frank bogert palm springs tram

The Ballad of Frank Bogert

Charming in his own gruff way, the “cowboy mayor” played a starring and sometimes controversial role in the pioneer days of Palm Springs.

Michael Arkin Current PSL, History

frank bogert palm springs tram

Frank Bogert was a champion of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway being built.

Editor's Note: As of this writing, the Palm Springs City Council has voted to adopt an apology resolution for Section 14 and has begun the legal process of removing Frank Bogert’s statue from the front of city hall, noting that the action was not intended as a personal attack on Bogert, whose contributions are bigger than a building, an airport, or a tramway. He left us a city that one young cowboy could never have imagined.

It’s only appropriate that in 1927, the year talkies were invented, 17-year-old Frank Bogert rode into the village of Palm Springs looking like a bronco-busting hero out of a Saturday-afternoon serial. Only a talkie could capture his gritty voice saying “Goddammit” the way he did in response to everything from the beauty of a Mexican sunset to the length of a bridal veil that he inadvertently stepped on trying to snap a photograph of a just-married couple. Hollywood would have to wait 30 years for a lens wide enough to capture the vast desert that he found when he led 60 stable horses from Wrightwood to the town he would help forge into one of the world’s preeminent resort destinations. It didn’t have to wait that long for him.

Frank Bogert, “the cowboy mayor,” in his natural habitat.
The memories are dust-covered and some details are foggy, but shortly after arriving with his team of horses, the young Bogert left Palm Springs for the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studied zoology and played football. Born in Mesa, Colorado, on Jan. 1, 1910 (the year Haley’s comet streaked across the sky), he was like any unbroken stallion: He bucked at being corralled.

He dropped out of UCLA to try acting, joining a drama class where he studied alongside the then-unknown Lucille Ball. He later said that there were 12 students in the class, and she was the only one who could act. His own lack of talent didn’t stop him. He worked as a stuntman with another up-and-coming cowboy, John Wayne. With movie star good looks and a 6-foot, 4-inch-tall frame, Bogert, known for his whip and rope tricks, was quickly offered the part of Hopalong Cassidy. Stardom was only one buckshot away until the head of Paramount Pictures discovered that his daughter had been thrown riding one of Frank’s horses up in Big Bear. He pulled the contract. While there were other parts, when singing cowboys became the rage, Bogert decided it was time to head back to Palm Springs.

The town he returned to was only a few blocks long and owed its nascent popularity to Nellie “Mother” Coffman, whose Desert Inn ushered in the concept of desert retreats, and later to P.T. Stevens, whose El Mirador Hotel opened in 1928 and became the see-and-be-seen place for Hollywood’s elite and captains of industry. Whereas the Desert Inn was staid and conventional, El Mirador mirrored the decade in which it was built: the roaring ‘20s. A caged lion paced over its main entrance while inside, the hotel crackled with excitement, conspicuous consumption, and famous faces.

Clara Bow and Frank Bogert in 1934.
The image of Frank Bogert on a horse inspired his statue at city hall.

When the dust from the crash of 1929 settled, Stevens lost the hotel. The new owners hired Tony Burke as publicity director and recruited Bogert, who’d been leading $1 trail rides, to photograph the guests. When Bogert —armed with a camera and dressed in his ever-present white cowboy hat, bolo tie, and size 14 cowboy boots — swaggered into the room, people noticed. Photographing lodgers, movie stars, and visiting dignitaries enjoying the hotel grounds, swimming in the Olympic-sized pool, and dining in its restaurants, he serviced the pictures to newspapers nationwide. Many of the photos that give us our understanding of early Palm Springs come from Bogert pointing his camera at it. He invited newsreel crews to the hotel and soon moviegoers around the world were given a glimpse of the beautiful desert oasis.

When Burke left the hotel in 1936, Bogert was put in charge of publicity. With his distinct voice and gift of gab, he was able to develop a repartee with just about anybody.

Sometimes gruff, sometimes chauvinistic, but always authentic, he treated the gardener with the same respect he showed to Albert Einstein, a hotel guest in the early ’30s. Sitting on the veranda with the scientist on a starry desert night, he teased that he was just a dumb cowboy and asked him to explain his theory of relativity, which Einstein readily did.

Bogert was known for his humorous, feigned disdain. You couldn’t talk to him without knowing he was going to put you down, and if he didn’t, he didn’t like you. Not good with names, he resorted to calling men Homer and women Old Sister or Mary Alice. Once, while emceeing a fashion show, he introduced the models, including Barbara Marx (the future Mrs. Frank Sinatra) by saying, “Get a load of these heifers.” His idea of sweet talk was to tell a woman, “You’d sit well on a horse.” Although the monikers weren’t charming, he certainly was. One only needs to see the lustful look in “It Girl” Clara Bow’s eyes in the famous photo of the two of them to understand his charismatic allure.

Local women model with Frank Bogert at El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs.
At El Mirador, he had the delicate task of asking actors Charlie Farrell and Ralph Bellamy to stop monopolizing the hotel’s tennis courts. Wanting to play as often and for as long as they liked, the pair opened The Racquet Club and hired Bogert to run it. Despite breathing the rarefied air of such swanky spots, he remained a horseman at heart. A founding member of the Desert Riders, a club of riding enthusiasts, he also led rides in Ireland, Argentina, Spain, Hawaii, and Mexico.

He spoke Spanish fluently and travelled often, but never stayed away from the desert for more than two weeks. He loved its history, its trails, and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians that had settled the land thousands of years ago. He forged lifelong friendships with tribal council leaders Vyola Ortner and Richard Milanovich as well as fellow El Mirador workers Lawrence Crossley, Palm Springs’ first Black resident, and Tony Prieto, a member of the Mexican Colony, which made him an honorary member.

In 1934, he got involved with the Desert Circus, a weeklong celebration of the Western lifestyle he loved, and in 1940 became a driving force behind the Desert Circus Rodeo.

Like a scene from a one-reel Western, in the late ’30s Bogert was bitten by a rattlesnake and wandered into the Acoma Indian Shop on the Village Green seeking help. Janice Bibo, who assisted him, was the same young woman whom he had photographed playing tennis a few weeks earlier. Cut to their wedding and a montage of the birth of their three daughters, Denni, Cindy, and Donna. Denni was in diapers when World War II started and Bogert, along with his pal Charlie Farrell, enlisted in the Navy. Then 30, Bogert served as a lieutenant commander on a carrier in the Pacific, earning a bronze star for bravery in Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Frank Bogert gets in the game.

The Palm Springs that Bogert returned to had changed. The influx of returning soldiers fueled population growth, and in that milieu, Bogert and his backers bought 663 acres of land for $34,000 and started the Thunderbird Dude Ranch. Later, the ranch became the Thunderbird Country Club, where he and his family lived across the fairway from Bing Crosby, Alice Faye, and his old friend Lucille Ball, who would call and say her kids wanted to come over to play. The jury’s still out whether it was because the Bogert girls had a pet monkey or because he was a modern-day Pied Piper whose ability to connect with children had them fighting over who got to sit on his lap.

Pretty soon, the Zelig-like Bogert was everywhere, appearing in Two Guys from Texas, a movie shot on the ranch, and working at the Palm Springs Tennis Club before returning to El Mirador in 1954 as manager.

With too many partners shouting orders at him, he quit in 1957 to run Desi Arnaz’s Indian Wells Country Club. He wasn’t kidding when he said, “I’ve had so many jobs you’d think I couldn’t hold one,” because two years later he went into real estate. In time, he was elected to the Palm Springs City Council, replacing a member he described as a “crooked, no good son of a bitch.” Back then, Palm Springs’ mayors were largely a ceremonial position appointed by the council. In 1958, they selected Bogert as the city’s eighth mayor. He served two terms, from 1958 to 1966, but left office early to care for his wife, who was battling breast cancer, a fight she lost on her 56th birthday in 1974. In an unprecedented step, from 1982 to 1988, he served another two terms as the first directly elected mayor.

Unlike John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, Bogert couldn’t be typecast as an aging cowboy. At the age of 67, he married his second wife, Negie, a mere 29 at the time. The pair could often be seen riding their horses through the Indian Canyons that he helped save from development.

Frank Bogert greets John F. Kennedy at the Palm Springs Airport.
Man About Town

Ask 10 people what Bogert’s biggest accomplishment was and you’ll get 15 different answers. Aside from welcoming every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Gerald Ford to the desert, he worked hand-in-hand with Washington, D.C.; Sacramento; the Agua Caliente Tribal Council, the city council, the Mexican Colony, African American leaders Lawrence Crossley and the Rev. Jeff Rollins, and the Jewish community’s Rabbi Joe Hurwitz to transform Palm Springs from a village to a world-class city.

He was instrumental in securing the land from the tribe for the airport; the completion of the Municipal Golf Course, Mesquite Country Club, and Palm Springs Aerial Tramway; driving the town’s economy through tourism; convincing his friend Gene Autry to bring the Angels baseball team to Palm Springs for spring training; and ushering in modernism through his work with the Alexander Construction Company and architect Albert Frey. In the characteristically humble style one would expect from a cowboy hero, Bogert stated that his most important accomplishment was the Mexican fountain at the city’s airport, but undoubtedly his most meaningful accomplishment was working with the tribe to secure 99-year leases for their sovereign land.
Frank Bogert and Palm Springs Angels president Bruce Corwin.

Negie and Frank Bogert

Land in Palm Springs forms an alternating checkerboard pattern of non-Indian and Indian-owned parcels. Until 1955, the Indians could lease their land only for five-year terms, which restricted development, especially in Section 14 — the one square mile of land extending from Indian Canyon Drive on the west to Sunrise Way on the east and Ramon Road on the south to Alejo Road on the north.

The parcel, which borders downtown, not only housed the sacred hot mineral springs that gave both the tribe and the city its name, it was the only affordable home for the city’s poor. While development of the non-Indian downtown parcels was robust, the Indian-owned ones languished in poverty, underlying the importance to both the city and the Indians who were “land rich but cash poor” to have the laws changed so that the town could expand and the tribe could prosper.

Like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, knowing it would take an act of Congress to achieve their goals, Bogert (in a suit and tie) accompanied Tribal Council Chairwoman Vyola Ortner to the U.S. Capitol, where her compelling argument, “My tribe needs Vitamin M — Money,” resonated with lawmakers. The bill was passed and signed into law by Bogert’s old pal, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Daughter Denni with Frank Bogert.

Their win was not without a cost. Hundreds of residents living on Section 14 had to be relocated to make way for the long-anticipated urban renewal. Tenants were given eviction notices, but some claimed that they were never notified and returned from work to find their homes demolished. Reporters picked up on the story, which came to the attention of the California attorney general, who mounted a probe. In 1968. a report was issued that charged “minority homes were destroyed by a city-engineered holocaust.”

Every Western has a villain, although it’s rarely the hero himself. But the disenfranchised needed a desperado, and as mayor, the unfiltered Bogert was a viable scapegoat despite the fact that he had no power to act unilaterally, especially when it came to the tribe’s sovereign land.

Frank Bogert depicted by Western painter Charles Schridde.

Ortner may have summarized it best: “It didn’t matter what color skin the residents had … The issue was, this was our land and we had a right to develop it.” Develop it they did. In place of shanties and shacks rose the Spa Hotel, Palm Springs Convention Center, hotels, shops, and restaurants that we know today.

In 1990, to honor his lifetime of service, a statue of Bogert astride his beloved horse, Chapo, was installed in front of Palm Springs City Hall. Last year, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and a wave of Confederate statue removals, some residents, including a former city council member, gave voice to an effort to vilify the now deceased Bogert and have his statue removed. Claiming he was racist and evicted residents who were almost “exclusively Black” (despite a subsequent Human Rights Commission report indicating that non-white residents represented just 36 percent of Section 14 families), a petition has garnered more than 2,900 signatures, short of its 5,000 signatures goal. David Weiner, who drafted the provocatively worded petition that he himself admits “evokes a certain response,” doesn’t want to see the statue melted down, just moved from its place of honor.

As of this writing, the council has yet to decide the fate of his statue, but the Friends of Frank Bogert, a group formed in opposition of the petition, believe that his legacy is irreproachable and the controversy shouldn’t be given any more attention. His contributions are bigger than a building, an airport, or a tramway. It’s what he left us: a city that one young cowboy could never have imagined.

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