Creating a Racquet (Club)
Charlie Farrell and Ralph Bellamy developed the tennis club that became Palm Springs’ hottest spot for the social set.
Ralph Bellamy, Rudy Vallee, and Charlie Farrell.
“Tomorrow we are having lunch at the Racquet Club in Palm Springs,” Uncle Ed said. “All Hollywood will be there.” I was 6, my father had just died, and my mother and I were staying with Ed and Sylvia Sullivan in Beverly Hills while house hunting. The Sullivans and my parents had been fast friends ever since my parents introduced Ed to his future wife. He was my “uncle” before he became a TV icon hosting his own variety show. He was a New York Daily News Broadway columnist on temporary assignment covering Hollywood.
Early the next morning, we piled into the Sullivans’ large LaSalle with their driver, Jack, at the wheel. It was overcast in Beverly Hills, but the clouds dissipated as we neared our destination. Orange groves gave way to distant mountains, sand, and cactus under a bright sun. The air felt warm and dry. We turned off the highway and drove on an unpaved road until we turned into a large driveway. I remember how excited our host was that we made the trip in only 4 1/2 hours. (Today, with traffic, it can still take 4 1/2 hours.)
We passed two outdoor tennis courts, and someone remarked that the pretty blonde on the tennis court nearest us was Ginger Rogers. Inside was a bamboo bar and a lot of people eating in a small dining room. We continued walking and exited through another door that led to the swimming pool, surrounded by people in bathing suits and shorts at umbrella-shaded tables. Many diners came over to say hello to Uncle Ed, including Gracie Allen, George Burns, and Jack and Mary Benny. We heard that Ann Sheridan, who was then a major star, was at another table. However, the person who attracted the most attention was a silver-haired man in tennis shorts who had just gotten off the court. The Sullivans told me that this gentleman, Charlie Farrell, was a famous movie star who started the Racquet Club with another actor, Ralph Bellamy. Actor Paul Lucas shared a table with Farrell and his actress wife, Virginia Valli. The Sullivans pointed out “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, and her husband, Buddy Rogers, seated at a nearby table. That is when I turned to my mother and whispered, “Is there anyone here who isn’t famous?”
As a child, I had no idea how the Racquet Club would later impact my life.
The story has oft been that the Racquet Club began when Farrell and Bellamy had trouble getting on the tennis courts at the El Mirador Hotel. The actors formed a partnership, bought 200 acres at $30 an acre, and told the finest tennis court builder they could find to build the best two tennis courts money could buy. When it was finished, their young celebrity friends came, relaxed, and played tennis.
Farrell and Bellamy charged their friends $1, whether they played one game of tennis or all day. The courts opened on Christmas Day in 1934 — the same day that film producer and tennis-playing friend Hal Roach opened Santa Anita Racetrack. Farrell used to laugh because Roach told him that Santa Anita took in millions of dollars that first day. Farrell and Bellamy took in $18. The elite of Hollywood turned out: Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers, Robert Taylor, Paul Lukas, Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, Frank Morgan, and Will Rogers.
Rumor soon spread that Farrell and Bellamy were going to build a club; and although they hadn’t planned on it, that is exactly what they did. First they charged $50 for a membership, then $75; later, the asking price soared to $150. For improvements — adding a pool, bar, and overnight accommodations — all they had to do was sell some of the land they had bought for $30 an acre and had climbed in value. After three years, Farrell bought out Bellamy’s interest.
Of course, this history occurred long before I landed on the scene as a club member, as Racquet Club radio show host, and as public relations director in the late 1960s until after the club’s sale to Larry Lawrence in 1978 (a sale that led to the club’s eventual demise).
Farrell died in 1990, but he was still very much in control in 1968 when he discussed those early days with me.
“I guess the Racquet Club was one of the only places not affected by the Depression. If anything, it helped us because our members could make their own entertainment. When the gang in Hollywood found they could come here and not spend much money but make their own fun, they began flocking to the Racquet Club,” he said. “Entertaining each other were such well-known personalities as Bing Crosby, Phil Harris, Alice Faye, Judy Garland, Rudy Vallee, and Jack Benny. In time, these people became institutions. In those days everyone was in the act —and it was some act! I remember one New Year’s Eve Dixie Lee Crosby came up to me and asked if I would ask Bing to sing. It seems he was hurt because no one had asked him. I didn’t do it right away; and the next thing I knew, he had left the main dining room, gone into the bar, and was singing alone at the piano.”
Throughout its existence, the Racquet Club remained the place to go on New Year’s Eve, and reservations were sold out months in advance. Avid tennis player and longtime member Nelda Linsk reminisces, “Not only was it jammed with celebrities for dinner, but no matter where they were first, members wanted to get to the club by the stroke of midnight. The bar chairs were removed before the dinner crowd arrived to make room for the people who wanted to crowd around the bar to ring in the New Year. It was so crowded you could barely move, but everyone had a marvelous time.”
Ending the night at the Racquet Club, even if it wasn’t New Year’s Eve, became a Palm Springs tradition. “You wouldn’t think of going home unless you had your Racquet Club nightcap first,” Linsk says.
Linsk and Barbara Sinatra, who was then married to Zeppo Marx, were among those who played tennis at the Racquet Club every day. “There will never be another club like it. People didn’t have their own tennis courts, and the celebrities were there every day to use the courts and made the club so much fun,” Linsk says. “After tennis, many of us would play gin rummy. Sometimes we would still be playing when the dinner crowd arrived.”
Sinatra called it her “special home away from home.”
Linsk and Sinatra both say that the most fun happened on Wednesday evenings during the Mouseburger tennis tournaments. It was William Powell’s wife, Mousie, who decided that members should have a tennis tournament one night a week, followed by hamburgers and chili. “It was so much fun because Tony Rose [the club’s musical director and conductor] would be playing the piano with his trio, and we would dance after dinner in our tennis shorts,” Linsk says. “And then people would come in from other parties, some of them in black tie. The dance floor would be packed.”
Steve Solomon, an avid tennis player whose father-in-law, Charlie Berns, built and owned New York City’s famous 21 Club, played in the Mouseburger tournaments. “It was always a great evening,” he says. Solomon remembers playing checkers at the Racquet Club with James Garner while Henry Fonda looked on and made comments.
“It was always like that — casual and fun,” he says.
Mousie Powell and a group of her amateur artist friends offered to paint murals in the ladies’ room. The group included Alice Harris (actress Alice Faye, who married Phil Harris); Virginia Farrell; Billie Dove Kenaston (silent screen star and Howard Hughes’ first love); and Bobbie Perlberg, then married to Bill Perlberg, who produced all the Road films starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
Most of the same women were on the committees of the Desert Hospital black-tie fundraising benefits that were held at the Racquet Club before the desert’s large hotels and ballrooms were built. The Desert Circus Big Top Ball was held in a tent outside the club before the dining room was built. Rudy Vallee and a 30-piece orchestra entertained; and the cost for dinner, entertainment, and dancing was a mere $10.
I moved to the desert in 1960, two years after my mother and stepfather became members of the club. The courts were always busy, and the bar would ring with laughter. Some of the members who seemed to be there daily (and if they were working, they were there on weekends) were Jack Warner, Kirk Douglas, Hal Wallis, Donna Reed, the Gabor sisters and their mother, Dinah Shore, and Frederick Loewe, who had just retired to Palm Springs after writing the score for Camelot.
Joel Douglas, Kirk’s producer son, remembers coming to the Racquet Club with his father before Kirk married his present wife, Anne. “Dad was a bachelor and he and his bachelor friends would go to the Racquet Club, and sometimes [brother] Michael and I would be with them,” he says. “Michael and I would sit by the pool and look at all the older men there with their ‘nieces.’ The girls would have on two-pieced bathing suits, and we couldn’t believe it. It was so risqué!”
A favorite Racquet Club anecdote concerns a woman seated at the bar asking the bartender if any movies stars were there. The bartender looked at the man seated next to the women and asked, “Have you seen any movie stars?” “Nope,” Clark Gable answered, “haven’t seen one.”
Bob Mayo, captain and maitre d’ at the club, calls his five years there from 1973 to 1978 the best years of his life. “I came to Palm Springs from New York, where I had owned a little restaurant,” he recalls. “Someone suggested that I seek a job at the Racquet Club until I opened my own place. On my third day there, I knew I never wanted to leave. I thought ‘Why would I want to open my own place when working here is so wonderful and everyone so thoughtful?’”
He remembers becoming ill and being sent to a specialist by Frank Sinatra. He also remembers the many cards and flowers he received at home from the members.
“Sometimes on Christmas, the members would reverse roles and wait on us,” he says. He also couldn’t believe the amount of Christmas gifts he received from them. “If a member owned a store chain, he or she would send shirts and slacks. If someone sold ties, I would receive dozens of ties. I remember going to Sam Bork’s shoe store to buy a pair of shoes. Sam, a Racquet Club member, saw me shopping and, in addition to the pair that I bought, insisted I take six more pairs as a gift.”
Mayo was among those who saw to it that members were pampered and always given their favorite tables — one reason they remained so loyal to the club and Farrell.
“The Gabors were at table No. 36, up front next to the maitre d’ station,” Mayo says. “Magda Gabor’s favorite color was red. When she made a reservation, we’d have red roses and a red tablecloth and napkins on the table for her.”
During West Coast visits, Ethel and Robert Kennedy frequently played tennis at the Racquet Club. Monaco’s Prince Ranier III and his wife, Grace Kelly, came to the club for luncheon with their three children — Princess Caroline, Princess Stephanie, and Prince Albert. Spencer Tracy maintained a cottage at the club. Marilyn Monroe was a young starlet when she posed for publicity photos on the pool diving board. Ronald and Nancy Reagan cooked in the Racquet Club kitchen. Everyone noticed when U.S. Ambassador Henry Kissinger stopped in for lunch with producer Bill Evans. Mamie Eisenhower and Leonore Annenberg were in the luncheon throng, and Truman Capote made it for dinner on a New Year’s Eve. International designer Raymond Loewy designed the first plans for his Little Tuscany home in Palm Springs on a napkin at the Racquet Club.
When Charlie Farrell was elected to the Palm Springs City Council in 1946 and later became mayor, the reason he was so popular, according to local new reports, was because he and the Racquet Club had brought so much prosperity to the city. But after seven years, Farrell tired of politics and wanted to travel. In 1959, he sold the club to Robert Morton, a Pasadena businessman who immediately began to enlarge the club. Other owners followed: Bob and George Alexander (builders of the now-famed Alexander homes) and Samuel Firks. After the Alexanders died in a Lear Jet crash, Firks headed it until he sold out to a group of longtime members that included Charles Wohlstetter, head of Continental Telephone, and Donald Stralem, who, with wife Jean, had been at the Racquet Club when it opened. Their home movies of that occasion can be seen at the Palm Springs Historical Society. Throughout the Racquet Club’s glamour years, even with new owners, the dapper Farrell remained managing director. He was the publicized spokesman, and celebrities continued to flock to the club.
It all ended in 1986, when Lawrence decided to open the club to the public. In the old days, it was so private that member Jack Benny was prompted to present a weekly radio skit on his popular program called Murder at the Racquet Club. In one skit, Benny, as sheriff of Riverside County, drove to the front gate and demanded admittance to investigate a homicide.
“Are you a member?” A voice asked over the loudspeaker.
“No,” answered Sheriff Benny.
“Then you can’t come in,” the voice answered.
“All right,” Benny shouted back, “throw the body over the fence.”