The Crooners

Desert Dreamers 8: The Crooners

Kent Black Current PSL, History

The Crooners
Dean Martin was known for saying yes when local charities asked him to perform at their fundraising events.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

ONE of the favorite pastimes among old-timers in Palm Springs is retelling the stories of the town’s glory days, when the Rat Pack and Hollywood’s brightest stars came to the desert for fun in the sun. In the eighth installment of the Palm Springs Life series Desert Dreamers, we celebrate some of the legendary singers who put down roots — Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Dinah Shore, Trini Lopez, Liberace, and Peggy Lee — and gave Palm Springs its enduring celebrity cachet.

Dean Martin: King of Cool

It might be said that Dean Martin was a bit of a phony. That glass of scotch he continually sipped from in front of live audiences and on The Dean Martin Show? Martinelli’s apple juice. The drunk onstage buffoonery? Just an act. The skirt-chasing womanizer? The fact is, there was nothing Martin liked better than getting home in time for dinner. If there was any chasing, it involved one or more of his seven kids.

With Sinatra, arguably Martin’s best friend after his partnership with Jerry Lewis disintegrated in the 1950s, there was no separating the man from the myth. He gave everything he had onstage and after the curtain went down, that’s when the real show began … quite often until dawn. When The Chairman announced to his inner circle and other hangers-on that it was time to party, only Martin had the nerve to decline. He liked to go to bed early and sober in order to get in 18 holes of golf in the morning while the rest of the Rat Pack were sleeping off their hangovers.

The Steubenville, Ohio, native dropped out of high school when he was 15 and tried his hand at a number of dubious trades such as dealing blackjack and prizefighting (welterweight) before finding work with various big bands. His rich baritone and phrasing put audiences in mind of Bing Crosby (whom he shamelessly copied) but didn’t set him apart enough to kick him to the next level. Only after he teamed up with comedian Jerry Lewis did his career take off. He and Lewis made millions in the late ’40s and early ’50s, but Martin wasn’t satisfied. He’d always wanted to be taken seriously as an actor and so split from Lewis. When Martin met Sinatra on the set of Some Came Running (1956), a nearly lifelong bond was formed. Sinatra might have been the undisputed captain of the Rat Pack, but no one questioned that Martin was his first lieutenant.

Not long after they became friends, Martin came to Palm Springs and rented houses for his family (he had divorced first wife Betty in 1949 but had custody of their four children; with his second wife, Jeanne, he had three more), before finally buying a modest Alexander in Vista Las Palmas down the street from Peter Lawford. Still, while Lawford was quick to jet over to Frank’s for desert hijinks, Martin was committed to his early-morning golf game and spending the afternoons watching Westerns on the television with his kids. Not that his buddy Frank couldn’t lure him out of the house occasionally. Their performances at Riviera were legendary and like Sinatra, Martin rarely ever turned down performing for local charities.

When Dean and Jeanne split in 1973, she got the house in Las Palmas and Martin took a newer place in Rancho Mirage where his pal, Frank, had moved after his divorce from Ava Gardner. Though Martin was briefly married a third time, he and Jeanne eventually reconciled (though never re-married) after their son, Dino, a jet fighter pilot, was killed in a crash.

By all accounts, the death of his son destroyed him. He was never the same and increasingly isolated himself. He no longer got up at the crack of dawn to hit the links and even an attempt by The Chairman to
take their act back on the road ended in shambles. He rarely visited his desert home again and died on Christmas Day 1995.

Frank and Dino

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

For Frank Sinatra, famous for his work ethic as well as for womanizing, Palm Springs was a place where hecould let down his guard and relax.

Frank Sinatra: The Chairman of the Pack

In 1947, Frank Sinatra walked into a Palm Springs office and asked to see the head architect, E. Stewart Williams. He wanted a house, big enough for his family and large circle of friends. He didn’t want it built in Old Las Palmas, which he thought was a neighborhood of snobs, nor did he want it too close to the rollicking, party mayhem of Charlie Farrell’s Racquet Club on the windy north end.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Sinatra’s lot on Alejo Road, west of Sunrise Way, was comfortably out of town in 1947. There were few neighbors, but it was almost equidistance to The Doll House, the Purple Room, and the Riviera. Drunk or sober, it was only a few minutes’ drive. Perfect.

Sinatra’s solo singing career had taken off during the war years and immediately after. In 1946, he appeared on 160 radio shows, but the constant performing took its toll. Famous for carousing, womanizing, and emotional instability, Sinatra needed a place where he could be free from the crazed bobby-soxers and demands of his own ambition. Though his career was soon to enter a six-year slump, Palm Springs proved to be the oasis where he could let down his guard and relax.

The Alejo house was famous for Sinatra’s tempestuous marriage to Ava Gardner. When that relationship ended, The Chairman elected to move farther east in the valley to Rancho Mirage where a relatively modest home at Tamarisk grew and grew until it became known as The Compound. Among the many additions Sinatra made was “the Caboose,” where he kept his huge train collection and a helicopter pad built specifically for an anticipated visit by then-President John F. Kennedy. (He cancelled at the urging of his brother, Bobby, because of Sinatra’s rumored ties to the Genovese crime family.) In the ’60s, Sinatra often retreated from the hot weather to his mountain home off Highway 74 that he named Villa Maggio (after the character he played in From Here to Eternity, and for which he won an Academy Award), but some of the most significant events of his life happened in the Coachella Valley. He met his future wife, the late Barbara Marx-Sinatra, in Rancho Mirage, and she channeled his legendary generosity into world-class philanthropy.

The valley has had its share of big-name entertainers, from Bob Hope to Gene Autry, and philanthropists such as Walter Annenberg and Harold Matzner, as well as hard partiers (who will remain anonymous), but none combined it all into a single package like Frank Sinatra.

Elvis Presley, who would own several houses in town, honeymooned with Priscilla at the futuristic House of Tomorrow.
Elvis Presley

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Elvis Presley: The King in Palm Springs

Between billboard advertising and a rather gaudy, shrill website, you’d be forgiven if you believed that the house on Ladera Circle in Vista Las Palmas — aka Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway, aka The House of Tomorrow, aka The Alexander Estate — was the
Palm Springs equivalent of Graceland and the only spot in the valley where The King ever hung his sequined eagle jumpsuit.

In fact, Elvis lived in a number of houses in Palm Springs, all roughly within walking distance of each other in the Las Palmas and Tuscany neighborhoods. He resided in the futuristic, Alexander Company–built house for about two years, starting in September 1966. Built in 1960, the house had been featured in a Look magazine article about Robert and Helene Alexander and their exotic life in Palm Springs. Bob Alexander built countless midcentury homes in the area before he and his family died in a plane crash in 1965. Thus, when their house came up for lease for $21,000, Colonel Parker talked Elvis into taking it because it was down the street from his own Palm Springs residence.

A couple years after Elvis and Priscilla honeymooned at The House of Tomorrow, Elvis purchased land at 845 West Chino Canyon in the Little Tuscany neighborhood in order to build his own house. The vaguely modern Spanish Revival meets boring modern tract home became known as Graceland West in the ’70s, though it has none of the outlandish charm of the singer’s Memphis residence. Still, Elvis, his wife, and daughter, Lisa Marie, spent time here several months per year. It was a pivotal period in the performer’s life. When he started acting, the idea was to sell a soundtrack album for every movie. It was a formula that worked well through most of the ’60s, but by 1968, it was becoming stale. A younger generation preferred The Beatles and Rolling Stones. Elvis’ career plummeted. During this period in Palm Springs in the late ’60s and early ’70s The King forged his famous comeback.

After he and Priscilla divorced in 1973, Elvis added another 2,000 square feet to the Chino Canyon home. Elvis had gotten used to spending as much free time
in Palm Springs as he could. Though he had Graceland in Memphis and a home in Pacific Palisades, Palm Springs was a place where he could relax out of the public eye. Because of the extensive renovations to his Chino Canyon estate, he looked around for another home close by.

At the time, Elvis was renting a house from Warner Brothers chief Jack Warner on Cahuilla Road in Old Las Palmas. Warner had a house next door on Via Lola. Legend has it that Warner bought the Old Spanish Revival house on Cahuilla because he didn’t like the music the original owner played at his parties. It’s unknown whether Warner liked Elvis’ parties better, but the movie mogul evidently liked Elvis enough to let him make a few interesting additions to the property. To this day, several of the guest rooms contain (nonworking) closed-circuit cameras that were connected to the master bedroom. How they were employed will always be a matter of speculation.

Not long after the renovations to his house on Chino Canyon, Elvis succumbed to a heart attack at Graceland in 1977. He was 42.

Dinah Shore

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

Dinah Shore, best known for her commitment to promoting women’s golf, commissioned Donald Wexler to design her home in the Old Las Palmas neighborhood. Its current owner is Leonardo DiCaprio.
Dinah Shore: Lady of the Pond

If actress, singer, talk show host, and golfer Dinah Shore were alive today, she might be surprised to learn that the most popular lesbian festival in the world, the Club Skirts Dinah Shore Weekend, was named in her honor. Commonly known as The Dinah, the long weekend of poolside and nightclub festivities typically coincides with the LPGA ANA Inspiration golf tournament.

Considering Shore’s ardent promotion of women’s professional golf and a career that always defied expectations, she’d likely be delighted. As she would be with the LPGA tradition that the winner of the tournament, which launched as the Colgate Dinah Shore in 1972 and spawned the namesake girl party, celebrates her victory on the 18th green by jumping in “Poppie’s Pond.”

She was born Frances Rose Shore to Russian-Jewish immigrants who operated a store in Winchester, Tennessee. Shore majored in sociology at Vanderbilt University where she made her radio debut with a popular song from 1925 called “Dinah.” She legally changed her name in 1944. After college, she moved to New York began looking for work with big bands.

Shore didn’t land a gig, so she struck out on her own and became one of the most successful female solo entertainers of the 1940s and ’50s by appearing regularly on radio shows. However, television proved to be Shore’s true calling. In a series of variety and talk shows from 1950 to1991, she became a small-screen favorite, as much for her Southern charm and musical talent as for her willingness to book an extraordinary range of guests, from best buddy Lucille Ball to rock legend David Bowie, and even comedian Andy Kaufman who, in the guise of his obnoxious Tony Clifton character, dumped a pan of eggs on Shore’s head.

Well-known around Palm Springs in the village’s  infancy when she was married to George Montgomery, she commissioned architect Donald Wexler to design a home for her in Old Las Palmas (it is now owned by Leonardo DiCaprio). However, it is her commitment to women’s golf that has had the most lasting impact.

Shore had been a swimmer and a tennis player but agreed in 1972 to put her name on an event for the LPGA. She soon began playing the game and promoting the Colgate Dinah Shore Winners Circle Tournament at Mission Hills Country Club, Shore’s home course. The entertainer, who was romantically linked to younger men such as Burt Reynolds and Iggy Pop, died shortly before she was elected an honorary member of the LPGA Hall of Fame in 1994. Her event, now the ANA Inspiration, is one of the top professional women’s golf tournaments in the world.

Trini Lopez, who recorded with Sinatra’s Reprise Records, bought an Alexander home in Palm Springs’ Vista Las Palmas neighborhood.
Trini Lopez

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Trini Lopez: Mr. La Bamba

In the early ’60s, a kid from a Dallas barrio started packing them in the Hollywood nightclub P.J.’s. His material was, to say the least, eclectic. He sang soul tunes such as “Unchain My Heart,” Latino classics like “La Bamba,” show tunes, love ballads, and folk songs. And it was his unique, hand-clapping version of the classic “If I Had a Hammer” that caught the attention of one Frank Sinatra’s musical associates.

At the time, Sinatra was expanding the talent roster of his Reprise Records. Recognizing that the energy and audience enthusiasm in a Lopez performance could not be duplicated in the studio, Sinatra and his associates recorded Lopez’s first album live at P.J.’s. It made him an instant star, and the folk single “If I Had a Hammer” topped the charts for more than a year. For a few minutes in 1963, Lopez was bigger than The Beatles. In fact, in 1964 they co-headlined in Paris and, by some accounts, it was Lopez, not the Fab Four, who drove the fans wild.

Like his close friend Elvis Presley, Lopez bought a house in Palm Springs’ Vista Las Palmas neighborhood (an Alexander home that went on the market earlier this year) and spent time there whenever he was not touring or headlining in Las Vegas. He also tried acting (The Dirty Dozen) and designing guitars for Gibson. However, by the early 1980s, the schedule caught up to Lopez and he decided to take up residence full time in the desert. As he told Palm Springs Life last year, “I wasn’t retired. I’m still not retired. I told my people, I think I’m gonna just cool it for a while. I came to Palm Springs to my little house here, and I used to sit by the pool every day and get some sun, and I never saw anybody for a year.”

In 1987, when the film La Bamba was released, his name was again on everyone’s lips, and his career again picked up.

Lopez, now 81, remains a proud valley resident who in 2016 released Trini Lopez All Original Songs, a CD of original material he wrote with co-producer Joe Chavira.

Liberance

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

Liberace, who denied his sexuality until the day he died, was known for throwing lavish parties at The Cloisters, his famous Palm Springs residence on the corner of Belardo and Alejo roads.
Liberace: Lee

There is a photograph of Liberace near the pool in the backyard of one of his Palm Springs homes that, by the looks of the bathing suits and haircuts, is probably from the early ’60s. It depicts “Lee,” as his friends called him, and a muscular young man engaging in a wrestling match. There is a lot of holding and very little evidence of resistance.

Milwaukee’s most famous son, whom Guinness once reported as the world’s richest piano player, first set eyes on Palm Springs in the early 1950s when it was still a quaint village where movie stars came to hide out and play sports (like poolside wrestling) that their studio bosses two hours to the west would likely frown upon.

Except for a couple adoring octogenarian fans in the Nebraska hinterlands, no one doubted Liberace’s sexual orientation. Nevertheless, the pianist was of a generation and from a Catholic background that did not allow for openness. To the day he died from AIDS-related complications in 1987, Liberace denied his homosexuality, successfully suing twice for defamation.

The quintessential showman (he once described his music as “classical with all the boring parts taken out”) loved buying and selling property. At one time, he owned 11 homes, including three only minutes away from each other in Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Hills, and Sherman Oaks. In 1969, he famously lost out on the famous (and reputedly haunted) Tower House in London to Richard Harris.

Of all his homes, the four he owned in Palm Springs were his true sanctuaries, especially his former home on the corner of Belardo and Alejo. Built by contractor/carpenter Alvah Hicks, the Spanish Revival came to be known as The Cloisters. Rumors of sex and drug-fueled orgies may be somewhat exaggerated. After all, his mother lived in a house behind The Cloisters, and his brother, George, lived down the block on Monte Vista.

Those who knew him say that far from living an insular gay lifestyle, he was interested in people from all walks, though he reserved a special, fawning part of his heart for the rich and powerful and, particularly, the titled. Local resident Jere Ring, who knew Liberace professionally and counted him among his platonic friends, told The Desert Sun prior to HBO’s telecast of the biopic, Behind the Candelabra, in 2013, “[Liberace] would bounce around. If he had a party, he liked to have glamorous women. People would bring other people around. He would hang on to people from his former shows. There was a circle of people around Liberace who were self-appointed guardians.”

Unfortunately, his guardians could not protect him from former chauffer and lover Scott Thorson’s palimony suit in 1982. It dragged on with Liberace refusing to acknowledge his sexual orientation and relationship with Thorson even after he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1985. Even when he knew he had little time left because of his disease, Liberace continued to entertain friends with lavish parties at The Cloisters. It is the place he chose to spend his final days before he died  in 1987.

Peggy Lee

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

Peggy Lee
learned how
to hush a room
with her low
and sultry voice
while performing
at The Doll House.
Peggy Lee: Miss Peggy Lee

Norma Delores Egstrom was a long way from Hollywood when she graduated from high school  in 1938 in the small farming town of Jamestown, North Dakota. Her widowed father, a Swedish immigrant who worked for the railroad, raised her, along with a stepmother whom she was anxious to escape.

She made it to L.A. … but the sojourn was brief. Norma Delores returned to North Dakota in defeat, but the statuesque singer was still determined to escape. The next year, she did — as a young woman named Peggy Lee singing on a Fargo radio station. This landed her many nightclub appearances, one of which took place at a raucous joint on the outskirts of Palm Springs called The Doll House.

Opened by Ethel and George Strebe in 1946 on North Palm Canyon Drive, The Doll House was the place to dance, drink, and raise a little hell during the high season. It was wall-to-wall celebrities from the time it opened to last call and hosted everyone from Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball to Jack Warner and Bob Hope. The number who could simply walk from their Las Palmas or Movie Colony home was too many to count. Decorum at the nightclub dictated that one shout at least twice as loud as anyone at a neighboring table. Into this madhouse came Peggy Lee, determined not to ride that bus home again. She knew she’d never sing above the din at the nightclub, so decided to put everything she had into a gamble.

She sang low and sultry, barely above a whisper. The yelling in the nightclub subsided, conversations ceased, patrons who hadn’t even noticed Peggy Lee take the stage were craning their necks, silent as judges, trying to hear every note. Years later, jazz critic Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker called Lee “a stripped note singer … her vibrato spare and her volume low. She is a rhythm singer who moves all around the beat, who swings as intensely and eccentrically as Billie Holiday.”

Lee went on to join Benny Goodman’s big band during the war years, and her popularity soared. Before war’s end, she’d left Goodman and recorded her first million-selling hit, “Why Don’t You Do Right.” In the ’50s, she moved into films, scoring them (Johnny Guitar) and singing (The Lady and the Tramp), and won an Oscar nomination for her role as an alcoholic jazz singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues … years before Sinatra took home the prize for From Here to Eternity.

Lee never forgot the town that launched her. She regularly performed at the Riviera and spent considerable time in the desert with third husband Brad Dexter, who became a Rancho Mirage resident.

Lee struggled with a number of health issues, including diabetes and the effects of a bad fall that left her temporarily blind and deaf. Still, she soldiered on, and by the time she was finished with this mortal coil at age 81, she had recorded more than 60 albums and 600 songs.

It was a phenomenal career, and it started on North Palm Canyon Drive.