In 1987 I was researching a story about a connection between two of the oldest and most memorable Palm Springs institutions: El Mirador Hotel and The Racquet Club. It was just a few years before Charlie Farrell — movie and TV star, former mayor of Palm Springs, and founder, with Ralph Bellamy, of The Racquet Club — died of a heart attack at 88.
The old Mirador Hotel was still around, if just barely (the hotel closed in 1982 and was converted into a hospital, but a fire in 1989 destroyed what was left of the once-elegant hotel and its landmark tower). Farrell’s Racquet Club was also in its death throes, although it was unknown to me at the time. A bartender at the Bamboo Bar at the nearly deserted Racquet Club had scribbled Farrell’s address on the back of a cocktail napkin for me. Because he hadn’t given me a phone number that afternoon, I immediately drove the few blocks to Farrell’s Spanish estate in the Movie Colony and knocked on his door. A disheveled, pale man, unshaved, wearing a ratty bathrobe, and holding a glass of scotch, opened the door. It was Charlie. I explained my mission, and he waved me in.
I sat down on a low-slung chair in the darkened family room, the heavy drapes pulled tight. The TV was on, some old black-and-white movie was playing, although the sound was off. Without asking, Farrell poured me a tumbler of scotch, neat, and freshened his own. I told him I found it kind of ironic that he lived close by the old El Mirador where, supposedly, he and Bellamy had been banned by owner Warren Pinney in the early 1930s because too many guests were complaining about them hogging the tennis courts.
The inimitable Charlie Farrell either wishing club member Kirk Douglas better luck next time, or congratulating him on fine play at The Racquet Club.
“That’s not what happened,” Farrell protested in his still-distinctive high-pitched voice.
I reminded him of a story from Desert Magazine from the early 1960s he had penned on the beginnings of The Racquet Club, which was exactly what I had related; that he and Bellamy started the club because guests at El Mirador complained that they spent too much time on the courts.
“I know what I said.” He took a drink of his scotch. “But that’s not what really happened. Some guests complained, sure, but not because we were always on the court. People complained about the Jews on the court. They didn’t want the Jews playing tennis. That’s really why we started The Racquet Club. Anti-Semitism. There was a lot of it out here in the desert back then.”
A few days earlier I’d interviewed Mel Haber, owner of the Ingleside Inn (and Melvyn’s Restaurant). He showed me index cards he’d found from the hotel’s old reservation system that had a large “J” in the upper corner next to the names of Jewish guests who were given “special secluded rooms” away from the other guests. I knew that Tamarisk Country Club was founded by Hollywood A-listers and Jews including Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, and George Burns when they were denied membership in Thunderbird Country Club. So anti-Semitism, particularly during this time period, was not unknown in the valley. But I’d never heard Farrell’s story.
That afternoon, I tried getting Charlie to tell me if he and Ralph Bellamy had been banned from El Mirador courts because of anti-Semitic feelings toward them or if they founded The Racquet Club because of El Mirador’s feelings toward Jewish guests in general. (Were Bellamy and Farrell even Jewish? Farrell turned over the first shovel of earth at the groundbreaking for Palm Springs’ Temple Isaiah in 1947, but was that because he was Jewish or because he was a celebrity?)
I never got a concrete answer. His nurse, who’d run to the store, soon arrived, deftly took the unfinished drink from my hand, and escorted me to the door as Farrell, hunched over in his chair, resumed staring at the soundless TV.
Over the years I’ve asked several people who knew Charlie Farrell whether this story could possibly be true or if it was the disjointed ramblings of a man known to have suffered from senility and alcoholism in his final days. Nobody could really say.
Founded in 1934, The Racquet Club became a magnet for celebrities. It is rumored Marilyn Monroe was discovered here.
Recently, I asked Tommy Tucker, Coachella Valley tennis god and tennis pro emeritus at Mission Hills Country Club. He said, “I think that story is probably true. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me. I’d say if that’s what Charlie told you, even after a couple of cocktails, that’s probably exactly what happened.”
Tennis was played in the valley a few years before the drama of restricted recreation spurred its growth. On New Year’s Eve 1928, the pink Byzantine El Mirador Hotel opened 200 luxury rooms spread across 20 acres replete with an Olympic-size swimming pool, a nine-hole golf course, and the second tennis court in Palm Springs (the first was at the Desert Inn in the late 1920s). In the early ’30s, Tony Burke, an Englishman who ended up in Hollywood after World War I as a studio gofer/ jack-of-all-movie-trades, talked himself into a job at El Mirador for the princely reward of free room and board and $100 a month (this was during the Depression and Burke felt fortunate to have any kind of job). In his biography Palm Springs: Why I Love You, Burke recalls that “Charlie Farrell and his beautiful wife, Virginia Valli … stayed for several months [at El Mirador in the early ’30s] and the gravitational pull of their celebrity friends was strong indeed. Frequent visitors included Ralph Bellamy, Gilbert Roland, and Peter Lorre. Their common denominator was they all played good tennis and they frequently monopolized the court.”
A couple of years later, Burke wrote, “Charlie and Ralph bought 52 acres about a mile north of El Mirador — out where the wind howled and the sand blew accordingly, and formed a small club for tennis buffs named The Racquet Club.”
Overnight the number of tennis courts in Palm Springs doubled — from two to four. But there was little competition. El Mirador was a luxury resort with every amenity imaginable attracting the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Charles Laughton, Al Jolson, Paulette Goddard, H.G. Wells, Carole Lombard, and Clark Gable. The Racquet Club offered a flimsy shack with lavatory facilities, a dressing room, and a shady corner where Farrell kept some ground round in a cooler so he could make hamburgers on a small electric plate if anyone got hungry. El Mirador charged $26 a day for a room, which included three meals a day at the South Pacific Room, the best restaurant in Palm Springs. Farrell charged $1 a day for playing as much tennis as you wanted (when the club opened on Christmas Day 1933, Bellamy and Farrell collected all of $18). As Burke’s book notes, “Humble beginnings indeed.”
The gang’s all courtside at The Racquet Club. From left, Jane Wyman, Vic Damone, Mary Livingstone, and Jack Benny.
IN THE EARLY DAYS of the Great Depression, both El Mirador and The Racquet Club thrived. One Palm Springs resident who took note was Mrs. Pearl McManus — “Auntie Pearl” as most knew her. McManus, famous for her astute real estate investments, saw the growing demand from visitors who wanted to play tennis. She built her own tennis club just beneath her pink mansion in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains south of the Desert Inn. When it opened in 1937, her Palm Springs Tennis Club included male and female locker rooms, a clubhouse, bar, cafe, and what became known as “the most photographed swimming pool in the West.” Oh, and two tennis courts.
At first, McManus had a hard time competing with El Mirador and The Racquet Club. She lacked Farrell’s Hollywood connections (although two big-name stars, Ronald Colman and Gilbert Roland, were original members) and Burke’s PR expertise. As Burke revealed years later, “What we did was invite the newsreel cameramen — Pathé, Fox Movietone, Paramount, and 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 — exhibitions in swimming and diving or tennis, for example — and the cameramen and photographers did the rest, giving us publicity that brought in more prominent people as paying guests.” (Charlie Farrell later took a page out of El Mirador playbook by bringing in pin-up photographer Bruno Bernard, who is credited with taking the first photographs of Marilyn Monroe in 1947 when she was “discovered” by talent agent Johnny Hyde.)
But in 1939 shrewd Auntie Pearl hired Tony Burke away from El Mirador by upping his compensation from $100 a month to $400. Says Burke, “How could I refuse?”
COMPETITION FOR THE TENNIS crowd heated up. As Farrell noted in a Desert Magazine interview, “We soon realized we didn’t have enough courts, so we built two more. And when you have four tennis courts, you have to have some accessories — like patios, club house, and boys’ and girls’ rooms. Then the fellows wanted to have some drinks, so we put in little lockers. Finally we put some showers out back, and then we dammed the irrigation ditch to make a swimming pool. Before we could turn around, our little tennis hangout was all grown up.” More significant, perhaps, The Racquet Club also welcomed both Jews and blacks, which most of the more conservative Palm Springs properties, including the Desert Inn, did not.
Actor Robert Taylor, left, and The Racquet Club’s tennis pro, Lester “Les” Stoefen discuss the physics of tennis racket construction.
Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The federal government purchased El Mirador and turned it into a military hospital. By 1952, the property was declared army surplus and its future was doomed. (The property was first offered to the city; a resolution to purchase the property and convert it into a new civic center was put on the ballot, but testy voters voted it down.) New owners gave it a try and for a few years, things went well. Stars like William Holden, Dean Martin, Gregory Peck, and Ginger Rogers were frequent guests. But by 1956, the hotel was hemorrhaging money; the owner, Ray Ryan, spent almost a million dollars to refurbish the hotel, but nothing worked.
Meanwhile, not only were The Racquet Club and The Tennis Club going gangbusters, so was tennis in general. An article in the April 1963 issue of Sports Illustrated notes that “Tennis, it used to be said, was Hollywood’s game”; nowhere was that more evident than at The Racquet Club. The article continued, “For most of the years since its modest beginning [the club] has been an institution in Southern California roughly equivalent in prestige to the Coliseum, Caltech, MGM, and the Hollywood Bowl. Sometimes it has even seemed to reflect all the glow and achievement of these other institutions. On its tennis courts and at its Saturday night dances you might once have found John McCormack, Ginger Rogers, and the president of the Standard Oil Co. Your partner in a doubles match might, if you look at them closely, turn out to be Kirk Douglas, or Barbara Marx [Sinatra], or a fellow who just finished splitting an atom.”
“Charlie was very egalitarian,” Barbara Sinatra, a regular at The Racquet Club, tells me. “He’d invite all the college tennis players, like Arthur Ashe and Charlie Pasarell, who actually gave me my first tennis lesson, to come out to the desert and train on his courts, but in return he requested that they play a few sets with the members. So Dinah Shore, who was actually a very good amateur player, and [pro] Dave Gillam might play a doubles match with me and Charlie Pasarell. They were always very kind about it, making us feel like we could keep up with them when, of course, we couldn’t. But we all learned from playing with them.”
The Racquet Club Invitational was one of the first regular tournaments in the Coachella Valley. It featured the best intercollegiate champions from USC and UCLA, including Bill Robertson, Alejandro Olmedo, and Edgar Yeomans, playing doubles with club members Kirk Douglas, George Montgomery, and Diana “Mousie” Powell (who soon established the longest-running and most talked about tournament, the Tuesday night Mouseburger tournament, which Sinatra recalls as being “very informal but serious at the same time; everyone wanted to brag that they’d won one of the Mouseburger tournaments”).
Sally Presley Rippingale, who wrote a history of The Racquet Club in the 1990s called The Original Racquet Club of Palm Springs: Where Everything Old Is New Again, noted that in the ’40s and ’50s, Palm Springs was famous the world over for tennis. “There was The Tennis Club and The Racquet Club,” she wrote. “They were both private clubs and one must be recommended by a member or invited by a member for a visit there, but The Racquet Club had something that The Tennis Club would never have — the acceptance and patronage of the glamorous movie crowd.”
While it’s true that The Racquet Club was luring more of the Hollywood crowd, Auntie Pearl and Tony Burke were doing a pretty good job of attracting more serious players. Burke notes that some of the great players who came to The Tennis Club during this time to put on exhibition matches included Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Alice Marble, and Jack Kramer. Another triumph for The Tennis Club was hosting the first Mexican team to challenge the United States for the Davis Cup.
Meanwhile, tennis became an after-thought at El Mirador. Exhibition matches on the courts were a thing of the past. Owner Ray Ryan conceded the celebrity game to The Racquet Club and The Tennis Club. He began focusing on booking business conventions.
At The Racquet Club, Farrah Fawcett leaps after a high bounce. By the 1970s, the club had lost much of its former cachet.
A 2010 article in Palm Springs Life about El Mirador noted that, “In 1968 ownership 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, for $4 million. That is pretty much the end of the story.”
Big changes were afoot at The Racquet Club and The Tennis Club as well. Farrell, who had been sole owner of The Racquet Club since he’d bought out his partner Bellamy in 1937, grew weary of being an innkeeper and sold the club for $1.2 million in 1959 to Robert Morton with the proviso that Farrell stay on as kind of the club celebrity. The new owners had big plans and soon there were 62 new living units, two new tennis courts, and another swimming pool.
“And so,” Farrell recalled in the 1963 Desert Magazine article, “the old gang split up. Some of the big stars have sort of taken to the hills.” Farrell was one of them. He stopped coming to the club he’d founded. “The reason Charlie started staying away from the club was plain and simple,” says Rippingale in her book. “Charlie and Morton did not see eye to eye on club policy. Without a doubt, Charlie resented this young and handsome owner, Robert Morton, taking over as host, greeter, and director of the club that was only where it was because of Charlie and his many friends in show business. So the bitterness grew on both sides.”
An aerial view of The Racquet Club when the neighborhood was largely undeveloped. After Farrell’s departure, the club slowly deteriorated and on July 23, 2014, the hotel on the property burned to the ground.
A change in ownership occurred at The Tennis Club in 1961 when Auntie Pearl sold the property to businessman Harry Chaddick. In a story on the club’s history on its website, Chaddick is quoted as saying, “I didn’t even know what size the property was or even what constituted ‘The Club.’ It was just beautiful and I wanted it.”
Like Morton, Chaddick had ambitious plans to expand the club, quickly adding two more courts, making six total, more bungalows, and eventually a hotel on the spot where Auntie Pearl’s pink mansion had been. (Chaddick admitted in the same website history piece that when he learned that Pearl McManus’ home was being considered for historical designation, he immediately paid a demolition company $5,000 to tear down the house. “I knew if the house was designated for historical purposes, I would never be allowed to construct my hotel.”)
Just as El Mirador and The Racquet Club had exchanged levels of prestige in the ’40s and ’50s, now the same was true of Charlie Farrell’s old place and The Tennis Club which, in 1970, hired a new tennis director, Bill Smith, and began attracting an even larger coterie of famed players including Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Without doubt, the tennis boom of the ’70s was centered at The Tennis Club, at least in Palm Springs.
Tommy Tucker, who was seduced to the desert in the ’70s by Dennis Ralston to coach at Mission Hills, likes to point out that during this time, tennis wasn’t just a sport — it was a lifestyle. “People forget how important tennis fashion was to the culture in the ’70s,” he says, noting that designers like Oleg Cassini would regularly provide outfits for not only the players but also for all of the hostesses, ball boys and girls, and even the umpires of various tournaments. “Tennis was celebrity- driven back then. Clint Eastwood would play in a little tournament, or John Wayne, and people would see what they were wearing and even if they weren’t tennis players, they’d go out and buy the tennis clothes because it was a fashionable look.”
Tucker believes that tennis in the desert is just as popular as it was during the booming ’70s, pointing out the huge crowds (almost half a million) that annually attend the BNP Paribas Open tournament in Indian Wells. But he acknowledges that the sport doesn’t have quite the hold on our culture that it did in the ’70s when it seemed like everyone played tennis. Or at least pretended to. As proof of its flagging profile, look no farther than downtown Palm Springs, where the venerable Plaza Racquet Club, the desert’s only public tennis club, closed in June after more than 40 years in operation. Its land, owned by the Palm Springs Unified School District, was sold to a developer who plans to replace the courts with condominiums. And so a city that once boasted of eight tennis clubs is now down to just one — The Tennis Club.
“It will come back,” says Tucker. “It’s cyclical. Another John McEnroe or Arthur Ashe will eventually show up and then the kids will say, ‘I want to play tennis.’ That’s the way it happens.”
In the meantime, the next time Tucker sees Larry Ellison, co-founder and CEO of Oracle, and owner of the BNP Paribas Open tournament and the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, Tucker plans to suggest that perhaps the tennis aficionado, who kept the BNP tournament from being moved to Qatar (that’s another long story), might like to purchase Charlie Farrell’s old Racquet Club, now abandoned, and restore it to its former glory. As Tucker says, “Why not?”
PHOTO GALLERY: View selections of tennis history in Palm Springs.