charlie farrell

The Beat Goes On

A generation of Hollywood’s brightest set the stage for the idyllic resort lifestyle we enjoy today in Greater Palm Springs.

David Lansing Current PSL, History

charlie farrell
Actor Charlie Farrell co-founded The Racquet Club, which became a magnet for Hollywood royalty.

Hollywood stars originally came to Palm Springs for two reasons. First, actors were contractually obligated to be within a day’s journey of Hollywood should a studio head suddenly need their services. Second, and more importantly, celebrities could go dark in the desert. Whatever Fatty Arbuckle, who rented a bungalow at the Desert Inn for years, or Errol Flynn, known for his trysts with both leading women and men, did in the balmy desert night was nobody’s business but their own. As journalist and Palm Springs resident Christopher P. Baker wrote, in the early days, “Palm Springs was a privileged playground to the stars. Locals — and the media — looked the other way at the indiscretions of Hollywood idols, who had found a demure hideaway at the foot of the mountains for their wild parties and peccadilloes.”

• See related story: Desert Dreamers 6. They came from Hollywood.

Those days are over. Not the drinking or the sex, of course, but the anonymity of such behavior. Now if Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn tried to carry on a secret affair in the desert (as they did) it would be all over TMZ or Entertainment Tonight the next day. Times changed. As actor Charlie Farrell, co-founder of the legendary Racquet Club, once acknowledged, if the bedroom antics of the many Holywood stars who stayed at his members-only club were divulged, “We’d all be in San Quentin — or divorced.”

Farrell was one of the first Hollywood stars who not only escaped to the desert but also invested in it, transforming Greater Palm Springs into an international destination. The constellation of luminaries who brightened the area with their presence is almost as radiant as the Milky Way. Here, we introduce those who saw the potential, made it their own, and ended up leaving a lasting legacy. Their street signs remind us they were here; their stories remind us of why they still matter.

Charlie Farrell

In the movie Yesterday, released in June of this year, we’re asked to imagine what the world would be like if the Beatles had never existed. Who knows how many couples might never have ended up together, how many children might never have been born, how many entertainment careers might never have blossomed? You could say the same about Charlie Farrell and the tennis club he co-founded with Ralph Bellamy in 1933. Clark Gable married Carole Lombard at The Racquet Club; Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher honeymooned there; and Marilyn Monroe (then Norma Jean Baker) was discovered by agent Johnny Hyde while lounging around the pool. “The Racquet Club was really the beginning of Palm Springs,” Kirk Douglas said in a 1999 interview with Vanity Fair. “The first time someone took me there, I was just a kid, fresh from Broadway. I looked around and — my God! — there was Errol Flynn. Wow! Humphrey Bogart. My jaw dropped. James Cagney. Spencer Tracy with Katharine Hepburn. All these big movie stars.” Farrell appeared in 46 films and two popular television series, but it was his role as cordial host, tennis player, desert promoter, and Palm Springs mayor (1948–1953) that made him a legend. Without “Mr. Palm Springs,” as he was known, the city would’ve been just another pleasant desert outpost.

Bob hope


He sang, danced, and told jokes, but deep down, Bob Hope was a humanitarian.

Bob Hope

Bob and Dolores Hope first came to Palm Springs in 1937 to spend a weekend at El Mirador Hotel, then the glitziest place in town. (When it opened on New Year’s Eve 1927, guests included Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford.) A few years later, they bought a house in the Movie Colony, where their neighbors included Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Cary Grant. Then, Hope purchased another desert home … and another and another, keeping all of them while also buying huge parcels of land, including 80 acres in Rancho Mirage, which he donated to Eisenhower Medical Center in 1966 along with what is now Bob Hope Drive. Hope is best remembered for his support for the USO and the Bob Hope Desert Golf Classic, which ran from 1965 to 2012 (nine years after his death at 100). The antics of celebrity golfers like Jackie Gleason and Phyllis Diller (Hope’s caddy) at his tournament were unforgettable, but what makes his star shine so bright are the millions of dollars raised for Coachella Valley charities, a philanthropical largess that continues to this day.

 lucille ball


Lucy and Desi lived in Thunderbird Country Club and opened a resort in Indian Wells.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

Palm Springs became a supernova in the 1950s. Marion Davies bought the Desert Inn, where Sinatra’s favorite composer, Jimmy Van Heusen, opened a popular piano lounge. Spencer Tracy lived in a Racquet Club bungalow (No. 19) for several winters before moving to a lover’s nest with Katharine Hepburn in Old Las Palmas. And the Coachella Valley saw an explosion of new golf courses, including at the Thunderbird, Tamarisk, Bermuda Dunes, Eldorado, and La Quinta country clubs. Another newcomer was Indian Wells Country Club, where Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, built the boutique Indian Wells Resort Hotel across from the golf course.

They hired Frank Bogert, longtime mayor of Palm Springs, to manage it. Lucy and Desi had been visiting the desert since the early 1940s, holing up at either El Mirador or, later, the Racquet Club before commissioning architect Paul R. Williams to design a home for them in 1954 in the newly established Thunderbird Country Club. Their daughter, Lucie Arnaz, who still lives in Palm Springs, says the Coachella Valley was “a majestic mountain happy place where they could find refuge” from the Hollywood spotlight. She also notes that her parents were quite active in community events, including the Desert Circus, where Lucy reigned as queen in 1964, and the many Palm Springs Police Show fundraisers, where Desi often performed with his Cuban band.   

frank sinatra sammy davis jr


Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. on the golf course.

frank sinatra golf

Frank Sinatra mingles with fans.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra was worn out. Between 1945 and 1946, he sang on 160 radio shows, recorded 36 times, and filmed four movies. After the release of The Voice of Frank Sinatra, his best-selling 1946 first album, he needed a break. At the end of the year, he took his then-wife, Nancy, and their two kids for a vacation in Palm Springs. He fell in love with the place and commissioned architect E. Stewart Williams to build him a home near the Movie Colony that he named Twin Palms. Sinatra was famously nocturnal, spending most of his evenings at his favorite watering holes. It was at one such venue, the famed Chi Chi dinner club, where he met Ava Gardner. Shortly thereafter, he divorced Nancy and married Gardner. When that marriage ended a few years later, so did Sinatra’s interest in his Twin Palms estate; he moved to a new home in Rancho Mirage overlooking the 17th fairway at Tamarisk Country Club.

See related story: Desert Dreamers 8: The Crooners.

Who lived on the other side of the fairway? Zeppo Marx of the Marx Brothers and his wife, Barbara, a former Las Vegas showgirl. After Zeppo fell asleep each night, Barbara would scamper across the golf green, scale Sinatra’s fence, and … well, the rest is history. Sinatra married Barbara Marx at the Annenberg estate (better known as Sunnylands) in 1976. Sinatra’s philanthropy in the desert was legendary, though few knew of it at the time. The late Mel Haber, who owned one of Sinatra’s favorite haunts, Melvyn’s Restaurant & Lounge, recalled the singer’s generosity a few years ago. “Sometimes he’d hear about someone who was having trouble financially, and he’d just give them money anonymously,” Haber said. But his true legacy can be seen in the various institutions he helped fund: a church, a synagogue, Desert Regional Medical Center, and, of course, the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center at Eisenhower Medical Center. For his many philanthropic efforts, as well as his long career in entertainment, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan in 1985. Sinatra died in 1998 and is buried at Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City next to Barbara, who passed away in 2017.

dinah shore


Dinah Shore ignited women’s golf.

Dinah Shore

Nobody has appeared on the cover of Palm Springs Life more times than Bob Hope (more than 30 times, beginning in 1965). However, Dinah Shore gave him a run for his money, appearing annually on a cover until her death in 1994 (and there she was again, looking all glam in a 1997 cover for a “Dinah’s Friends” tribute). The singer, TV personality, and golf aficionado first appeared on the cover in April 1973, coinciding with the launch of the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association’s most important event: the Colgate Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage. Interestingly, before Colgate approached Shore about fronting a golf tournament, she’d never played a stroke.

Tennis, yes. Golf wasn’t her thing. But suddenly, it was. “Not only was she a great ambassador for the LPGA, but for all of golf,” said Charlie Mechem, the LPGA commissioner in the 1990s. Shore and husband George Montgomery built their first Palm Springs home in 1952 in the Movie Colony (Cary Grant and Al Jolson lived nearby). In 1964, Shore (now divorced) moved to a Donald Wexler–designed midcentury ranch-style estate in Old Las Palmas (currently owned by Leonardo DiCaprio). As gender identity evolved in the 1970s, Shore became a role model for women. She was independent, intelligent, self-confident, and accomplished. Without her there would be no Club Skirts Dinah Shore Weekend, aka “The Dinah,” which draws more than 10,000 women annually.

sonny bono


Sonny Bono started a film festival and VillageFest in Palm Springs.

Sonny Bono

You might be rolling your eyes as you see Sonny Bono’s name here. “Come on! Sonny Bono? The shorter half of Sonny and Cher? Mr. ‘I’ve Got You, Babe’? The star of such mega-blockbusters as Airplane II: The Sequel and Murder on Flight 502? That Sonny?” Let me tell you something: Other than Charlie Farrell, no celebrity is more responsible for the glamour that is today’s Palm Springs than Sonny Bono. Consider that when he and his fourth wife, Mary (whom he met at his restaurant in West Hollywood where she was a waitress), moved to the area in 1985 and opened Bono Restaurant and Racquet Club, Palm Springs was on life support. The city “was but a façade of its former self,” says Palm Springs Legends: Creation of a Desert Oasis author Greg Niemann. “The celebrity glitz and glamour had vanished.” About the only thing the town was known for back then was spring break, when thousands of students descended on the town like locusts. Disgusted by that and the city’s lack of growth, Bono ran for mayor in 1988. Everyone who thought Bono’s candidacy was just a publicity stunt was shocked when he won by the biggest landslide in the city’s history. The legendary cowboy mayor Frank Bogert, who had ruled the desert for decades like a John Wayne-esque sheriff, turned over his spurs and six-shooter to Bono, who quickly dumped them in the trash and went out transforming Palm Springs from a woebegone town into the alluring haven it is today. He got rid of the party animals riding up and down Palm Canyon Drive and started the Palm Springs International Film Festival, as well as a marathon, vintage-car race, cycling event, and the popular VillageFest, a Thursday night street fair along Palm Canyon Drive now in its 19th year. In short, during Sonny Bono’s tenure as mayor from 1988 to 1992 (when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives), Palm Springs got its Hollywood groove back. His accidental death from a skiing accident at South Lake Tahoe in 1998 ended his campaign to restore the Salton Sea, his longtime pet project, but the effort continues. As Sonny and Cher would say, the beat goes on.

The Gabors

There was a time, back in the ’60s and ’70s, when it seemed like there was a Gabor in Palm Springs everywhere you looked. Matriarch Jolie Gabor and her three daughters (who, as one legendary socialite noted, were “famous for being famous” long before anyone had ever heard of the Kardashians) were as iconic as desert palm trees, swimming pools, and martinis. Jolie was the first to arrive in 1957, buying up a hillside home with her third husband, the debonair Edmond De Szigethy. It wasn’t long before she opened up a ritzy jewelry salon downtown, where she served champagne to customers while her husband, who managed the store, brought out the diamonds and pearls on little red velvet pillows.

Gabor sisters


The Gabor sisters.

Daughter Eva, who was then starring in the hit TV show Green Acres with Eddie Albert, soon followed from Hollywood. Magda Gabor bought a home in Palm Springs in late 1969, after she was widowed by manufacturing kingpin Tony Gallucci. Her opulent (some say tacky) house in the mountains above the Little Tuscany neighborhood, where she lived for more than three decades until her death in 1997, was known for its signature red design touches — a red powder room, a red den, even a red grandfather clock. Zsa Zsa, who was busy marrying and divorcing a string of husbands, lodged with either mama or one of her sisters during her frequent stays in Palm Springs. She reputedly also owned a home in Little Tuscany, but there’s no “official document” of the property with her name on it (which isn’t surprising ­— the Gabors were famous for having others pick up the tab. Zsa Zsa once proclaimed, “I am a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house”).

Though the Gabors weren’t known for spreading their hard-married wealth around Palm Springs, they were always more than happy to lend their name, as well as their well-coiffed presence, to many fundraisers and charity events — as long as they attended gratis. The Gabors had the ability “to convince a charity committee that their presence would be good publicity” and help bring in the money, said writer Allene Arthur. And usually they were right.

gene autry


Gene Autry brought professional baseball to the desert.

Gene Autry

“The Singing Cowboy” met his future wife, Jackie, at a Palm Springs bank, where she was a manager. He’d come to see about getting a loan to buy what would become the Melody Ranch Hotel on East Palm Canyon Drive, now the Parker Palm Springs. It wasn’t that Autry was particularly keen on becoming an innkeeper as much as he needed a place to house his newly acquired baseball team, the California Angels, during spring training. Autry got his loan, married Jackie in 1981, and Palm Springs locals and visitors alike enjoyed sunny afternoons for years at the Palm Springs Angels Stadium watching baseball and hoping to catch a glimpse of the actor.

Autry had such a great passion for the game and its players that he lived in a modest two-bedroom villa at the back of the hotel amid the athletes before selling the property in 1994 and moving with Jackie to a 13,000-square-foot estate in Old Las Palmas, where she still resides. Jackie and Autry brought more than baseball fever to the desert; over the years, they donated generously to the Eisenhower Medical Center (including a $5 million gift in 1984 for an expansion now called the Autry Tower), a senior center, blood bank, and the Palm Springs Air Museum that stands adjacent to a major north-south artery in the city, Gene Autry Trail. Jackie is the administrator of the Autry Foundation and continues to fund many charitable activities throughout the Coachella Valley.