Bill Alexander and his band play the Chi Chi Starlite Room.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
First, there was the razz of a snare drum in the 1930s, then Desi Arnaz’s orchestral swoon of horns and strings in the ’40s and ’50s, followed by comics such as Don Rickles cracking wise and crooners like Wayne Newton following them onto the stage in the ’60s. Somehow, sunny Palm Springs became the unofficial capital of the lounge act, an entertainment phenomenon unlike any other.
The lounge was a place where anything went — and often did. Barbs, jabs, sometimes even punches were routinely exchanged and thrown. Songs and acts were improvised, characters and personas developed. The general idea was to party hard, break the rules, and not take it personally.
True, Las Vegas had its own lounge scene, helped along by places like the Par-O-Dice and the Meadows Club. Palm Springs, meanwhile, remained a remote desert oasis devoid of big-city press and scrutiny. It offered off-the-wall places like the Saddle and Sirloin, the ideal environment for the lounge act to truly flourish.
“The resort community vibe meant freedom,” says Michael Green, associate professor of history at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
That it may have stolen the formula perfected at the Sahara Hotel’s lounge, “Perform, hang out in the lounge, perform, and hang out again,” according to Green, is up for grabs. What matters is that those who came to perform in Palm Springs’ lounges and those who came to watch were hooked.Sky-scraping palms, buckets of booze, and Klieg-light celebrity residents cast a bewitching spell that translated into an endless stream of tourists and tinsel town day-trippers.
“Both Frank [Sinatra] and Bing [Cosby] had houses in Palm Springs,” Green says. “So there was that allure. You never knew who would be at a show — and maybe pop up and do a number or a routine.”
Sinatra friend and television producer George Schlatter adds, “Frank loved to visit the hot ‘lounge’ spots in Palm Springs like Saddle and Sirloin, Ruby Dunes, and The Chi Chi. He’d start the night in Beverly Hills, then fly out to Palm Springs and hit the places there.”
A matchbook from the restaurant.
A band plays at Saddle and Sirloin in the early 1950s.
Wayne Newton played that same circuit in Palm Springs during the 1960s and remains grateful for those days and the loyal fans. “Not a night goes by that I don’t get a note from someone in the audience [at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas] that says ‘I saw you back in Palm Springs,’” he says.
While Newton is strictly main stage these days, he says the lounge provided him with the chops needed to succeed. “If it could happen in the lounge, it did,” he recalls. “One night, I looked out and saw a lady sitting in the audience with her top open. Forty minutes went by. No security guards, nothing.”
Eye candy notwithstanding, the lounge rewarded Newton and other regulars, such as Shecky Greene, Keely Smith, Louis Prima, and Buddy Hackett. “I learned how to handle the backlash,” Newton says, “and that there are two questions you don’t ask in the lounge: ‘Is that your wife?’ and ‘What do you do for a living?’”
The taut line between truth and trash — Rickles might call someone’s “wife” a hooker — turned into a noose at the hands of a culture that began to hold people accountable.
From an artistic standpoint, impatience won out over the lounge’s steady-build to-a-slow-burn tempo. “That’s obsolete now,” Green says. “With the fact that it’s easy to film a one-night performance and put it on Netflix, no longer is the lounge ‘special.’”
But one thing is for sure, especially in the desert as people head out to watch a live set after more than a year spent in the living room: The lounge act will never be forgotten.