15 Minutes? Try 50 Years!

The venerable publisher of Palm Springs Life has helped shape the image of the desert for a half-century and counting.

Interview Biller History 0 Comments

Everybody in the desert, it seems, knows Milt Jones or has a Milt Jones story to tell, and the reason for this is easily explained: He has helped countless business owners, tourism professionals, and developers to find their feet in the sand and been a stalwart promoter of Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley as the world’s greatest place to live, work, play, and visit. Indeed, the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains put a spell on Jones as quickly as he moved here in 1957, after working at Lee’s Pharmacy on Balboa Island. The story of his ascent to publisher of Palm Springs Life is at once humble, visionary, and inspiring — and best told by the man himself.

Q: How did a pharmacist become a magazine publisher?

A: The owner of Lee’s Pharmacy was Lee Pratt. He wanted to open a drugstore in Cathedral City and asked me to come and help open it. I worked 16 or 17 hours a day … [and] was eventually disenchanted with the pharmacy business. It was retail and too confining for me. But I learned and understood the customer and the service they needed.

I was unhappy, but I wanted to stay in the desert. George Cameron, who owned KDES and The Desert Sun, said to me, “Why don’t you apply at the radio station?” I had a terrible time getting hired; eventually, I said give me a rate card and a territory and see what I can do with no financial draw. I had Cathedral City to Indio — a territory that went beyond the station’s signal, with no stoplights on Highway 111 between here and there. Within three months, I outsold all the other salespeople combined.

We put a remote show at Firecliff Lodge, which was owned by Leonard Firestone and Cliff Henderson. It was a live feed. DJ Frank Day interviewed people from the area, and I sold time on the show. Those were the days when radio time sold for “a dollar a holler.”

Then radio clients wanted me to do other media services — write news releases, take publicity pictures, and do their advertising budgets — like an agency. My first agency account was Dick Coffin of Holiday Realty, the sales agent for Sproul Homes Shadow Village in Palm Desert. Hopalong Cassidy shot the opening model ribbon cutting with a gun (he used blanks), instead of a cutting it.

I got more accounts and went to the station manager, Norm Loftus, and said I needed to choose between radio sales and the agency business.

In 1959, Bud Taylor and I started the Taylor/Jones Agency with our office in Palm Springs, on Palm Canyon Drive, in Penthouse 27, which was above what’s now See’s Candies.

The radio station was in the same building as the newspaper, and above was Town & Country, a great watering hole for the newsies. That’s where I met Rita, my wife. She was the assistant society editor at the newspaper. I tagged along with her, and that’s how I learned the town.

The three owners of Palm Springs Life were having problems. Also, Ray Ryan, owner of El Mirador Hotel, Bermuda Dunes Country Club, and Salton Sea Yacht Club, was publishing The Villager. There was no way both publications of that ilk could survive. In 1959, Palm Springs Life bought out The Villager, which had been publishing since 1948. But Palm Springs Life was in trouble; it couldn’t make payroll or the print bill. [The owners] gave sales responsibilities to the Taylor/Jones Agency, and we ended up with the magazine. I was still running the agency and [Taylor] was the magazine’s publisher.

I went pure agency in 1963 and did the Frank Sinatra [Celebrity Invitational] golf program at the new Canyon Country Club and the Bob Hope Classic program. Then I became publisher and an owner of Palm Springs Life by adding the agency to the company. I ended up buying the company in 1965. They were losing about $100,000 a year. It took two-and-a-half years for me to put it into the black.

Q: In addition to Palm Springs Life and The Jones Agency, you pioneered sports marketing and special events in the desert. How did you synergize product promotion and placement, sports programs, and VIP premiums to build the Palm Springs Life brand?

A: Palm Springs Life and the agency were making money and started to evolve. I went to New York not to sell [advertising space in] the magazine, but to sell the Palm Springs market. I sold it as a “showcase market. … What gin or Scotch are they drinking in Palm Springs?”

With the Colgate Dinah Shore, Bob Hope Classic, and American Airlines tennis, I was able to market and merchandise for exclusive sponsors — I got well pour positions in bars and country clubs and even did tent cards. And we got advertising schedules in Palm Springs Life for our marketing efforts.

When Milt Hicks asked me to publish the program for the Hope tournament, I wanted control of the beverage brands, and I guaranteed official sponsorships and charged them a premium. The program and the tournament made money for the charity. The tournament took it in-house because they had to pay me a commission on the net dollars I generated for the charity. I couldn’t work for zip. Four country clubs and restaurants did exclusive pours. I received a letter from a Tanqueray [executive] saying that I helped make the gin a national brand.

Q: How did the magazine capitalize on the national media attention that these events garnered for the desert?

A: We’re a small town with a big international name. When you do a story and Brokaw goes with it, and it runs in the European press, and Johnny Carson holds up the magazine on The Tonight Show — these opportunities don’t happen often to a city magazine publisher. When you have a publication that the richest people, including Sinatra and Hope, had to pay for, that’s powerful. I copied their [subscription] checks and gave them to our sales staff, took them to New York, and used them to show the quality and value of our readership.

During the golf and tennis tournaments — because of the huge number of hours of national and worldwide television, especially this time of year — most of the East and Midwest are up to their cheeks in snow, and people said, “Why aren’t I there?” Not very many small communities get this positive level of attention.

Q: Which celebrities did you befriend over the years?

A: I befriended a lot of people. I was 27 years old when I started working here. I went to Ernie Dunlevie’s 90th birthday party [in December]. He’s still on the Bob Hope Classic board.

Most of the celebrities have a different clock when in the desert. They start at noon, and I start at 5 a.m. It was difficult for me to run with those people socially. Our winter season is like New Year’s Eve every night. I had a good relationship with Sinatra when I started with his tournament. We put Hope on the cover every year for 20-plus years. Same with Dinah and Frank.

Dinah was the most cooperative. She understood it all and appreciated that we were promoting women’s golf. I would go to her house in Mission Hills, and we always tried to shoot two years’ [worth of photography] at a time. I was at her place two weeks before she died. She was really terrific, not letting on that she was terminal.

Sinatra was good to work with — very professional, but he didn’t stand still too long; you had one shot to get the picture.

The toughest guy was Hope. He liked to be on the golf course, and he’d turn his head, sometimes on purpose to blow the shot.

Any of us who live here get a little jaded. There’s so much of it. You can’t let these people consume you if you have to turn a crank in the morning. One thing I learned early in the publishing and agency business is that if you’re going to survive, you must be careful that you don’t believe your own bullshit.

Q: What stories that have appeared in Palm Springs Life over the past 50 years resonate with you?

A: There are many. When a convention center was being planned for Section 14 [in Palm Springs], I ran it on the front cover of our annual Progress Issue [published every October]. People here didn’t want a convention center or a busy tourist town. We scooped the newspaper, which was against it, probably because we scooped them. That’s when people began to pay attention to us editorially. After that feature story, we were no longer considered just a society rag. That was one of our editorial turning points. The Charles Luckman design was never built. But later, the city built a convention center for three or four times the cost we [had reported].

Q: Callers often are surprised to have you answer the phone — even after hours and on weekends. What is your position on accessibility?

A: I’m not running from anybody, and I’m not running for office. I’m hands-on by nature; it probably comes from my early training at the pharmacy.

Q: Palm Springs Life is considered a pioneer in city and regional magazine publishing, and your personal role in the development of this niche was feted with the industry’s lifetime achievement award in 2002. You’ve watched your ideas implemented by publishers in other markets and continue to innovate with specialty publications and a fresh new focus on the Internet. What is your philosophy of sharing revenue and content strategies with other publishers?

A: I’m very proud to contribute to others in the business. If you can help somebody succeed in a very difficult business, hey, that’s part of the game and it usually comes back to you. There’s nothing like the gift of giving. We’ve been able to innovate, but we’ve made a lot of mistakes — and learned from them. The [lifetime achievement] award was probably the ugliest award I’ve ever seen — a piece of paper in a cheap frame. That was before The Jones Agency became the agency for [the City & Regional Magazine Association]. We redesigned the award so that recipients would actually hang them up.

Q: You’ve never discussed your star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, yet many friends came together to bestow the honor. There was no celebration. After the star was installed, you received a scroll that included the names of the committee members who made it happen. One of them said the committee feared that you would never speak to any of them again. “Sigh of relief,” one said. “He did speak to us as if nothing had ever happened. Perfect.” This is a metaphor for many honors you have received. Why do you fly so far under the radar in a place where everybody knows your name?

A: No, I didn’t show up for the ceremony. I don’t mean to demean it, but I don’t consider myself a star. These are for famous writers, directors, producers, actors who have played and lived and contributed to our desert.

Q: It can get lonely at the top. Who do you turn to for high-level brainstorming on strategy and the nuances of the publishing industry?

A: I’ve made a few close friends, not necessarily in the business, but people I trust for another perspective. Very seldom do I have personal relationships with staff. I don’t want to impose on their personal time. Once in a while we get social, and that’s good.

Q: Your trajectory has exposed you to the most luxurious homes, cars, art, and the finer things in life, yet you’ve lived in the same house for decades and still drive your classic ’57 T-bird.  Do you really care about luxury or so-called status? Or is it only for your readers?

A: I could have the big house. I have a Jaguar because it was Rita’s. I use it to haul people around and to go into L.A. and Newport. I live in the same house. Whatever money was made went back into the business. Family has never taken money out. At times, we had to take a loan to make payroll. Yes, I should have bought up in terms of housing; it would have appreciated much better. But I’ve never been in front of the camera — always behind it. Besides that, I’m frugal.

Q: Publishing has changed dramatically over 50 years — from hot type and wax boards and paste up to today’s graphically intense, high-tech computer-to-plate technology. How does a resort-town publisher adapt and enjoy the efficiencies of going high-tech?

A: Most people in business take out as much [money for themselves] as they can. We don’t have to be on the heavy, glossy paper we’re on, or do a 50/50 [editorial/advertising] book. I’ve always tried to be as efficient as possible and stay on top of graphic design and technology. I’ve gone through every phase of typesetting in-house. Each time I invested, [the machines] were obsolete by the time their lease was up. That’s where the money went. Scitex [digital imaging] was a half-million-dollar investment. No company our size would have that in their plant, but it made us self-sufficient. We changed printers over the computer-to-plate issue. The printer sent me a three-page letter telling us how much it would cost them to convert, and I told our production director he’d better start looking for a new printer. I read all the industry magazines and try to know the current efficiencies we have to apply to our publishing process to maintain our quality of reproduction. If you don’t, you can lose big money in a very short time.

Q: In addition to Palm Springs Life, Desert Publications Inc. — the parent company — produces hardbound GuestLife books for hotel rooms in Monterey Bay, New Mexico, Houston, El Paso, and Vancouver, as well as visitor guides in Houston and Newport Beach, and annual magazines in Pebble Beach and Palm Desert. You’ve also published in San Francisco; St. Petersburg, Fla.; and other markets. How do these publications fit into your publishing vision?

A: When I had the opportunity to buy San Francisco magazine in 1972, I was able to break it even, get it [Audit Bureau of Circulation] audited, and triple the circulation in six years. But it took a day to get there and a day to get back. There were no direct flights. I had to make a choice between here and San Francisco. Here, I was the agency for [Desert Regional Medical Center], Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the Spa Resort, and developments (Mission Hills was first). And I had just become a partner in two restaurants in Rancho Mirage: the Medium Rare and the Pawn Shop, which we later converted to La Cave. I decided to sell San Francisco.

Guest Informant came in here and cheated on their advertising rates. I said I’m going to do my own hardbound for hotel visitors. [Each September, Palm Springs Life produces the Annual Desert Living Edition, which includes the beautiful content of the monthly magazine as well as all of the attractions, accommodations, restaurants, shopping destinations, and events in the Desert Guide section.] [Before launching GuestLife titles], we died in the summertime. Cash flow was the main objective. I needed to keep my talented staff. We became expert at promoting visitor experiences in these destinations.

Q: How is the Internet affecting the publications?

A: We were online early; we started 16 years ago and were one of the first city magazine publishers to make the investment. The first city we put up was Houston and then Palm Springs. It has not been profitable, but it will be. Every day it becomes more important. Print won’t go away in my lifetime, but people are becoming more sophisticated in how they get information, and we make our living on giving people quality and timely information. Whatever the medium in which we publish, content remains king.

Q: How do you feel about the way the desert has evolved? How do you wish it will grow from here — commercially, residentially, and in terms of tourism and new glitz and glamour?

A: I’m concerned about poorly planned developments, although I work hard for the ones that are sensitive to protecting the environment, which means so much to us in the desert. I hope we don’t blow it. We can’t let this become a San Fernando Valley. I appreciate Friends of the Desert Mountains and organizations with integrity. They’re very important to sustaining our environment and lifestyle.

Q: Your son, Frank, has long been integral to the company. How did he start, and where does he stand now in the big picture?

A: Frank started in the company carrying trunks of photography equipment, distributing the magazine. He worked in almost every department and also worked on the agency side. He went to work in the production department of a New York agency and had an opportunity to move up. They’d have sent him to specialization school, but he’d have to commit employment to them for five years. Frank’s a California boy. He asked if there was a job for him out here. I told him he’d have to apply and interview like anybody else. He interviewed with the agency and worked in production, and his involvement grew out of that. [Today] he has a tremendous understanding of the business. As I get longer in the tooth, I’ve asked, “What will you do when I’m not here?” He says he’s up to it.

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