The Wild West That Never Was

With their shitkickers, six guns, and 10-gallon hats, the early denizens of Palm Springs 
lived out their cow-punching fantasies.

Kent Black Current PSL, History


One of the great, ironic stories of early Palm Springs was the 1931 visit of New York mayor Jimmy Walker. The famously dapper Walker traveled cross-country by train and told reporters en route that he was going to Palm Springs to take “the sun-bath treatment.”

There must have been a lot of winking among the reporters. Walker was at that moment embroiled in so many scandals and charges of corruption that it makes the current president’s administration look like a troop 
of boy scouts who told fibs to get their merit badges. Walker’s troubles got so bad that he was asked after his Coachella Valley visit to resign his leadership of the Big Apple by then-governor (and soon to be president) Franklin Roosevelt. Walker resigned in 1932.

Before Walker could step off the train in the Palm Springs station, a band of armed “desperadoes” with bandanas covering their faces abducted him at gunpoint. After the outlaws were finished roughing up the “dude,” he was handed to a small group of dignitaries from the nascent resort town and presented with a 10-gallon cowboy hat. A delegation from the Agua Caliente tribe stepped forward to offer him a mud bath at their spa. Reportedly, the embattled mayor replied, “No thanks, I’ve been in one for 18 months.”


The gift of a cowboy hat causes the famously well-dressed Jimmy Walker to be paralyzed with bemusement.


The New York mayor is kidnapped off the Palm Springs train by local desperadoes.

The moment was strange on several levels. First, the idea that a near-fugitive should be abducted by other outlaws defied even comedic logic. And though the identities of the “desperadoes” are unknown, it’s quite possible they were professional actors, maybe working on Westerns being filmed in Palm Springs at that moment, actors who might very well have been born and raised in one of the five boroughs over which Walker ruled.

The simple fact is, Palm Springs was never part of the Wild West. From time immemorial, this desert oasis had been inhabited quietly and peacefully by indigenous people. When settlers with European antecedents arrived, it wasn’t with spurs and six shooters; their wildest dreams were filled with citrus and dates. To be sure, 19th-century Southern California had its share of cattle ranches and gun-totin’ cowboys, they just didn’t happen to practice their craft — or grow their legends — in Palm Springs.

The Western mythos of Palm Springs was an invention. Those who created and perpetrated this fantasy loved riding horses and loved the beauty and wildness of the desert and the freedom it afforded. In that sense, Palm Springs was an extension of West Texas, the high plains of Wyoming and the Dakotas, and the Sonoran Desert of New Mexico and Arizona.

What is fascinating is that for approximately 50 years — from the 1920s to the ’70s — there was a deep investment in the cowboy mythology. Desert Circus was an annual event created in 1934 to benefit Our Lady of Solitude church. From the beginning, the event had an overwhelming Western sensibility (though there were eclectic touches such as floats with Middle Eastern themes as interpreted by Busby Berkeley, just to add a touch of requisite surrealism). One of the highlights of the proceedings was a kangaroo court at which those who appeared in public without a suitable Western motif to their attire were tried, convicted, and fined.

The ’30s saw the birth of the Desert Riders Association (still active today), the Vaqueros del Desierto, and the Palm Springs Rodeo All Stars. Among the most popular events of the season back in the day were early-morning rides to an immense chuckwagon breakfast that often took place in the Indian Canyons. The $2 breakfast charge benefited local charities.

Also during the season, it was not unusual to see visiting celebrities embracing the local Western fantasy: Walker in his 10-gallon hat, Liberace butching it up with a pair of six shooters, even Albert Einstein in full Indian headdress.

And why not? Why can’t Palm Springs have as Western a soul as Laramie, Dodge City, or Santa Fe? Modernist architecture may have begun with Le Corbusier and Bauhaus, but once the seeds were planted in our valley, it bloomed like almost no other place on Earth. Golf may have been invented in Scotland, but between January and March, where would you rather play it?


Desert Riders take the high road.

There have been countless local drugstore cowboys and cowgirls who have graced the frontier street of North Palm Canyon Drive in boots and spurs over the years. The four on these pages talked the talk and walked the walk.

Frank Bogert

One of the great myths about Frank Bogert — publicist, author, horseman, hotel manager, developer, and Palm Springs’ first popularly elected mayor — is that the Colorado cowboy literally rode into town on a horse.

Like many good Western legends, this is partially true. Bogert, who died in 2009 at the age of 99 (and led arduous trail rides well into his 90s), was born on a Mesa, Colorado, cattle ranch and moved with his family to Wrightwood, California, when he was in his early teens. He attended UCLA, joined a fraternity, and in the summers worked as a wrangler and guide for a stable in Lake Arrowhead.


Ronald Reagan and Frank Bogert share some tales from the trails over drinks.

Bogert had some success as an actor and stuntman in Hollywood Westerns, a career trajectory that reportedly came to an end when he was being considered for the role of Hopalong Cassidy and producers found out he’d been the guide on a trail ride where the daughter of their studio boss had fallen from her horse. He decided to forego acting when the owner of the Arrowhead stables where he’d worked died and left him 60 horses.

The enterprising Bogert took his string of horses down to Palm Springs (hence the myth of his arrival in town, Clint Eastwood–style) in hopes of luring guests from the hotels for rides into the canyons for $1 apiece. His good looks, aw-shucks affability, intelligence, and innate gift for showmanship soon landed him a job at the El Mirador Hotel.

Knowing how the Hollywood publicity machine worked, Bogert would photograph each celebrity guest who visited the hotel over the weekend (there is a famous one of It Girl Clara Bow gazing adoringly at a shirtless Bogert), then on Monday morning would drive to L.A. and make the rounds of the papers, press clubs, and publicists’ offices.

Bogert and some partners 
started the Thunderbird Dude Ranch. 
By 1951, it had morphed into the 
Thunderbird Country Club.

Dudes take the cushy road to a chuckwagon breakfast.

This may not have endeared him to the celebrities whose private escapes he was relentlessly publicizing, but he made up for it with his tireless ability to entertain and engage. One of the best examples is a photo taken of Bogert jumping his horse over a net … in the El Mirador pool. It made no sense, but the crowd was ecstatic.

In his tireless effort to promote Palm Springs as a resort par excellence, Bogert seemed to have a hand in every kind of entertainment — particularly if it had a Western theme. He was a founding member of the Desert Riders, the creator of the Vaqueros del Desierto and the Palm Springs Rodeo All Stars, and was a major force behind Desert Circus. One of Desert Circus’ most famous stunts was when Ray Ryan, El Mirador’s owner (and reputed gangster), formed Ryan’s Raiders and, with Bogert and a plane full of boosters, flew to multiple cities in Texas to promote the annual event. Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn even wrote a song, “It’s 1200 Miles From Palm Springs to Texas,” that was sung by Dean Martin.

One of Bogert’s most cherished local dreams did not quite work out as planned — though he wasn’t displeased with the result. Not long after he returned from service in World War II, he and some partners started the Thunderbird Dude Ranch. By 1951, it had morphed into the Thunderbird Country Club, with an 18-hole golf course and a clubhouse designed by William F. Cody.

From the day he rode into town until, presumably, the day he departed, Bogert was never without his cowboy boots and white Stetson. It might have been corny, even a little bit sad, had it been an act. But Bogert believed it and lived it every moment of his life.


Pearl McManus 
was the undisputed grande dame of 
Palm Springs. She preferred horseback for surveying 
her considerable domain.

Pearl McManus

J.G. McCallum was 57 in 1883, when he first set foot in what would become Palm Springs. As the Indian agent in San Bernardino for the Mission Indians, he was curious about the Cahuilla who lived at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains. A friend guided him to about 76 tribal members living in a settlement they called Agua Caliente, named for the hot waters that bubbled up there. On that trip, McCallum took several of his children, including his youngest, Pearl, with whom he shared a special bond and affection for the land.

By all accounts, McCallum was the best of men with the best of intentions for the hundreds of acres he acquired around what would become the center of Palm Springs. He initially sought refuge here with a dream to build a vast citrus ranch and to help his son John recover from tuberculosis. But the death of two of his sons and an 11-year drought that followed a devastating flood were too much for McCallum, and he died intestate in 1897.

After living several years in Los Angeles, Pearl McManus returned to the desert at age 26 to take control of what was left of her father’s landholdings and to pursue his dreams of turning the burgeoning Palm Springs into a garden. She married a savvy Pasadena real estate salesman named Austin McManus, and together the two were responsible for much of the early development in the village, including the Oasis Hotel, the Hacienda apartments, and the Tennis Club. Because of the covenants and restrictions she placed on the properties she sold, she was not always the most popular person in town, but she was always the most respected and universally acknowledged for decades as Palm Springs’ grande dame.

McManus would have scoffed at the 
thought of masquerading as a frontierswoman. She was the real thing.

An authentic woman of the West, Pearl McManus was more often seen on her horse than on her feet, in a car, or in a chair. She often rode to the heights above town to study the growth of the village and revel in her success at reacquiring much of her father’s former holdings.

Though she took part in a number of organized riding activities (including the Desert Riders’ famous chuck-wagon breakfasts), she was more of a lone rider, though sometimes with her husband at her side. There are countless photos of her, particularly later in life, wearing Western garb such as snap-button shirts and a kerchief tied at the neck, but she would have scoffed at the thought of masquerading as a frontierswoman. She was the real thing.

Gene Autry

The singing cowboy was born Orvon Grover Autry in North Texas and raised on his father’s ranch in southern Oklahoma. If any of the Palm Springs cowboys can claim a true cow-punching pedigree, it is certainly Autry. He was not only born to it, he lived it almost every minute of his life.

Whether careening around the grounds of his South Palm Springs hotel (now the Parker) in a golf cart with inebriated abandon or guiding his beloved California Angels toward their first World Series title (alas, 
not in his lifetime), he was never far from being back in the saddle, again.


Grand marshal 
Gene Autry (left) poses before leading the parade.

The only person to be awarded five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (music, radio, film, television, live performance), Autry was one of the most popular and recognizable entertainers in America for more than three decades.

He began spending time in Palm Springs in the late ’50s (he was grand marshal of the Mounted Police Rodeo Parade in 1958), not long before his retirement from show business in 1964. Autry was a superb businessman and a savvy investor. He owned television and radio stations, was involved in the development of professional rodeo (he was the sole owner of the World Championship Rodeo Company and, from his 24,000-acre ranch near Fowler, Colorado, raised stock for rodeos all over the West), and built up the Melody Ranch near Newhall, California, as a premier film location.

However, many would argue that his ultimate post-show-business achievement was his acquisition of the California Angels. During his visits to Palm Springs, he naturally struck up a friendship with Frank Bogert, who convinced him to bring his Angels to Palm Springs for spring training. The old rodeo grounds were converted to a small baseball stadium and, for several seasons, baseball-loving snowbirds got to watch pro ball in an intimate setting. Even more entertaining were the stories that came out of the Melody Hotel on East Palm Canyon Drive, where the players were housed during their stay and where Autry had a private residence on the grounds (which exists to this day as the Autry House). A local jewelry-store owner who worked as a waitress in the Mexican restaurant off the lobby recalled that “every evening ended in a wild party.”

In 1981, Autry, a widower, married his Palm Springs banker, Jacqueline “Jackie” Ellam. They divided their time between Studio City and his pied-à-terre on the hotel grounds in Palm Springs, and Autry continued to be a larger-than-life presence in the valley until his death in 1998 at the age of 91.


Scenes from the Desert Circus. Cultural sensitivity was still in the future. The 1940 Peace Conference float belies the dark future.

Chuck Connors

As the star of the The Rifleman and the wrongly accused army officer in Branded, Chuck Connors was one of the most popular Western television actors in the ’60s and ’70s. No Desert Circus parade was complete without Connors riding down Palm Canyon wearing his six gun or holding his legendary rifle.

The Rifleman was, in fact, born Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors in 1921 in Brooklyn (New York origins are not an impediment to future Western iconography. William McCarty, aka Billy the Kid, was born in Manhattan). The towering former altar boy (6-foot-6-inches in his prime) was a passionate follower of the Brooklyn Dodgers and was himself a star baseball and basketball player from an early age. At Seton Hall, where he played both sports, he discarded the hated name Kevin and adopted Chuck from his habit as first baseman of demanding that other players “chuck” the ball to him. After college, he went pro and is one of only 12 athletes to have played both Major League Baseball, for his beloved Dodgers and the Chicago Bears, and in the National Basketball Association. He was also drafted to play pro football for the Chicago Bears but never took the field. Connors got into acting when he realized that a long, lucrative career in sports was unlikely.

Connors was one of those lucky few whose looks and natural talent landed him character roles from the start. Though he acted in several Western films (notably The Big Country with Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston), it was landing the lead role in The Rifleman that made him a star.


Chuck Connors makes a convincing sheriff.

Today, we might say that the popularity of the series typecast Connors to a degree he could never escape (the last series he acted in, The Yellow Rose, was about a Texas ranching family), but Connors never seemed to mind.

Connors bought his first home in Canyon Country Club in 1963 (though he was a regular visitor to the valley much earlier) and lived there until the early ’70s. Beginning in 1966, he hosted the Chuck Connors Celebrity Invitational Golf tournament and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities. As a result, he was one of the most recognizable and beloved “cowboys” on the Palm Springs scene for two decades.

Connors was a fixture for many years at Desert Circus, always riding in the parade. He seemed to continually delight in his alter ego as the Western Hero and famously presented a pair of Colt .45 revolvers to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev at President Nixon’s western White House in San Clemente in 1973. Brezhnev was a fan of the The Rifleman, so the ever-affable Connors obliged the Russian leader with a set of genuine cowboy hardware.

Perhaps the most endearing and telling photograph of Connors was taken at his Canyon Country Club home, standing in the shallow end of his swimming pool, wearing white Speedos, along with his holster and six gun. The man had a self-deprecating sense of humor — perhaps the most important quality in a Western hero.