Known today as much for its painted-on-velvet “mascot” of a Polynesian woman by Edgar Leeteg as for anything specific (most of the club’s patronage has passed on), the Chi Chi Club was nevertheless a vibrant part of Palm Springs’ nightlife for nearly 25 years, showcasing top-tier talent and a flair for publicity.
The owner, Irwin Schuman, was a master showman. He bought the club in 1941 and envisioned the Chi Chi as a venue that would put young Palm Springs on the cultural map. He figured the stars were coming out to the desert regularly anyway, and they needed a place to party, a venue quite special and exclusively theirs, a rarified atmosphere that would snare the wannabes as well. Heck, on any given night, there were as many stars in the booths as on the stage. (Natalie Wood, Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, and gangster Sam Giancana were regulars.)
Schuman followed the supper club formula: copious amounts of red meat — the club claimed to have Palm Springs’ only hickory broiler — sizzling by on trays hoisted by handsome waiters, shakers and tumblers full of Old Fashioneds with bitters, and an entertainment lineup that included every top singer, bandleader, and performer in the country, and, in many cases, the patrons’ neighbors.
The Chi Chi Club was nevertheless a vibrant part of Palm Springs’ nightlife for nearly 25 years.
Robin Montgomery remembers being taken there as a 12-year-old, getting all dressed up to tag along with her adventuresome father, and being disappointed at having to leave as the real guests were arriving “in long gowns with jewelry,” she says. “It was so glamorous.
But good luck finding people around today who remember anything more than red leather banquettes and what seemed like a party every night, to which you were invited if you could pay the cover.
Indeed, the glow of the Chi Chi archetype is so iconic, we are still in its thrall decades later, even now when staying out late doesn’t fit with our work ethic.
Still, a new generation of impresarios now has picked up the gauntlet, and we have seen a few supper club choices emerge in the valley.
Getting Palm Springs revelers to pay for a cover charge is a hurdle, of course — as is crowbarring potential patrons from their flat screens at night — but the scene is definitely back, just writ a bit smaller.