The Heart of the City
Palm Canyon in the 1940s
Photography courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives
As a wrecking ball swung through Desert Fashion Plaza over the summer, opening the view from Palm Canyon Drive across to Palm Springs Art Museum, the excitement for Museum Market Plaza — the hotel, retail, and restaurant development that will eventually fill the space — became palpable.
So did the nostalgia for the early days of Palm Canyon Drive.
Generations of Palm Springs visionaries have brilliantly branded the city’s main street with glamour and magic. From Mother Nellie Coffman, who founded the Desert Inn in 1909, to the towering Forever Marilyn statue of 2013, and all the personalities in between, Palm Canyon Drive has reigned for more than a century as one of America’s most storied destinations.
Celebrities galore have walked and shopped the street. Passionate factions emerge with every new building or rumor of a demolition. A national shopping prototype started here. Major retailers flourished and disappeared. Parade organizers love it. A historic district in the north end disappeared from the public consciousness. At one time, a bull took charge.
Visitors love to hear about Bob Hope’s late-night strolls on Palm Canyon Drive, golf iron in hand, and Frank Sinatra and pals leaving a trail of big tips as they barhopped the street. Celebrity sightings continue: Mark Zuckerberg, here for a pal’s wedding; George Clooney, honoree at Palm Springs International Film Festival; and Secretary of State John Kerry, stopping for lunch at Trio en route to the Sunnylands summit between President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping.
The San Jacinto Mountains might hold the power behind the street. They serve as a buffer between the desert and the “real world.” While other settlements have 360 degrees of open space where energy can dissipate, Palm Springs has a backboard of ancient rock that seems to amplify energy and passion.
Building Palm Canyon Drive
Community standoffs, such as those fought over plans for the downtown renewal, are nothing new to Palm Canyon Drive.
The talk of the dusty little village circa 1910 was two now-revered pioneers who feuded over the location of what would become Palm Canyon Drive. Welwood Murray, who founded the Palm Springs Hotel in 1887, and Nellie Coffman, founder of the Desert Inn, each had clout but couldn’t agree on where to put what was to be called Main Street, later changed to Palm Canyon Drive. Murray wanted the main road to follow what today is Indian Canyon Drive. Mother Coffman, as the Desert Inn owner was affectionately called, favored the roadway that ultimately did become Palm Canyon Drive.
Murray liked to get his way surreptitiously. When he wanted to provide his guests with hot mineral water without paying the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, he waited until dark and ran underground trenches to the site of today’s Spa Hotel. He approached his disagreement with Mother Coffman the same way. The wily hotelier enlisted a carpenter friend and erected a fence of railroad ties and barbed wire across Palm Canyon Drive a little north of the Desert Inn, where Indian Canyon Drive joined Palm Canyon. The signs proclaimed Palm Canyon Drive off-limits as a “private road.”
Mother Coffman responded by posting what Palm Springs Villager reporter Jack Nelson described in 1948 as “pithy doggerel” on the impromptu fence. Murray’s fence quickly came down, and the present Palm Canyon Drive trajectory prevailed.
The renaming of Main Street as Palm Canyon Drive was a brilliant stroke, but the palm trees didn’t arrive until 1947 after then-councilwoman Ruth Hardy proposed the idea. Earl Neel’s nursery installed the lighted trees on both sides of the street.
A running of the bulls, desert-style, was an exciting ongoing occurrence along Palm Canyon Drive in the early years of the Desert Inn. Mother Coffman owned a bull named Caruso that had the run of the pasture, now the site of O’Donnell Golf Club. Every now and then, Caruso would get loose. Unlike in Pamplona, visitors were never injured. Cars were another matter. Many unlucky Desert Inn guests left town with dents and scratches from Caruso on their fancy rides.
Prototype for open-air shopping
Julia Carnell, a prominent winter visitor from Dayton, Ohio, was another woman whose business acumen boosted the village street of dreams. Carnell, linked to the National Cash Register fortune, brought NCR’s architect, Harry Williams, with her to design the 1934 Carnell Building next to Carl Lykken’s general store. Carnell enlisted Williams to design La Plaza, the country’s first open-air shopping plaza, in 1936. It was located farther south on Palm Canyon Drive — then considered the boonies. Desmond’s was the anchor store and the first major retailer on the street.
La Plaza, now a Class 1 historical site, was open-air and a forerunner of what today is trendy “mixed use.” Williams, the architect, wanted it to be open and lacking in pretense. There were stores, apartments overhead, parking, Palm Springs Desert Museum, and a movie theater, which opened with Camille, starring Greta Garbo, who, it was rumored, was spied slinking in through a side door to avoid the red carpet. For the past 21 years, La Plaza Theatre has been home to The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, scheduled to permanently go dark in May 2014 when its impresario, Riff Markowitz, retires.
Realtor Robert Ransom, who managed La Plaza, advertised it as a place where one could “buy a piece of driftwood or the newest sportswear for men and women. Have your car fixed or rent a Hertz-You-Drive. Buy a Cadillac, a diamond, or a lamb chop. Have the family laundry and cleaning done, and with no effort at all select a gift for any member of the family.”
Larry Pitts grew up tagging along to La Plaza with his dad, Zach Pitts, who managed the complex. Larry Pitts is the third-generation manager. His son Michael will be the fourth. The dynasty of La Plaza started when Harry Pitts, Zach Pitts’ father, was dining at Louise’s Pantry in 1951 and overheard the plaza was to be auctioned the next day. Harry Pitts quickly assembled an investment group of 10. They won the bid and created La Plaza Investment Company.
UCLA graduate Larry Pitts is dedicated to keeping the historic buildings in good condition and authentic. He is working with Best Signs to completely revamp La Plaza’s sign program. “I loved spending time at La Plaza with my dad,” Larry Pitts recalls. “It was an adventure to visit all the stores, the garage, and meeting celebrities who shopped there.” He remembers Bob Hope walking through in the evening. Frequent shoppers were William and Mousie Powell, Red Skelton, Robert Stack, and William Demarest. “The one who gave me the biggest thrill as a little boy was my hero Chuck Connors, who signed an autograph for me and later called my name out in a restaurant, where everybody realized Chuck Connors knew me.
“When it was time for the Desert Circus parade,” Larry Pitts continues, “my friends would join me on the roof for the best seats in town. In the summer, you could toss a ball down Palm Canyon Drive and hit nothing. The merchants covered their windows in aluminum foil before they left town for the summer. Then in the season you knew at least a third of the customers whenever you walked into a restaurant.”
The golden age of retail
Big-name retailers began tiptoeing into town with small stores limited to resort wear. J.W. Robinson opened a specialty store on the grounds of The Desert Inn in 1948. Ten years later, Robinson’s opened a midcentury modern gem by Pereira and Luckman. The opening-day crowd included an enthusiastic Liberace, who made it to the front of the line.
Bullock’s opened a small resort store next to La Plaza in the late 1930s. In 1947, corporate opened an elegant art-deco store designed by Welton Becket and Walter Wurdeman. Built opposite La Plaza, where the Mercado sits today, it became a Bullock’s Wilshire in the 1970s.
The golden age of shopping lasted from the 1940s through the mid-1980s, when no major freestanding stores remained and Desert Fashion Plaza, redeveloped by the city and shopping center czar DeBartolo in the early 1980s, failed and went dark before developer John Wessman purchased the block-long property with its two-level parking garage.
Palm Canyon Drive has a way of permanently ensnaring bright, caring pros on a retail career path. They become passionate about the street and the town, and often turn down opportunities to move on with their companies.
Ernie Hahn’s Town Center and El Paseo were still faint glimmers in Palm Desert’s eyes when national department store executives Leo Cohen and Don Alexander were assigned to manage major stores on Palm Canyon Drive.
Alexander knew he was hooked on retail when he started working for Duckwall Department Store as a Ulysses, Kan., high school kid. After graduating from the University of Kansas, Alexander was hired by the May Company, where he started in notions, building the company’s largest stitchery department when even Rosie Grier was a hobbyist. It was an adventurous time, with Alexander junketing to crazy places such as Canton, China, where a Chinese seller would write prices for him on the dirt floor.
Palm Springs was a relief from seven-day stores and hectic buying trips. “Here, you could have a life,” Alexander says.
“Our Robinson’s was unusual,” he continues. “It was a resort store of only 22,000 square feet, yet it was the highest-grossing store per square foot in the entire chain. Menswear was the most popular department, and Polo our top-selling line. We were never open on Sundays. It was fun and easy to get involved in civic life. The store was small enough so you could get to know the employees. We had fun with Men’s Night promotions and fashion shows. Bob and Delores Hope came by on Saturdays. Red Skelton; Ella Fitzgerald; Diana ‘Mousie’ Powell, wife of actor William Powell; and Mary Martin also came in often.”
Alexander started the Festival of Lights Parade, helped launch the city’s Customer Service Awards program, and was a 50th Anniversary Committee volunteer. He has also been a McCallum Theatre trustee for 25 years.
Leo Cohen is down-to-earth, funny, and disarming. He transformed I. Magnin from haute to happy. Perhaps it’s the Midwest origin that keeps this droll Evansville, Ind., native real. Cohen and his wife, Cyma, found Palm Springs warm and unpretentious after Cohen’s longtime marketing and buying tenure at Joseph Magnin’s San Francisco headquarters, where he worked directly with J.M.’s legendary Cyril Magnin.
Cohen grew up knowing he would choose a retail career. “My uncle was in the business and talked in retail codes, which I learned as a young boy. My mother was a fashion plate who loved to shop.” After Cohen earned a master’s degree from NYU’s top-rated Stern School of Commerce, he was recruited by Federated.
Cohen spends more time at Palm Springs City Hall than some employees. He serves on the Measure J Committee and was a member of the Historic Site Preservation Board and Planning Commission.
“The fashions and exquisite jewels at I. Magnin’s Laykin et Cie attracted major customers in the 1980s, when I was manager,” Cohen says. “It was an exciting time in Palm Springs. All of the Gabors came to the store, and we remember seeing Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner. We had wonderful stores on Palm Canyon, all of them gone.” Cohen gave examples: Besides I. Magnin and Robinson’s, there were Joseph Magnin, Bullock’s Wilshire, Morrie Geyer, the Moccasin Shop, Matthews, Ann Taylor, Jolie Gabor’s Boutique, Waltah Clarke’s Hawaiian Shop, Saks Fifth Avenue, Jerry Maloof’s Menswear, Ted Land’s Shoes, and many others.
Alexander remembers the shopping pattern of locals. “Shoppers drove from one parking lot to another while the tourists tended to walk the street. You could always tell them apart. The visitors had tans. The locals didn’t,” he says.
Many personalities enriched the vibe of the street over the years. “Scallops,” from Morrie Geyer’s Menswear, were always seen at posh Palm Springs parties. Geyer, who for decades was one of the street’s most captivating characters, designed desert society’s ultimate party shirt for men. It was sold in an array of pastel colors and its distinct scalloped neckline, like the otherwise ubiquitous turtleneck, allowed men to abandon neckties and still look dressy.
Pauline Smith dispensed kind words and blessings for 50 years at her Christian gift and bookstore. Smith, who never met a stranger, hosted an Easter egg hunt every year for hundreds of local children at her nearby home.
Carolyn Boza, longtime I. Magnin manager, was the arbiter of high fashion for decades and de facto retail leader. She made sure wealthy charity supporters never saw their pricey gowns staring back at them from across a gala ballroom.
“Uncle” Don Du Bose, whose toy store for decades was a small-town version of FAO Schwarz, carried classic lines such as collector HO gauge train cars, Matchbox cars, Madame Alexander dolls, and other classics. He closed the store when big-box chains brought cheaper products to the desert. Du Bose knew the street well, having grown up there helping in his dad’s five-and-10-cent store.
Florencio and Maria Delgado opened their original Las Casuelas during the 1950s, launching a Coachella Valley dining dynasty, eventually building Las Casuelas Nuevas in Rancho Mirage and Las Casuelas Terraza in downtown Palm Springs.
Joy Meredith, who represents 500 businesses as head of the downtown merchant’s organization called Main Street, has one of the most recognizable faces on Palm Canyon Drive. Meredith opened Crystal Fantasy in 1987 before joining Main Street in 1992. She volunteers dozens of hours a week to assist the merchants. Meredith appears at every city council meeting as Palm Canyon Drive’s official cheerleader. Sensitive to customer needs, Meredith decided to fill a wedding chapel void. Licensed in 1992, Meredith presides over nondenominational weddings. She married her first same-sex couple this summer.
Downtown hosts distinctive events
World War II changed the look and pace of Palm Canyon Drive. General Patton’s troops trained in the nearby desert and El Mirador Hotel was transformed into Torney Hospital to care for soldiers returning from the South Pacific. Khaki and camouflage uniforms replaced resortwear. For the first time, visiting family and workers arrived after Memorial Day and the city became year-round until after the war.
Thousands of reveling teens and college kids discovered the joys of cruising Palm Canyon Drive during the mid-1950s. The Easter Week migration grew annually until 1986, when thongs, rocket bikes, and water bombs rattled the establishment. The city, to the regret of many retailers and hoteliers, succeeded in killing Easter Week by sending press releases to college newspapers telling the kids to stay away. The substitution, a family harvest festival, closed the street and featured car shows, entertainment, and hay bales. It broke the spring break pattern, but quickly fizzled.
Desert Circus Parade, during a week of charity fundraising events, was a small-town shindig boasting big-time celebrity grand marshals like Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and Chuck Connors. One lubricated and relaxed participant famously fell off a flatbed truck and was removed from the pavement pretty much unscathed.
Ever since, parades have been prolific on Palm Canyon Drive. Various veterans groups, conventioneers, and local organizations have made the trek. The biggest today is the annual Festival of Lights, drawing almost 100,000 specatators. Other popular parades are Gay Pride, Palm Springs High School Homecoming, and Veterans Day.
Palm Canyon Drive has become known as much for events as its stores and restaurants.
VillageFest, the street’s weekly Thursday evening event, was founded in 1991 to create awareness of shops and restaurants. Only artisans whose items are original are allowed to participate. It’s a fun place to sample food and people-watch.
One of the street’s most interesting destinations is The Village Green, home to the Palm Springs Historical Society (housed in the McCallum Adobe Museum), The Cornelia White House, the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, and Ruddy’s General Store Museum.
The north end of Palm Canyon Drive, starting at Alejo Road and the historic Frances Stevens School, home of the Palm Canyon Theatre, is undergoing a renaissance and historic rediscovery. Art galleries, modern design showrooms, fashion boutiques, and other businesses have joined restaurants in the city’s chic Uptown Design District — which also contains a long-forgotten historic district, the first of two in the city.
Then-City Planning Director Craig Ewing, while searching through files in 2009, discovered the forgotten Las Palmas Historic District. The district extends from Alejo Road to El Alameda, and includes 16 contributing buildings representing Spanish Colonial and midcentury modern architecture, the city’s two most popular architectural styles.
Palm Springs’ “Cowboy Mayor” Frank Bogert proposed the Walk of Stars to the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce in the early 1980s. Barbara Foster, who was proposing a cultural center for the city at the time, attended the presentation. She took Bogert’s proposal to her committee and they ran with it.
Noted for its egalitarian criteria, the Walk of Stars represents a microcosm of those who’ve found their dreams on Palm Canyon Drive.