Bringing Fame to Palm Springs

Since the early 1900s, the desert has lured celebrities who came to play, stay, and live.

Gloria Greer History 0 Comments

Palm Springs' 75th Anniversary logoPalm Springs International Film Festival grabs international headlines because of the stars, filmmakers, press, and audiences who come here from around the world. However, it was the early Hollywood stars and producers who filmed, vacationed, and lived here who built the city’s reputation for attracting celebrities.

The city’s history Hollywood connections date back to the filming of the 1915 version of Peer Gynt, followed by Zane Grey movies. Studios discovered the wonders of location shooting in Palm Springs: vacant land with mountains and boulders (for Westerns) and sand dunes (for films about the Arabian desert).

Twentieth Century Fox constructed phony storefronts here. After film crews left, the town’s first gas station owner, Zaddie Bunker, put them to good use, building rental cottages out of them. Those rental cottages, as well as Nellie Coffman’s Desert Inn, became living quarters for film crews and stars who came here to make movies.

Hollywood’s first silent-screen sex symbol, Theda Bara, arrived in 1918 to film scenes for Salome. In 1921, heartthrob Rudolph Valentino filmed scenes here for The Sheik. He fell in love with the desert and wound up in a headline-making bigamy suit after staying at Palm Springs pioneer Florilla White’s home in 1922. It seems he brought his second wife, Natacha Rambova, with him, but inconveniently forgot to wait until his divorce from Jean Acker was final. As Valentino’s star witness in the trial, White lied and swore that the two lovebirds had not shared a bedroom when they stayed with her.

Many stars who came here to work found themselves checking out real estate afterward. Hollywood’s famed “It Girl,” Clara Bow, and her husband, Rex Bell, were early village residents. 

“It was such fun to see the movie people join in the square dances at the Desert Inn,”  Coffman’s son, George Roberson, said in a newspaper interview. “There were sheiks, harem girls, and cowboys all dancing and munching on Desert Inn fried chicken.”

Louella Parsons, the first powerful syndicated movie columnist, claimed she was responsible for Palm Springs’ fame. When I interviewed her in the late 1960s, she told me she stayed at the Desert Inn in 1926. Her gossip columns, written from Palm Springs, were carried in 600 newspapers and reached 20 million readers. “I put Palm Springs on the map,” she said.

One actor who first came here in the 1920s was not enchanted. William Powell, three-time Oscar nominee, debonair star of the Thin Man films and other movie classics, first came to Palm Springs from New York in 1925 to make a movie called Desert Gold. During our interview in 1963, he said, “I’ll never forget my first reaction to Palm Springs. There was all this sand and no place to go except the Desert Inn. I remember thinking, ‘How can anyone voluntarily come here to live? Now, this many years later, I wonder, how can anyone ever leave?’”

It took Powell until 1941 to purchase a house in Palm Springs. But he and his wife, former actress Diana Lewis (affectionately known as Mousie), became two of the city’s most beloved celebrities. Mousie even had a tennis tournament, golf tournament, and bowling league named after her. 

In 1927, actor Charlie Farrell co-starred with Janet Gaynor in a silent film called Seventh Heaven. Gaynor won Hollywood’s first Academy Award for that role. The Gaynor-Farrell on-screen romance was so contagious that they co-starred in 12 more films during the 1920s and 1930s. While none of these motion pictures was filmed in Palm Springs, Farrell and Gaynor developed a strong friendship that continued throughout their lives and brought Farrell to the desert. Farrell said it was his nose that brought him here.

“Janet and her mother had discovered Palm Springs, and Janet told me she thought the desert air would help my hay fever,” Farrell recalled in 1967. The pair’s popularity was so strong that when they drove from Hollywood to Palm Springs in a convertible, a string of cars followed them — occasionally all the way. 

Garbo, the Circus, and Beyond

By 1933, Palm Springs was so indelible to Hollywood that one of the film industry’s most-anticipated films, Camille starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor, had its world premiere at the village’s Plaza Theater, now home to The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies. Publicity spread throughout the country. Taylor was a frequent visitor and, like Cary Grant, often found time to go horseback riding with the city’s riding club, The Desert Riders. As for Garbo, she continued to visit throughout her life.

The Desert Circus started in 1934 and became a beloved annual event that raised funds for desert charities. The first circus benefited Our Lady of Solitude Catholic Church. Events included a parade and star-studded Big Top Ball. In 1938, Rudy Vallee and his orchestra provided the dance music and Gene Autry entertained. Celebrities from Jack Benny to Lucille Ball rode in floats during the annual parade. Farrell not only rode in the parade, but also claimed that if he was in the midst of a film, all he had to tell his producer was, “It’s time for Desert Circus in Palm Springs” and he would be temporarily excused from filming.

If there was a decade that led to undisputed fame and publicity for Palm Springs, it was the 1930s. That is when the biggest radio and stage personalities from New York were lured to the West Coast to star in films, among them Al Jolson and wife Ruby Keeler, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fred Allen, Eddie Cantor, and Vallee.

Frank Bogert, who later became mayor of Palm Springs, managed the El Mirador Hotel while a World War I hero transplant from London, Tony Burke, exchanged public relations for room and board there. The press was eager for photographs of Hollywood stars at play, and Burke and Bogert were eager to please. Photos taken by them flooded international press rooms. Burke borrowed a bicycle from a nearby school and soon a photo of Claudette Colbert bicycling down Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs was plastered in newspapers across the country.

Slacks had become the favorite casual attire for both men and women, but Burke remembered the shorts worn during his days in the Middle Eastern deserts, and so he found a tailor to cut slacks into shorts. They were soon sold in local stores; and it wasn’t unusual after that to open up the syndicated photo section of newspapers and find Ginger Rogers, sisters Constance and Joan Bennett, or Norma Shearer in their snappy shorts riding the village’s newly purchased bicycles on the El Mirador grounds.

During Christmas week of 1936, Burke photographed famed science fiction author H.G. Wells at the El Mirador with Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin’s two sons, Charlie Jr. and Sidney. Few knew at the time that Goddard had secretly married Chaplin that year.

With all the publicity that the El Mirador was getting, Nellie Coffman was not about to be left out. Shirley Temple and her parents were frequent Desert Inn visitors and Fox Movietone News (distributed to movie theaters throughout the United States) came to Palm Springs to photograph the child star enjoying the hotel gardens in 1937. Coffman renamed one of the bungalows the “Shirley Temple Bungalow.” One day in 1937, friends, hotel visitors, and the press gathered as 9-year-old Shirley held a milk bottle high in the air and christened the bungalow. 

Bogert was also not to be outdone. At the time, Gov. Herbert Lehman of New York was staying at the El Mirador; and the only celebrity he wanted to meet was Shirley Temple. Bogert arranged for them to have lunch together at the El Mirador. That photo was fed to 1,200 newspapers and eight magazines around the world and can still be found today in articles on Palm Springs. Other distinguished visitors to the hotel were Albert Einstein and his wife and theater-turned-film-legends Lionel and John Barrymore and John’s famous wife, the beautiful Mexican actress Dolores del Rio.       

Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, two radio performers based in Chicago, were among those who traveled west and discovered Palm Springs. They had created the Amos ’n’ Andy radio series and broadcast their early 1930s shows five days a week from the El Mirador Hotel tower, a tremendous boost for the desert playground. Correll bought a house in Palm Springs in 1936, while in later years Gosden became a desert resident and close friend of Dwight Eisenhower. The Amos ’n’ Andy programs didn’t bring a population boost to Palm Springs, because Correll and Gosden voiced all 170 characters. However, it did bring the city fame when it became radio’s first syndicated show.

Other programs airing from Palm Springs included two of radio’s most popular programs: The Jack Benny Program and Eddie Cantor Radio Show. Cantor first arrived in Palm Springs in 1927 after starring in a film at Paramount Pictures and fell in love with the town. He returned often, and in a 1963 interview told me, “It is strange to believe that in the long ago you would visit the post office, the bank, a few stores, and one or two lunch rooms. You could walk the entire village in 10 minutes.”

Fred Astaire bowled and enjoyed billiards at the Bowling Academy, a popular 1930s celebrity hangout. When Dorothy Lamour (who starred with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the Road pictures) co-starred with Ray Milland in Jungle Love, filmed in Palm Springs in 1937, she found time to go to the Bowling Academy. A few nights later, according to a column in the Palm Springs News, she posed with Edgar Bergen’s famous dummy, Charlie McCarthy, at the Saddle Bar X and then sang an impromptu song, with Bergen joining in to warble McCarthy vocals. There were no paparazzi to disturb the stars’ fun, and word quickly spread about Palm Springs being the place to see the famous off camera and off guard.

In 1934, Farrell and Ralph Bellamy opened what became the Racquet Club for all their tennis-playing friends. Three years later, the Tennis Club opened on land leased from pioneer Pearl McManus. Charter members included tennis enthusiasts Ray Milland; Frank Morgan; Reginald Owen; and MGM’s reigning musical queen Jeanette MacDonald and her husband, Gene Raymond. Other desert devotees included Lloyd Nolan and Jean Parker, whose films include her role opposite Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The popular news-short serial March of Time screened at all movie theaters. In 1937, a sequence filmed in Palm Springs called “A Billion Laughs” featured four of the best-known comics of that era: Cantor, Fred Allen, and Burns and Allen. Onlookers during the four-hour filming included Universal Studio’s young singing star Deanna Durbin, comic Jimmy Ritz, Broadway producer George White, and Columbia Pictures studio chief Harry Cohn. Everyone, it seemed, was hooked on Palm Springs.

The hook extended to Academy Award-winning director Frank Capra, whose classic epic Lost Horizons has a memorable scene shot in 1937 at Tahquitz Falls. It is at the base of these falls that Ronald Coleman lovingly looks up at Jane Wyatt atop her white horse on the cliffs above. 

Kirk and Anne Douglas bought their Las Palmas home from husband and wife Andrea Leeds (nominated for an Oscar in 1937 for her role in Stage Door) and Bob Howard, whose parents owned horse racing’s legendary Seabiscuit. Leeds and Howard built Howard Manor, a hotel that attracted more celebrities to Palm Springs.

Also in the neighborhood, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio reportedly rented a house on Rose Avenue, and Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd rented an estate on Hermosa Place. Homeowner Elvis Presley was known to buy gifts for strangers that he might see in a local store who wanted, but could not afford, a particular item. The city could never have afforded to buy the publicity that the Elvis and Priscilla honeymoon brought to Palm Springs. Presley owned two homes in the city, and the Honeymoon Hideaway still attracts fans.

Liberace also owned two homes in the neighborhood. One had room for 22 houseguests and was filled with museum-quality artifacts, including a desk that once belonged to the last czar of Russia and a dozen dinner plates initialed JFK that belonged to the late president.

Another flamboyant celebrity, Truman Capote, resided in Palm Springs for several winters. Some of us who rode horses in the Desert Circus parade in the 1970s were surprised to spot him seated in a camp chair one morning watching the parade on Palm Canyon Drive with Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister. 

Hollywood’s first singing cowboy, Gene Autry, made a lot of movies in Pioneertown in the early 1950s. When not shooting, he and the crew would drive down the hill to Palm Springs for rest and relaxation. In 1962, shortly after purchasing the Los Angeles Angels baseball franchise, Autry purchased the Ocotillo Lodge, then the Holiday Inn (later named Gene Autry Hotel and now Parker Palm Springs). “Like so many who enjoyed the beauty of Palm Springs, he did,” says his widow, Jackie Autry. “His logic for purchasing the hotels was, if you can believe this, he wanted a place to put his ballplayers during spring training. But he fixed up the properties so nice that he decided he didn’t want them to stay there!” Instead, he put most of them up at the nearby International Hotel (now The Saguaro).

Former child stars Jackie Cooper and Jackie Coogan bought homes here, as did Bonita Granville (the screen’s first Nancy Drew). Bonita and husband, Jack Wrather, later bought L’Horizon, another favorite destination for the movie set.

The Gabor family — Zsa Zsa, Eva, Magda, and mother Jolie — brought publicity and more glamour to the city with their at-home black-tie parties in the 1960s and 1970s. They subsequently moved their parties to Le Vallauris restaurant. Jolie Gabor’s jewelry store on Palm Canyon Drive thrived where the Agua Caliente Cultural Center is now located.

Iconic midcentury modern architect E. Stewart Williams designed Frank Sinatra’s first desert home in 1947. Sinatra and wife Nancy and their children — Nancy, Tina, and Frank Jr. —spent as much time as they could in Palm Springs. Daughter Nancy remembers walking on an unpaved road from their Alejo Drive home to the village to buy an ice cream cone.

In later years, many film personalities called Palm Springs home, including the late Loretta Young, who first visited in the 1920s as a guest of film director Edmond Goulding, who also hosted Carole Lombard and Clark Gable following their 1931 wedding.

Charitable Causes and Civic Duties

As movie stars made this their part-time or full-time home, their desire to participate in the future of Palm Springs grew. Cantor became a homeowner in 1941 and took pride in being one of the early supporters of the Palm Springs Boys Club (now the Palm Springs Boys & Girls Club). Opera diva and film star Lili Pons was one of the founding members of the Opera Guild of the Desert (now Palm Springs Opera Guild). Mousie Powell and Farrell’s wife, Virginia, established the Desert Hospital Women’s Auxiliary in 1951. Celebrities who worked with the auxiliary to fatten its coffers included Sinatra, Dinah Shore, and My Fair Lady composer Frederick Loewe.

No showbiz event in the United States attracted more stars than the annual Palm Springs Police Show, first held in 1949. Cantor remembered one special night. “I appeared with Harpo Marx, to whom I played straight. I accused him of stealing silver out of the dining room of the El Mirador Hotel. He said, in pantomime, ‘Search me.’ When he put up his arms, the silver fell from his sleeves. He kept protesting; and as he did, the stage was littered with knives, forks, and spoons. But here is the topper: We found, at the end of the performance, that all of these props were actually picked up by someone (we never found out by whom). And remember, this was a policemen’s benefit!”

Throughout the year, major entertainers continued to help their hometown police department, including Marx, Crosby, Sinatra, Shore, Red Skelton, Danny Thomas, and husband and wife Phil Harris and Alice Faye. You could see some of these performers at the Chi Chi, the town’s popular nightclub where headliners included Sophie Tucker, Tony Martin, Milton Berle, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, and a very young Jack Jones. But only at the Police Show could you see them all together on one night to help their community.

Farrell was persuaded to run for Palm Springs City Council in 1946. He was appointed mayor in 1948 and re-elected for a third two-year term in 1952. He brought publicity to the city, just as performer-turned-politician Sonny Bono did decades later, particularly with the conception and creation of the Palm Springs International Film Festival. (See The Beat Goes On) During Farrell’s tenure as mayor, palm trees along Palm Canyon Drive were lit and a ballpark built. Locals called the ballpark “Farrell’s Folly,” until the Los Angeles Angels began using it for spring training in 1961.

While the Marx Brothers — Groucho, Harpo, and Chico — golfed in Rancho Mirage with their brothers Zeppo and Gummo, Harpo’s wife Susan (former actress Susan Fleming) was elected to the Palm Springs Unified District Board of Education in the early 1960s and was one of its most productive members.

Anne Douglas attended Palm Springs City Council meetings, took up collections, and spearheaded the drive for sewers and burying utility lines, earning her the nickname “Mayor of Via Lola,” referencing the name of the street on which she and Kirk lived. The Douglases supported Palm Springs Desert Museum (now Palm Springs Art Museum), and Anne served on the museum’s board of directors for many years.

“She really cared about the museum,” says Janice Lyle, executive director of the museum from 1994 through 2007. “The Douglases generously loaned the museum part of their very fine art collection, and Kirk narrated the audio used during the Armand Hammer exhibit.”

Bob and Dolores Hope discovered Palm Springs in 1938 and soon after bought a house here. Though the Bob Hope Classic golf tournament for charities was played on links in Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells, the couple’s Palm Springs home — first on El Alameda and later up the hill on Southridge Drive — was the venue for some of the desert’s most glamorous parties. The Hopes supported countless desert charities, including St. Theresa School and Church. They attended restaurant openings and restaurant and hotel anniversaries to support local friends and merchants. And when Hope found troops from Twentynine Palms during the Hope Desert Storm USO tour, he and Dolores invited them and their families to visit when they returned home. The result was Hope’s Easter “Yellow Ribbon” Luncheon at the Southridge estate. It became a television special seen throughout the world and was such a success that a Christmas special was later telecast from the residence.

Liberace shared the beauty of his home with numerous nonprofits, allowing them to hold benefits on the grounds and inside his home.

Sinatra did everything he could to promote Palm Springs and help Desert Hospital (now Desert Regional Medical Center). His film Come Blow Your Horn premiered at the Plaza Theater to benefit the hospital in 1963. He hosted a golf tournament under his name as a hospital fundraiser at Canyon Country Club in the 1960s and dedicated a pavilion at the hospital named after his father. He also hosted three Valentine Love-Ins as hospital benefits, the first on Feb. 15, 1980, that raised $2 million in one night. All three Valentine Love-Ins included Italian food that had been prepared in the Sinatra kitchen and brought to the hotel.

The legacy of stars benefiting their local community continues. One of the biggest celebrity boosters of Angel View Crippled Children’s Foundation is Ruta Lee, who has owned a house in Palm Springs since 1951. Her husband, Web Lowe, recalled at an Angel View luncheon that his wife loves the nonprofit’s thrift shop so much that she bought a dress there that he reminded her she had donated to the thrift shop six months earlier. 

Barry Manilow has replaced stolen musical instruments and bought new musical instruments for local schools. He also has supported the Palm Springs-based Desert AIDS Project.

“Barry has entertained for DAP three times, generously picking up most of the charges for his talent and even his musicians,” says Mark Anton, executive director of the AIDS Assistance Program. “He entertained at our very first Dinner Under the Stars in the gardens of the Kemper Estate. It was just Barry performing alone at the piano on a beautiful, balmy night in the desert.

“Barry has returned twice more with his big band to perform for us at our much larger Evening Under the Stars, held annually at O’Donnell Golf Club. His second and third appearances broke all records, which meant large revenues and a greater impact on our mission to feed those who have HIV/AIDS in the valley,” Anton says. “Barry is just an extraordinary person.” 

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