clark gable palm springs

Anything Went

How Hollywood’s “two-hour rule” transformed Palm Springs.

Michael Arkin Current PSL, History

clark gable palm springs

Clark Gable and Charlie Farrell play lawn chess at The Racquet Club.

Long before she was cemented in all her windblown glory exposing her high-waisted underpants as a 26-foot-tall statue in the middle of downtown Palm Springs, Marilyn Monroe was AWOL. In 1962, she hadn’t reported to the set of Something’s Got to Give for more than a week, and director George Cukor was livid. His fury intensified when the actress winged to New York to sing “Happy Birthday” to her rumored paramour, President John F. Kennedy. Yes, something did have to give, and what Cukor gave was the pink slip to his chronically absent star. Among other troubles, Miss Monroe had broken the “two-hour rule.”

Some 30 years earlier, the heads of Hollywood’s biggest studios were tucked into a corner table at The Musso & Frank Grill. Over tomahawk steaks, they celebrated their studios surviving the Great Depression and averting a showdown with the Roman Catholic Church by agreeing to adhere to the Production Code. All of a sudden, actors’ work agreements contained morality clauses along with another provision they snuck in: the so-called “two-hour rule.” The directive mandated, when in production, talent had to stay within a two-hour drive of Los Angeles.

George Montgomery and Dinah Shore at The Racquet Club.
William and Mousie Powell at their Palm Springs home in 1952.

Suddenly, the options for weekend getaways were limited. Laguna Beach and Santa Barbara had their allure for the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, but why risk the weather when only 100 miles eastward was a village that promised 350 days of sunshine a year? Best of all, in the era of newfound propriety, Palm Springs was a safe haven away from the snooping eyes of the press. Long before the studios’ edict, “It Girl” Clara Bow and swashbuckler Tyrone Power infamously let loose there. When Rudolph Valentino was arrested for bigamy at the Palm Springs Hotel, it scarcely made the local paper. No stranger to Hollywood, the sandy desert had stood in for the Sahara in The Sheik, and Tahquitz Canyon’s waterfall for the mythical Shangri-la in Lost Horizon. Bound by the new rule, a fresh phalanx of actors descended on the Cahuilla land the indigenous tribe called Agua Caliente.

In the pioneer days of the village that would become Palm Springs, there was Nellie Coffman’s Desert Inn. It opened as a sanitorium for respiratory ailments and soon became the hotel of choice for well-heeled industrialists who came for the season and monitored their investments at the hotel’s in-house branch of Merrill Lynch. Although the diminutive Shirley Temple was a frequent guest who posed for pictures christening her room with a bottle of milk, the strong-willed Coffman preferred newsmakers to moviemakers.


Debbie Reynolds makes a splash at The Racquet Club pool.

Madeline Lee (“Miss Blue” of the Amos n’ Andy radio show) fills a basket with dates at El Mirador Hotel.
Instead, stars of the silver screen found refuge at P.T. Steven’s El Mirador, which opened in 1928. With a doorman dressed like General Pershing and Caesar, a caged lion, pacing above its entrance, the hotel quickly became a sanctuary for Hollywood’s elite. Thanks to a young Frank Bogert serving photos of its famous guests to newspapers around the country, El Mirador seized the headlines. With tennis courts, poolside fashion shows, biking, and aquatic expeditions starring Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe (who lodgers could watch through underwater windows), the guest register swelled. Included were Mary Pickford, Gary Cooper, John Barrymore, Eddie Cantor, and Mexican spitfire Lupe Vélez, who famously stripped naked and swam laps in the pool.
Jane Powell and Liberace read Palm Springs Life in their dressing room at the Chi Chi.

One day while horseback riding, actors Charlie Farrell and Ralph Bellamy spotted a sign advertising 53 acres of windblown land for $3,500. Figuring that it might be worth something someday, they bought it. That someday came sooner than expected when Marlene Dietrich complained to El Mirador management about the pair monopolizing the tennis courts. Determined to play when and for as long as they liked, they built two courts on their newly purchased lot, invited their friends (who paid $1 a day), and on Christmas Day 1933, The Racquet Club was born. In time, it grew to 12 courts, a swimming pool, locker rooms, bungalows, and the Bamboo Bar, which claimed to invent everyone’s favorite hangover cure, the Bloody Mary.

Similar to today’s Oscar swag events, the place attracted celebrities like butterflies to milkweed.

Magda, Jolie, Eva, and Zsa Zsa Gabor at El Mirador.
It’s where Clark Gable married Carol Lombard, Lana Turner wed Artie Shaw, Debbie Reynolds honeymooned with Eddie Fisher, Joan Crawford lost boyfriend Greg Bautzer to Ginger Rogers, Bing Crosby drank, William and Mousie Powell hosted weekly “Mouseburger” tennis tournaments, Cary Grant played lawn chess with Spencer Tracy, Rudy Vallee had to be coaxed into putting down the microphone, and 22-year-old Marilyn Monroe was “discovered” by photographer Bruno Bernard.
A 22-year-old Marilyn Monroe, shown at The Racquet Club in 1945, was “discovered” by photographer Bruno Bernard.
Shirley Temple at The Desert Inn.
“Palm Springs was a safe haven away from the snooping eyes of the press.”

He introduced her to William Morris agent Johnny Hyde, who wandered by, asking “Who’s this gorgeous dame?” The rest is Hollywood lore if not history. According to local doyenne Barbara Foster, it’s also where Mousie Powell had affairs with Clark Gable and Farrell. “That’s how I got my sex education,” the nonagenarian says. “Charlie’s nephew and I looked over the transom, and they were going at it.”

The entrance policy was so strict that Jack Benny lampooned it in a 1941 radio show entitled Murder at the Racquet Club, which was broadcast from the town’s Plaza Theatre. The punchline was that the club was so exclusive that even detectives investigating a murder couldn’t get in.


French American actress Lili Damita at El Mirador Hotel, circa 1938.

Unlike the vampirish reaction of club member Rosalind Russell who, as Auntie Mame moaned, “How can you see in all that light?” Hollywood’s biggest stars were up at dawn (or thereabouts) to go on breakfast rides, play tennis, and swim. Nights were spent drinking and hitting the Chi Chi, where names like Lena Horne and Sophie Tucker packed them in. Afterward, everyone would cross the street to Ruby Dunes, where Sinatra held court at a table outfitted with a private telephone, or The Doll House where last call was more an idea than a reality.
Johnny Weissmuller and Mickey Riley at El Mirador.
Part of the town’s allure was its Western culture. While the sight of Groucho Marx wearing a 10-gallon hat or Liberace in boots brandishing a candelabra motif may seem preposterous, on Friday nights everyone dressed like cowboys. Culminating in the costumed Big Top Ball, the Desert Circus, with its accompanying rodeo, parade, and celebrity grand marshals, was one of the busiest weeks of the year.
Errol Flynn and his wife, Lili Damita, at El Mirador Hotel, circa 1938.

Charles Farrell and Ginger Rogers play at The Racquet Club.

Casino nights were popular, but women had to hold onto their bobby pins because, according to several published accounts, The Racquet Club’s roulette wheel was so rigged, its magnets pulled them right out of their hair. Those who wanted better odds had to travel across the city line to Cathedral City, where Al Wertheimer, a member of Detroit’s infamous Purple Gang, opened The Dunes casino.

As time went on, running The Racquet Club proved to be a full-time job that Bellamy believed was cutting into his movie career. Deciding it was time to return to Hollywood, he sold his interest to Farrell for the exact amount he had invested years earlier.


William Powell and Cary Grant in Palm Springs in the 1940s.

The club continued to flourish because of Farrell and his wife Virginia’s gregarious nature. He greeted everyone with a kiss. Everyone. Women, on the lips; men, on the cheek. One day, as he was welcoming luncheon guests, actor William Gargan began to tease him, employing every derogatory name imaginable to question his sexuality. They finally took their argument outside to the tennis court, where with one blow, Farrell knocked him to the ground.

Frank Sinatra and Frank Jr. zip around Tamarisk Country Club in Rancho Mirage.

Like Farrell, who served as Palm Springs’ mayor from 1948 to 1953, the club continued to pack a punch until the late-’50s, when Father Time caught up with many of its illustrious members. The mushrooming paparazzi resulted in celebrities demanding more privacy than The Racquet Club could provide. Some bought homes on the desert’s golf courses while others, enabled by jet travel and freed from the Studio Contract System, were no longer shackled by the two-hour rule.

In 1959, Farrell sold the club and the right to use his name in association with it. An era had ended, but reminders of it still exist. One only needs to venture to the heart of town where the Desert Inn once stood. There, anchored in place never to go AWOL again, is Marilyn, standing watch over the city where her dream, like so many others, was realized.