Desert Dreamers

Desert Dreamers 2

For these pioneers, it went beyond civic pride. It became their mission in life.

Maggie Downs History

Desert Dreamers
Zaddie Bunker: The Supersonic Grandmother

Back in 1917, the Palm Springs locals didn’t even blink when they saw a woman clad in bib overalls and covered in grease. That was just Zaddie Bunker, proprietor of Bunker’s Garage, a woman who knew how to fix cars. She had a certificate to prove it because she learned her trade in a correspondence course.

After her husband left town, Bunker stayed on, continued to run Palm Springs’ first mechanics shop, and continued to grow her real estate portfolio. Her entrepreneurial developments in Palm Springs included the Village Theatre, the Chi Chi nightclub, and the Aero Palm Springs Company, which operated the airport. Bunker was also the first female holder of a California chauffeur’s license, and she used it to haul mail and passengers from the train station into town.

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After ditching her no-good husband, Zaddie Bunker opened up a garage in Palm Springs and fixed cars. She was 62 when she got her pilot’s license.

By the time Bunker was featured on NBC’s This Is Your Life in 1959, she had already obtained a private pilot’s license (when she was age 62), followed by a multiengine license, and had flown solo across the country and back again. She was an established aviatrix when she assembled a group of local businesspeople, picked up the lease for the Palm Springs Air Base (which had been established during the war by the Army Air Corps), and eventually turned it into the Palm Springs International Airport, a stunning piece of midcentury architecture designed by a local architect, the late Donald Wexler. It can be strongly argued that the biggest leap Palm Springs ever made in the 20th century was the creation of a modern airport. Not quite satisfied with all that she had achieved in the field of aviation, Bunker received special permission from the air force in the early ’60s to pilot an F-100 Super Sabre jet. Not surprisingly to everyone who knew her, she broke the sound barrier.

When she was 80, Bunker applied for the Apollo moon mission. Though she didn’t get the bid, she did get a ride in the space capsule simulator. When she died one week shy of her 82nd birthday, Bunker was one of the desert’s wealthiest women — and one who had come closest to touching the stars.

When she was 80, Bunker applied for the Apollo Moon mission. She didn’t get the bid.
Vyola Ortner: The Tribal Elder

Born in 1922 in a modest canvas tent on a parcel of Agua Caliente reservation land, the baby was named Viola — just like the flower that symbolizes loyalty, dignity, and nobility.

This was certainly a child who lived up to her name. Later changing the spelling to Vyola, Ortner was a progressive leader who also changed the course of her tribe’s history.

Her service to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians began as vice chairperson; later she became chairperson of the tribal council, which was America’s first ever all-female tribal council. Under her leadership, the council adopted its first constitution and bylaws, ratifying itself as the tribe’s official governing body.

Demonstrating a passion for her people, Ortner worked with Congress on the council’s behalf so that it became possible for the Native Americans to lease their lands for periods as long as 99 years while still retaining the titles. Ortner was also responsible for the passage of the equalization bill, in which the U.S. Department of the Interior evaluated local tribal lands and distributed them equally so each member received property with an assessed valuation of no less than $350,000.

“My tribe needs Vitamin M — money,” she said, testifying in front of Congress in July 1959.

Her arguments worked. The successes she achieved were major steps in helping local tribe members move toward economic prosperity.

When she died earlier this year at age 95, the tribe lost its eldest member — arguably one who had most impacted their lives.

“Leadership is about taking people to places they didn’t realize possible,” said current Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe in the notice of Ortner’s death. “She set out to make a difference, and along the way, she inspired many of us to step up and do the same.”


Though he did come from a Colorado ranching family and made full use of his cowboy roots, Bogert’s greatest gifts tended toward promotion of his adopted town.

Frank Bogert: The cowboy Mayor

There are myriad myths about Palm Springs, but one of the longest lived may be the idea that our valley was part of the Old Wild West. In the early days of the village, “cowboys” regularly rode their horses through the middle of town, despite the fact there were no working ranches north of the Salton Sea.

One of the area’s greatest mythmakers was Frank Bogert, who literally rode into town in 1927. It wasn’t an act. Bogert actually grew up on a Colorado ranch, and during stops at UCLA, RKO Pictures (where he worked as a stuntman and nearly landed the lead role in Hopalong Cassidy), and Palm Springs, Bogert played the wild buckaroo to the hilt, often riding his horse bare-chested and carrying a rifle over his shoulder.

While a 10-gallon hat, boots, and a big belt buckle were an indelible part of his personal rig, Bogert’s real talent — even genius — was in promoting his adopted desert city. He found his true calling as a publicist for El Mirador Hotel (now Desert Regional Medical Center)and photographed every celebrity who came out to Palm Springs for the weekend. First thing on Monday, he would drive to Los Angeles and convince every small and large newspaper in the city to run the pictures he’d taken. He went on to manage the Racquet Club and the Tennis Club and created the Thunderbird Dude Ranch … which became Thunderbird Country Club.

Bogert became the first manager of the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce, served on the board of the Tramway Authority, and was twice elected mayor of the city. During his tenure, the Don Wexler–designed Palm Springs International Airport came into existence, as well as the architecturally significant city hall and the Palm Springs police department. He even managed to get his hand into publishing and was responsible for the creation of the Palm Springs Villager, the forerunner of Palm Springs Life.

Known for being gruff and plainspoken, he infamously treated his mayoral successor, Sonny Bono, with contempt and indefensibly supported the Thunderbird Country Club’s racial and religious discrimination policies.

Still, no one man did more to put the little village of Palm Springs on the international map. In his late 70s, he wrote Palm Springs: First Hundred Years. In 2003, when the book was reprinted, Bogert was invited to the Palm Springs Library for the presentation. Regarding the crowd in the library, he remarked, “Hell, there were only 10 people at my first book signing, and all they wanted was to see if their picture was in the book.”


Governor Ronald Reagan, Dolores Hope, Edgar Eisenhower, and Bob Hope break ground on the Eisenhower Medical Center in November 1969.

Bob Hope: celebrity philanthropist

English-born Leslie Townes Hope was known for many things during his hundred years on earth. He was the consummate entertainer who parlayed these considerable talents into a career in radio, film, television, and live theater. In his latter years, he staged nearly countless USO tours to entertain troops stationed overseas and for many years, an Academy Awards show would have been unthinkable without him as its host.

He was a tireless booster of our community, owner of one of the most extraordinary homes in the world (the John Lautner–designed home in Southridge known fondly as the Hope House), and a passionate, 4-handicap golfer.

However, it may be as a civic philanthropist 
that Hope made his most significant impact.

Many know the story of frozen-food company founder W. Clarke Swanson collapsing while playing golf with former President Dwight Eisenhower in 1962. The belief that his death could have been avoided had there been a good hospital nearby led to the building of the Eisenhower Medical Center. Less well known is that a pickax might never have broken ground without Bob and Dolores Hope.

Swanson’s widow Florence moved forward with her initiative for a new hospital immediately after her husband’s death. She knew that locally only the Hopes moved freely between circles of business, philanthropy, politics, and entertainment. They responded immediately and Hope was able to convince a diverse group of benefactors — from Walter Annenberg to Frank Sinatra to Leonard Firestone — to make substantial and ongoing commitments.

Hope himself donated 80 acres of prime Rancho Mirage real estate that would eventually become the Eisenhower campus. Hope lent his name and enthusiasm to the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic Golf Tournament in 1965, an event that sent 70 percent of its revenue to the project and raised the Eisenhower effort to a national, even international, level. In 1969, Hope emceed a ground-breaking ceremony that included then Governor Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy. However, the project was almost abandoned when an independent study concluded the valley would only need an additional 50 beds by 1980.

“I was terribly down,” said Dolores in a 2001 interview. “I said [to Bob], ‘Well, it looks like we’re out of business.’ He never did say much without thinking a lot, and then he said, ‘We’re going to build a hospital.’ ”

Today, the Eisenhower Medical Center is a successful testimony to the dreamers who wanted a world-class hospital. And the man with the one-liners, who was never without a golf club in his hand, made it happen.

Kent Black also contributed to this article.