Desert Circus festivities take over downtown.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
As elephant sightings are a rarity in Palm Springs, the vision of city pioneer Nellie Coffman riding down the street in a howdah atop one establishes the quirkiness of the Desert Circus parade.
Begun in 1934, Desert Circus became the preincorporated town’s first signature event. Spanning a bit more than five decades, the annual frivolity attracted participation from people in the entertainment industry. Parade grand marshals included Bob Hope, Kirk Douglas, Walt Disney, and Jane Russell. Its beauty queens included Alice Faye, Anita Ekberg, and Natalie Wood. Initially a one-day event, Desert Circus grew to 11 days of festivities that encompassed a fundraising kangaroo court, a three-ring circus, a Big Top Ball, and airplane races. In 1985, Desert Circus returned after a four-year hiatus and included concerts and a rodeo in addition to the traditional parade (with Trini Lopez serving as grand marshal), circus, and ball. That appears to have been the event’s penultimate year.
Fifteen years after horses began parading down the street, Palm Springs Road Races launched with a 1.2-mile circuit edging Palm Springs’ main corridors. The event lured professional drivers and actors who raced. Clark Gable served as course marshal for the 1954 races, which moved the “track” to the Palm Springs Airport. A highlight of the event’s decade-plus run took place in 1955, when James Dean, in his first race and just two months before his death, drove his Porsche Speedster to a third-place finish; he took second after the disqualification of legendary British driver Ken Miles.
Over the years, professional racers included Carroll Shelby, Phil Hill, Stirling Moss, and Bob Bondurant. The latter three were also behind the wheel when auto racing in the city was resurrected in 1985 as the Palm Springs Vintage Grand Prix (back on city streets) and Concours d’Elegance. A celebrity race that year featured Dick Smothers, James Brolin, Gene Hackman, and Kent McCord. The second iteration, on airport taxiways, drew title sponsorship from Ford Motor Co. and additional support from British Airways. The grand prix subsequently moved to a circuit created near the Palm Springs Convention Center but crossed its own finish line in 1996.
Palm Springs’ celebrity Mayor Sonny Bono proposed the city’s most star-studded — and, in turn, most media-covered — event. When the Palm Springs International Film Festival premiered in 1990, Lucille Ball (who owned a Palm Springs home in the 1950s) posthumously became one of the festival’s first honorees with a special tribute to her many achievements. The event has built an enviable reputation and spawned a summertime ShortFest, introduced in 1995. Decades of A-listers have walked the red carpet at the Palm Springs Convention Center on awards night; and more than 135,000 movie fans attend 10 days of theater screenings, panel discussions, and the gala.
Another of the city’s calendar highlights has roots in two centuries: Modernism Week began in 2006 but heralds architecture and design from the building boom of the 1950s. The event that brings worldwide attention and encompasses some 350 individual affairs — from home tours to films, lectures, exhibitions, and fabulous parties. A “kickoff” week of home tours in October serves as an appetizer to February’s entrée, which is so popular that it has surpassed the “Week” in its name, now stretching to 11 days.
Though not exclusive to Palm Springs, the biennial Desert X (unveiled in 2017) features site-specific art installations that play to the environment. The 2021 exhibition included 45-foot-tall letters, styled like the Hollywood sign, that spelled “Indian Land” near the Palm Springs Visitor Center and, at James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center, a pair of massive cubes and a “rug” woven from pieces of yellow Kufuor gallons, or jerrycans, used to transport water in Ghana. Both landmarks incorporated the dramatic Mount San Jacinto backdrop, and the latter remains standing today.
Palm Springs’ embrace of the LGBTQ+ community has also sparked major, multiday events. Launched in 1989, primarily for gay men, the White Party lights up the city with DJ-spun pool and dance parties at multiple venues in town. Two years after the White Party’s inception, lesbians gathered for the first iteration of The Dinah, named after the coinciding Dinah Shore LPGA tournament (which bid farewell to the Coachella Valley last year). Lady Gaga has performed at The Dinah and White Party — and reportedly declined an invitation to host Saturday Night Live to attend the latter in 2009. Even before the commencement of those events, in 1986, the Palm Springs Pride festival raised the rainbow flag to a prominent position. In 1992, the festival debuted a parade that, on the first weekend of November, continues to turn Palm Canyon Drive into a right-of-way marked by bold color and sound and sun-drenched crowds living out loud.
Before the year ends, Veterans Day and Festival of Lights parades transform the downtown strip yet again, upholding an attitude set almost nine decades ago by Desert Circus: the feeling that everyone can have fun in Palm Springs.
Coachella Valley residents are invited to celebrate the city’s 85th anniversary April 8, from noon to 9 p.m., in the Downtown Park. For information, visit palmspringsca.gov.
- READ NEXT: The storied history of Palm Springs.
Correction notice: A previous version of this article erroneously states Lucille Ball received the Desert Palm Achievement Award at the inaugural Palm Springs International Film Festival. Rather, she was honored posthumously with a special tribute to her many achievements.