwork, souvenirs of places like the Chi Chi nightclub, and miscellaneous objects.

“We have 53 categories,” McManus says, explaining how items are sorted and recorded in a database. “When I came here, everything was in boxes,” she says. “We were not doing any research, because it was virtually impossible to find things.” Today, research takes a considerable amount of McManus and Vogelsang’s time. “It is just nonstop, the request for pictures,” McManus says. “We have helped worldwide organizations. We have done a lot of books.” She mentions in particular books on midcentury architecture, a popular topic the last few years.

In 1986, McManus learned how to archive from the Riverside city/county library, which received a grant to help historical societies and libraries preserve their collections. The library furnished acid-free Mylar sleeves, envelopes, and folders, as well as gloves and other preservation tools. “They told us it would take five to seven years to complete everything,” McManus says. “We almost have it all done.”

Historical society operations are funded by donations, research fees, and admissions to the historical society, housed in the McCallum Adobe (1884), and adjacent Cornelia White House (1893). Steve Nichols, president of the board and a third-generation Palm Springs resident, says the board especially appreciates the Follies’ assistance because the nonprofit entity’s budget precludes efforts such as the film restoration. And, though it planned to somehow celebrate the society’s 50th anniversary, it was a “happy circumstance” the Follies offered the theater as a venue. “It just seemed like a perfect match,” he says.

“The history of Palm Springs is inextricably tied to the Follies and vice versa,” Markowitz says. “We are a celebration of the past of this little village. It just seemed that we had a responsibility.”

Nichols says, “It is important for the community to have a way of remembering what has gone before and how it is that we all find ourselves here today. The history of the community is a part of its cultural richness, so our mission is to make sure that history is respected and kept alive and kept interesting.”

“There are not any other Palm Springs,” Markowitz says. “You go around the world and there’s no other town that has the history that Palm Springs has.”

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