The Scenery and the Scene
Sled dogs, hot air balloons, beauty queens and … dolphins? You betcha!
Sled dog races began in the mid-’60s and continued into the ’80s
Courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society and Palm Springs Life archives
According to newspaper and magazine articles published before the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway opened, up to half a million people a year could be expected to ride the tramcars. But a build-it-and-they-will-come attitude rarely serves entrepreneurs well.
“It’s difficult to motivate people 20 miles away — let alone 2,000 miles — to an attraction,” says Milt Jones, who took over publicity, marketing, and advertising services for the tramway in 1965. “We didn’t have hard dollars to spend, because we were falling behind in our interest payments on the bonds. So we were doing everything we could to have special events to attract ridership. In those days, the Jones Agency had an office up there, and we had our own employees up there in case somebody of any notoriety came or anything else of interest happened. We had a camera to take a picture to get press.”
In 1966, the tramway introduced an annual event that capitalized on the incongruity between the desert environment where people convened around swimming pools and the alpine environment on the mountain: sled dog races.
“They were highly unusual in a resort community that’s known for its sunshine and warm weather,” Jones says. “We had some great races and got a tremendous amount of publicity. Of course, it was always a challenge to get the dogs up in the tramcars with the sleds.”
Linda Vivian, who worked at the tramway as director of sales and marketing from 1975 to 1997, recalls that the races garnered “tons” of worldwide publicity. “I could have a Korean film unit up there,” she says.
The races also attracted sponsors, including Canada’s Moosehead brewery and a brandy company. “I remember dressing up in that Moosehead costume one year,” Vivian says. “It was very hot.”
The races ended in the late 1980s because of the uncertainty of snowfall.
“Some years we couldn’t have the races because there wasn’t enough snow,” Jones says. “They got sporadic, and then the tram started doing a little better [financially].”
In 1967, the tramway hosted another unusual event: an international hot-air balloon race sponsored by the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce during Desert Circus Week in April. Aeronauts came from Switzerland, Denmark, Canada, Mexico, France, and the United States. Judges included Bob Prescott, founder of the Flying Tigers; and Palm Desert pioneer Cliff Henderson, founder of the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio.
“It was such an unusual balloon race. They took off from Long Valley and were already 8,500 feet in the air,” Jones says. “One guy ended up in the Salton Sea. Another ended up in Joshua Tree National Monument [now Park], and the rangers there gave him a ticket. That got a lot of publicity. One guy made it to Arizona.”
Jones recalls only two races, noting the difficulty of getting approvals because of the fire hazard in a state park with a lot of trees.
Less risky were the weekly square dances and Miss Tramwayland beauty competitions. Film star Victor Mature headed a panel of three judges in 1968. Fortunately for the swimsuit-clad contestants, the competition was held in the summer.
As for attractions at the Valley Station, Jones remembers a petting zoo concessionaire.
“He had a parrot that walked and talked, goats, sheep, and other public-friendly animals,” Jones says. “He also put in a dolphin tank. The idea was to attract people to the lower station so they would see the tram and part of their experience would be to take the tram.
“In those days, we still had to deal with some fear factor. People weren’t used to it. We would lose riders because they thought the ride was scary. Of course, it wasn’t.”
While the dolphin tank did not survive, one of the tramway’s attractions that continues to this day is the lighting of the Christmas tree outside the Mountain Station that can be seen from the valley floor. Vivian laughs when she recalls the year that 3-foot-9-inch actor Billy Barty was the celebrity lighter.
“The year he did it, it was very, very windy,” she recalls. “I had to have one of our groundsmen stand with him and hold onto him, because he could have gotten blown over.”
Best-selling author Joseph Wambaugh lit the tree the year after the release of his book Fugitive Nights, set in Palm Springs.
“There was a fact in the book that wasn’t correct and was a scene about the tram,” Vivian says. “I sent him a note to tell him. Then I asked would he come and light the tree — and he did. He was very polite and signed autographs.”
Vivian also remembers Sonny Bono coming up — fearfully.
“He looked at me and said,
“I don’t like this. How else can I get down?”
The tramway also has provided an exciting element of story lines for television shows and films, including I Spy, Mannix, Mission Impossible, Kotch, Columbo, Skyway to Death, The Six Million Dollar Man, Hanging by a Thread, General Hospital, P.S. I Love You, Beverly Hills 90210, Fugitive Nights, and Chuck (“Chuck vs. The Fear of Death”). In particular, Vivian remembers producer Irwin Allen’s disaster TV movie Hanging By a Thread.
“When the location people came, they wanted to know what would happen if the tramway were to experience a sudden stop. I said, ‘Well, I would be happy to show you.’ Coming down over Tower 1, I called the control room and asked the maintenance guy to stop the car. It caused a lot of swinging. The guy turned four shades of green, and I said, ‘Is that what you wanted?’ They filmed all night. … They wanted to show the cable fraying. I said, ‘No, you can’t do that to put fear in people’s minds.”
Vivian remembers the Mission Impossible film team as being “the coolest crew.”
“They threw a guy out of the tramcar — a dummy. Our guys went back after they left and retrieved the dummy and saved it for a Christmas party. They brought it out and scared the bookkeeper when she sat down next to it.
“What we wanted was the exposure,” Vivian says of allowing filming at the tramway. “I would have tour groups say, ‘Oh, this is where such and such was shot.’
While PR people may seem to be immune to wonders, Jones proves they aren’t. He recalls being on the second or third car up the mountain on opening day.
“To me, it was a ‘gotcha’ because of the unbelievable views, the engineering aspect of it, the fact that the mountain wasn’t paper-mâché; it was real,” he says. “I make that trip almost every month [for board meetings]. I always see something new that I haven’t seen before.
“The tramway is a very special thing for me, because one of the reasons I am still here in this town is the mountain. When I go to Chicago or New York or other places, it’s flat. I am always looking for the mountain.”
Vivian recalls “lots and lots of times” she would just stop and watch visitors.
“It’s a magnificent attraction, and I am not saying that because I worked there for so long,” she says. “I truly believe it is. I truly believe in Francis’ dream. And I wonder what he would say today.”