El Mirador – A Grand Hotel

El Mirador had a style and charm which reflected a time of graciousness and conviviality.

Elmer Peterson PSL and Villager 0 Comments


(Republished from the November 1977 issue of Palm Springs Life magazine)


It had 165 rooms to start with, and it once was advertised, with exuberant use of words, as "a magnificent palace of splendor."

More simply stated — a true luxury hotel.

It attracted well-known persons from over the nation and from Europe. Guests included Albert Einstein, the scientist; John Barrymore, the actor; Lord Beaverbrook, the London publisher; Salvador Dali, the artist, and a child movie star named Shirley Temple. H.G. Wells, English novelist and historian, came to enjoy the desert sunshine, as did the Earl of Warwick, along with such American tycoons as John Jacob Rasob, Thomas Wanamaker and Charles Howard, who owned a famous horse named Sea Biscuit.

For pre-World War II days, in a small village known as Palm Springs, it was a remarkable achievement for a hotel. And for good reason.

It boasted an Olympic-size swimming pool with five diving boards, an underwater window on the pool for use by photographers, and a pool observation platform.

With an impressive landmark that became known and recognized everywhere — a pink Byzantine tower from which the hotel took its name — El Mirador — meaning "The Lookout."

A somewhat bizarre touch, at one time, was a full-grown lion, pacing in a cage above the hotel entrance and spotlighted at night. A temperamental lion that would eat only when its keeper was with it, stroking it gently as it ate.

Today, after 49 years of such headline activity, part of El Mirador still stands on North Palm Canyon Drive, but only as a structure, warmly wrapped in memories. Waiting now for the final gesture. The final headline. It is scheduled now for demolition, except for the tower, to make room for additions to Desert Hospital. The tower will be kept on the hospital grounds. The great pool already is filled in.

It's the end of a many-sided story — involving hope, initiative, disaster, success, change, and decline. In that order. A story, in its way, of how Palm Springs left off being a quiet village and became a world-recognized resort city.

It began in 1927 when a Palm Springs pioneer named Prescott Thresher Stevens took a gamble on the future. Not on the stock market, the popular game at that time, but on the future of Palm Springs as a resort community. What Stevens, a well-to-do land developer from Colorado, took a chance on was building a hotel he felt would lure free-spending visitors to the area. A really exceptional hotel, located on 20 acres of ground. With a landmark tower unlike anything the desert has known. Then and now.

For Palm Springs, with only one paved street at the time, it was an extraordinary venture. By an extraordinary man. There was the Desert Inn, to be sure. But the inn, fashionable and elegant as it was, had its built-in clientele. It was quiet and decorous. What Stevens and his associates brought about was a hotel that was to signal the nation, in no uncertain terms, that a desert vacation in California could have liveliness, variety and style — real style — for those who could afford it.

The price tag for this sort of desert vacation came to $26 a day. American plan. Room and three meals a day. With a superb menu. But not to be judged by today's standard of dollar value. At that time $26 a day wasn't for everybody.

It took time to complete the new hotel — to get it landscaped and all. At the beginning it stood out in bold relief on wind-blown desert wasteland, remote from Palm Springs proper. But there was a New Year's Eve party on December 30, 1928, with a grand opening the following February. Hollywood personalities promptly found the hotel intriguing. The hotel register began to glitter with names like the Barrymores, Charles Chaplin, Leslie Howard, Charles Laughton, and Victor McLaglen. Ralph Bellamy and Charles Farrell, who were to start the famed Palm Springs Racquet Club a few years later, were steady patrons.

So the Stevens dream took hold.

And then — disaster! The 1929 stock market crash.

Anthony (Tony) Burke, now a Palm Desert real estate broker, who served as the hotel's first publicity director, recalls what happened:

"Stevens," Burke explains, "had no way of knowing what was going to happen to the nation financially. But he was a man of vision as far as Palm Springs was concerned, more than many others at the time. A man with a curious habit of dress, in that he would wear an overcoat on occasion, but never a necktie. But he believed in Palm Springs. He created several early subdivisions. And Palm Springs, keep in mind, was doing a good business at the time, with wealthy visitors who came out of the midwest and east for the then-precise six-months-long desert season. But all that changed with the stock market debacle. And Stevens went down with it."

As the Palm Springs Villager was to report: "P.T. Stevens, an optimistic pioneer, surrendered his fortune to what became a frankenstein, and died under the strain of heavy debt during the early years of the Depression."

For El Mirador it meant the auction block. It was sold, in 1932, for $300,000 to Warren Pinney, attorney for the hotel, and Ralph LeCoe, a businessman-investor.

But this brought on an important question for the new owners. How to put over a luxury hotel, with high standards — expensive standards — in the midst of the nation's big economic shakedown? How to attract those who had the money to spend, and were willing to spend it despite the times?

It was up to Burke, as publicity director, to provide the answer. And Burke, an Englishman, a former assistant director at MGM in Hollywood, whose amazing and varied career will be detailed in book form, with an introduction by Bing Crosby, has this explanation of a success story:

"We began by assuming there were people with money to spend. There always are, even with a nation in an economic tailspin. Our problem was to get the right publicity, and lots of it, without having any money to speak of to spend on it. And those were days, mind you, when some newspapers across the country kept referring to Palm Springs as being in Florida, not in California. A mixture of ignorance and jealousy. A tendency to look down their noses at anything west of the Mississippi. So the nation had to be told. It had to be educated."

The answer was: do it with pictures.

"What we did," Burke relates, "was invite the newsreel cameramen — Pathe, Fox Movietone, Paramount, and the others — to be our guests at El Mirador. With free room, free meals, and all the rest. We'd give them a great time, and then put on a real show for them. Diving exhibitions, for example. With stars like Dutch Smith, the famous Olympic diving champion, as coach and director. We had aquatic stars like Clarence (Buster) Crabbe, Johnny Weismuller, Georgia Coleman, Bill Lewin of Canada, and the great Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii. We had them all, in diving and swimming contests. And the cameramen and photographers did the rest, giving us publicity that brought in more prominent people as paying guests. Guests who made good news copy in their own way, at a time when pictures were really important. When you went to the movies to see what was going on. The good old newsreels."

Among El Mirador guests who made good copy at the time was Albert Einstein, the famed German scientist, who was newly arrived in this country.

"He came to Palm Springs as the guest of Samuel Untermeyer, the well-known attorney," Burke recalls. "He stayed for a time at Untermeyer's home and then spent three weeks at El Mirador. No one was allowed to take pictures of Einstein and his wife, but I got permission to do so. I sent out stories and pictures and they got attention everywhere. And Einstein, let me say, turned out to be a delightful person. It was difficult to talk with him, since neither he nor his wife spoke any English. Very little, anyway. But he was amazingly genial at times. On one occasion he borrowed a violin and took part in one of the hotel's Sunday night musicals. He used to wander about the hotel, wearing bedroom slippers. And he enjoyed walking out into the desert — there was nothing between the hotel and Indio to speak of at the time — and go poking around in the sand. Thinking his own thoughts. So he made excellent copy for the hotel. And that's the way we worked to put the hotel, and Palm Springs, on the map. We knocked out the idea that Palm Springs had to be in Florida."

Helen Kenaston (Helen Lindsay), who managed the I. Magnin store at the hotel, a celebrity in her own way, remembers this period of El Mirador history for its attention to detail in food, service and entertainment of guests. For what it stood for in style and fashion:

"There was such a conscious effort to make things perfect for the hotel guests, with picnics, riding parties, breakfast cook-outs, and fashion shows. It was a time when people really dressed for dinner. And when it came to clothes, the guests bought in amazing quantity as well as quality. They bought furs as well as desert attire. Whatever they wanted was sent to the hotel from Los Angeles. And the hotel itself became a beautiful garden spot as trees and shrubbery were planted, with scenes and incidents that can never be forgotten. Like seeing Samuel Untermeyer and Albert Einstein locked into a tight bridge game. One could only stand and marvel at that particular contest of minds."

Then, in 1936, Burke left the hotel for other assignments, including managing the Palm Springs Tennis Club and serving as chief public relations officer for the late Howard Hughes. The task of dreaming up ideas, of selling El Mirador as a hotel, was given to Frank Bogert, who later became mayor of Palm Springs. The routine of how to treat a guest royally, how to make a guest feel important, swept on to new highs.

There was the day when Jimmy Walker, colorful mayor of New York, arrived for a stay at El Mirador.

"We met him at the Palm Springs railway station with a stagecoach," Bogert recalls. "We brought him in in real style, getting it all down on film and still pictures, of course, including the way he was greeted at the hotel by Gus, our famous doorman, who looked like General Pershing, with more dignity than any man had a right to have."

It was a continuation of publicity maneuvers in the manner of the '30s. It involved checking up on important people, getting stories into national newspapers, along with hometown publicity, with full use of the picture magazines that were coming into being — magazines like Life and Look. The premium was always for doing things differently. The odd and the unusual. Like a poolside Christmas party that Bogert organized, with the Christmas tree under water, anchored to the bottom of the swimming pool.

"We had Santa Claus under water, alongside the Christmas tree, breathing through a tube, with children and grownups diving down to get their presents off the tree. It made good photo copy. And by that time we had the underwater window in the pool, a real break for photographers, both the professionals and the amateurs."

Among other things, Bogert made a publicity pitch at popularizing shorts for men. He cut off some slacks at the knee, then hired some men to wear them while pulling a rickshaw through the streets of Palm Springs. It was something new, different.

But the photo release that Bogert remembers best, and is most proud of, involved Shirley Temple, child movie star, at age 7.

"We had Governor Herbert Lehman of New York as a guest at the hotel," Bogert recalls. "He wanted privacy. No interviews. No photos. But he expressed one wish. He said he'd like to meet Shirley Temple who was staying at the Desert Inn with her mother. I said I'd try to arrange it. And I did. Shirley's mother said she'd like to meet the governor. So they met for lunch beside the pool at El Mirador. I took several pictures and thought I was doing pretty well until little Shirley spoke up and said, 'Look, Mr. Bogert, why don't you stand over there with your camera? The governor can sit where he is and I'll cheat a little toward him. I think that will do much better.' . . . Well, I did what she said and got a picture that went all around the nation. By following the advice of a 7-year-old. But what a 7-year-old!"

What Bogert remembers, too, was the reaction of the Desert Inn to a photo that gave El Mirador all the publicity.

And so it went until World War II erupted. The Army bought El Mirador and turned it into Torney General Hospital for sick and wounded soldiers sent home from the war in the Pacific. Here again an example of what can happen to a hotel. As Bogert tells it:

"Warren Pinney, who owned the hotel at the time, got a bit panicky. He felt sure the war would end tourist travel to Palm Springs, what with gas rationing and all. He expected the Army would pay him handsomely, and agreed to sell. But the Army found out the hotel had been valued at $420,000, in seeking a lower tax, and wound up paying Pinney that amount. On the other hand, the Desert Inn stayed open during the war, and did very well. Palm Springs was coming into its own, regardless."

The war over, the United States Army put El Mirador on their surplus property list, first offering it for sale to the City of Palm Springs. Residents voted on a resolution to have the city buy the property for a civic center, but the vote was negative. The hotel then went through several changes of ownership until 1952 when it was purchased by a group of investors, including Roy Fitzgerald and the late Ray Ryan, reportedly for about $900,000.

Something like the old life now came back to El Mirador with Hollywood personalities as steady customers. William Holden and Dean Martin were regulars, as were such stars as Gregory Peck, Paulette Goddard and Ginger Rogers. Louella Parsons, the famous Hollywood columnist, was a frequent guest, and radio personalities like Arthur Godfrey joined the list. Two famous radio stars, Freeman Gosden and Charley Correll of "Amos 'n' Andy" fame, did their show from a special studio set up for them in the tower of the hotel. They wanted to spend their winters in the desert and were prominent enough to put it over, giving additional publicity for hotel and city through a radio show with 40 million regular listeners.

But times were changing. Bogert came in as manager in 1956 and, with the hotel losing money, began booking in conventions, a distinct departure from tradition.

Four years later, another change. Ryan bought out his co-investors for a reported $900,000 and announced plans to spend another million in refurbishing. To liven things up, he brought in big-name bands and innovations like a steel drum band from Trinidad.

El Mirador was back in good form, with headline guests including the late Howard Hughes.

"He booked a cottage," Bogert relates. "But no one saw him arrive. No one saw him leave. No one saw him. Period. Blankets were hung over the cottage windows from the inside. Food was prepared inside. Trying to find out who was with him became the great guessing game of the moment. And we never did find out."

What did become clear, as the hotel steered its way through the '60s, was that the old order was slipping away. Palm Springs had new attractions and more hotels. Air travel was emphasizing vacations in Hawaii, in Europe. The picture magazines and Sunday newspaper supplements were giving up to television. Old-style publicity had had its day. Old-style luxury hotels, catering to the individual rather than the group, with expensive grounds and accoutrements, faced new problems.

In 1968 ownership of El Mirador passed to Mr. and Mrs. John Conte, who used part of the property for a television studio. In the years that followed the hotel remained open but with diminishing popularity, until it was sold in December 1972 to Desert Hospital, adjacent to the hotel, for $4 million.

That is pretty much the end of the story. Except that for a little time yet one can walk the once fastidious grounds of the old hotel. One can look across the lobby where famous people once gathered for afternoon tea. One can look at the splendid tower, with its enclosed balcony, where, while millions of Americans sat beside their radio sets, Amos and Andy brought them uplift and laughter. And, with some recourse to imagination, one can see again the swimming pool where newsreel cameramen ground out film of aquatic stars, while guests from far and wide watched from poolside and from their private cabanas. All this is part of what was, in its way, a storybook hotel with half a century of both troubled and glamorous history.

There is an important and insistent question about it all, one that can't be ignored.

Where would Palm Springs be today, it can be asked, if it had not been for El Mirador? With all the publicity that was achieved. All the photographs and film that were spread across the nation. And to other parts of the world. In the clever, persistent, and happy way in which publicity was handled. At the time. Way back when.

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