frank sinatra palm springs

Frank’s Kind of Town

Even musicians can’t resist the siren song of the Southern California desert.

Bruce Fessier Arts & Entertainment, Current Digital

frank sinatra palm springs
Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin perform at the Palm Springs Police Show at the Riviera Hotel.

Frank Sinatra arrived for the fall opening of Ruby’s Dunes like royalty entering a castle in the final days of Camelot. An illuminated palm tree towered over the fortress-like supper club. An orange door opened from the mosaic rock wall, and the 53-year-old voice of a generation entered a bygone world where friends greeted one another with, “How’s your bird?”

Sinatra, wearing a fire-engine red windbreaker, was met by friends in fine suits and elegant dresses, including actors Robert Wagner and Ruta Lee, and future Palm Springs Life society editor Gloria Greer. Jack Pfeiffer tinkled at the copper-mounted Baldwin piano as if to cue the bartender to “Set ’em up Joe.” Beau Wheat served Ol’ Blue Eyes and his companion, actress Irene Tsu, in Sinatra’s customary first booth. Three years later, Sinatra would give away Wheat to PGA star Ken Venturi at their 1972 wedding at St. Louis Catholic Church in Cathedral City.

Oasis Music Festival Celebrates the Past and Present of Music in Palm Springs, May 11-15.

The downtown Palm Canyon Drive restaurant was beginning its first season under Ben Silberstein, proprietor of the swank Beverly Hills Hotel. But its old owner, Irwin Rubinstein, was still general manager. “Uncle Ruby” took care of Sinatra, made him feel safe bringing around a date as young as his recently divorced wife, Mia Farrow.

In 1979, Sinatra would eulogize Ruby as “a warm feast in a cold forest.”

But what a Chicago Tribune columnist wanted to know on this night was, what was Sinatra doing there? He was supposed to be playing Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

“I haven’t missed a Ruby’s opening in 26 years,” he replied. His Lear Jet was parked at the Palm Springs Airport. He could say, “Come fly with me,” and he and Tsu would be in Vegas in 17 minutes.

Sinatra and Palm Springs were resisting the advent of the Age of Aquarius. That April, The Desert Sun called the crowd for Palm Springs Pop, a two-day music festival headlined by Canned Heat and Ike & Tina Turner, “a hippie mob.” Some 250 cops from as far as San Diego fought youths tearing down fences to get into Palm Springs Stadium for free. Vandals advancing on a nearby Shell station were met by cops flanking the station owner, who fired a .22 rifle into the swarm, nearly killing a 17-year-old from Los Angeles.

The king of rock ’n’ roll, Elvis Presley, was celebrating that Easter with his 1-year-old daughter, Lisa Marie, and wife, Priscilla, 3 miles away at a rented home — blissfully unaware of the riots, according to his security aide, Police Sgt. Dick Grob.

The King Cole Trio plays at Saddle and Sirloin, a former restaurant in Palm Springs.

Elvis had joined an elite club of pop idols seeking solace in the desert after reaching the pinnacle of music success. He, Sinatra, Al Jolson, Gene Austin, Rudy Vallee, and Bing Crosby were the Beatles and Justin Biebers of their time before moving to Palm Springs.

Now their neighborhoods were being penetrated by celebrity “hippies” like John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas, and Peggy Lipton of TV’s The Mod Squad. Eric Burdon of The Animals, who made a pop-in appearance at Palm Springs Pop, also owned a Palm Springs house.

But the older entertainers, including comics Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and The Marx Bros., had special ties with villagers, who guarded their privacy. With no local television stations until 1968 and no radio stations prior to 1946, the old-timers gravitated to lounges where they could eat, drink, and live large with men and women who lived by a code of mutual respect. In return, they’d raise money for the folks.

Ruby Rubinstein was part of that scene almost from the start.

Peggy Lee serenades at the Riviera Hotel.
Peggy Lee developed her sultry singing style performing in Palm Springs.
Back to the beginning

Palm Springs’ rich musical heritage started when the Cahuilla Indians settled the area more than 5,000 years ago. Native American professor Paul Apodaca, who has studied Cahuilla culture since the 1970s, wrote, “Cahuilla culture was dominated by singing.” Tribal leader Francisco Patencio said in his 1943 book, Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians, the Coachella Valley was settled by beautifully chirping birds. The tribe’s oral history is told through birdsongs.

The music industry arrived in Palm Springs when Irving Berlin spent the winter of 1927–28 at the Desert Inn. Berlin, who composer Jerome Kern famously said “is American music,” was inspired by the arid climate to write the lyrics, “Pay your doctor bills/ Throw away his pills/ You can cure your ills/ With sunshine!” Paul Whiteman, the 1920s “king of jazz,” recorded “Sunshine” in February in New York with Crosby on vocals. The next year, Al Jolson visited the inn as Berlin was writing the music, lyrics, and screenplay for a 1930 “talkie” called Mammy, starring Jolson as a banjo-playing minstrel in blackface.

Palm Springs’ public music scene in the 1920s and ’30s was staid or cornball compared to cities where jazz livened speakeasies. The Desert Inn presented the Citadel Band of the Salvation Army. The luxurious El Mirador Hotel, which opened with great fanfare on New Year’s Eve 1927, had its own society orchestra that played for dances at lunch, tea time, and after dinner. For the 1929 New Year’s Eve, it imported cowboy troubadour Everett Cheetham from New Mexico to play between dances.

Strolling Western singer-guitarists played hotel lounges and horse stables. One of the best was Johnny Boyle, who wrote a parody that was quoted by acerbic syndicated writer Cleveland Amory in 1948: “Oh give me a home/ Where the millionaires roam/ And the dear glamour girls play/ Where seldom is heard/ An intelligent word/ And we round up the dollars all day.”

Things changed in 1931 when Al and Lou Wertheimer of Detroit’s Purple Gang arrived. Al, who was questioned by police about 1929’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, ran Detroit’s high-class gambling venue the Aniwa Club until its forced closure in 1930. He suggested opening a luxury casino in Palm Springs to lift the town out of the Depression. City leaders rejected that idea but didn’t oppose his proposal to launch a casino in Cathedral City and build a church in Palm Springs.

Gene Autry (center left) poses with the Desert Circus Kangaroo Court at the Chi Chi.

Old Hollywood rushed east to The Dunes like Manifest Destiny in reverse. Movie studio chiefs Joe Schenk and Carl Laemmle Jr. lost $35,000 at Al’s casino on a November 1932 weekend. But The Dunes also featured fine food and music. Ruby led its small orchestra, playing violin on standards like “Summertime,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Stormy Weather,” with his wife, Connie, on vocals.

Desert Circus launched in 1934 as a fundraiser for Our Lady of Solitude Church. It spoofed law-and-order by “arresting” folks not wearing cowboy attire, trying them in kangaroo courts and selling get-out-of-jail cards. Movie stars served as grand marshals of a parade down Palm Canyon Drive.

Desert Circus took over Palm Springs the way the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has dominated the area in the 21st century. City leaders hammered out bylaws over dinner at The Dunes to make Desert Circus a nonprofit corporation, with Al Wertheimer on its board. Its mission was to build a Field Club at the current Palm Springs Stadium site to host Western events, polo matches, and concerts. Desert Circus would include fashion shows, a Village Insanities revue at the Plaza Theatre (opened in 1936), and charity galas at the private Racquet and Tennis clubs (opened in 1934 and ’37, respectively).

By the late ’30s, venues such as the Chi Chi, the Doll House, Rogers Ranch, and Wertheimer’s Colonial House in Palm Springs were booking quality entertainment to exploit the mass marketing of Desert Circus and the celebrities staying at the Desert Inn, El Mirador, and the Racquet Club, owned by movie stars Charlie Farrell and Ralph Bellamy.

Eddie “Rochester” Anderson playing piano at the Chi Chi.

Two notable African American pianists from Redlands, Charlie Beale and his younger brother, Eddie, arrived in 1938 to climax Desert Circus with a “Horse Show Ball” at the Rendezvous Roof of Carl’s Restaurant in The Plaza. Charlie would go on to record and tour with Louis Armstrong. Eddie helped introduce jazz to China with Count Basie trumpeter Buck Clayton in 1934 — and possibly inspired a classic scene from Casablanca. It’s true, the 1942 film was adapted from an unstaged play, but its producer Hal Wallis had been coming to Palm Springs since 1920. Bandleader Bill Renner, who arrived in 1959, said he’d heard Wallis was inspired to have a Black pianist play “As Time Goes By,” on orders from Humphrey Bogart to “play it,” after seeing Eddie at a desert gin joint.

Palm Springs had enough good musicians by then to assemble Monday afternoon jam sessions at rotating venues. The Chi Chi’s duo, Johnny and Ned, euphemistically called “rhythm singers,” performed with cowboy troubadours and Doll House pianist Bill Davis.

Peggy Lee of “Fever” fame performed at the latter supper club in 1940. She wrote in her autobiography that she developed her sultry singing style there. The crowds were so boisterous, she wrote, she had to sing softly to command attention. A year later, she was singing for the “king of swing,” Benny Goodman.

The Chi Chi bar and grill was developed between 1936 and ’38 by city pioneer Irwin Schuman, who bought and merged Jack Freeman’s Desert Grill and Lee Humbard’s Silk Room. It didn’t become an iconic, nationally known supper club until 1950, when Desi Arnaz launched the 750-seat Starlite Room and Schuman began booking inclusive big-name acts like Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and Lena Horne. But, along with The Dunes, the Racquet Club, and piano lounges, the desert was hopping before World War II.

In fact, a man who personified the word “hipster” made the desert sound like a suburb of Harlem when he recorded “Palm Springs Jump” in Hollywood on April 4, 1942. “Better get your luggage packed,” sang singer-pianist and guitarist Slim Gaillard. “Meet you by the railroad track/ Shuckin’ and jivin’ swing/ Everybody’s jumpin’ down in Palm Springs.”

Jack Kerouac described Gaillard in his seminal novel, On the Road, as “a tall, thin Negro with big sad eyes who’s always saying ‘Right-orooni’ and ‘How ’bout a little bourbon-arooni.’” He created the novelty standard with bassist Slam Stewart, “Flat-Foot Floogie (With A Floy-Floy).” He featured Duke Ellington’s tenor saxophonist, Ben Webster, on “Palm Springs Jump.”

The question is, what inspired Gaillard to write “Palm Springs Jump”? Could it be Gaillard had seen how Palm Springs had changed since the early ’30s?

Gaillard said he was born in Cuba to an Afro-Cuban woman and a German-Jewish ship steward. His father accidentally left him stranded in Crete at age 12, he said, and when he finally got a ride back to America in 1933, at age 15, it was to Detroit. Gaillard said he found work transporting whiskey for the Purple Gang because he spoke more Greek than English.

Al Wertheimer brought a Greek native named George Zouganiles to Palm Springs in 1933 to be pit boss of The Dunes. If Gaillard came along, he might have played with Ruby.

“You wouldn’t believe all the stars I saw ... It was Camelot this town.”
Elvis and Priscilla Presley at their honeymoon hideaway in Palm Springs.

The Dunes closed in January 1941 after Wertheimer was jailed briefly for illegal gambling. Former Palm Springs Mayor Frank Bogert wrote in his 2006 biography, View From the Saddle: Characters Who Crossed My Trail, Wertheimer remained popular “even though word had spread that he was a member of the Purple Gang.”

Wertheimer’s wife took over the Colonial Club after their 1937 divorce and hired New York Café Society sensation Arthur Herbert for its October 1941 season debut. Howard Hughes was on the guest list.

Wertheimer and Rubinstein bought a major interest in Harry’s Pool Hall and Café in 1942, and Ruby turned it into The Dunes supper club in ’44.

Sinatra’s arrival

Oscar-winning composer Jimmy Van Heusen fell in love with the desert after making a Palm Springs pit stop while flying from New York to Hollywood in 1940. His pal Sinatra began staying with him, and they hung out with Ruby and his Dixieland pianist, Joe Marino.

By 1945, Ruby was advertising The Dunes as “where the celebrities gather” — thanks, he said, to Sinatra’s drawing power. The Desert Sun reported Lou and Al Wertheimer dined there in January with former 20th Century Fox mogul Joe Schenk (soon to be imprisoned for tax evasion). Dick Richards, owner of Detroit’s WJR radio (and father of future philanthropist Rozene Supple) came “practically nightly” to hear Marino.

Celebrities, police, and gangsters had a symbiotic relationship in Palm Springs. In November, the newspaper said Benny’s bandleader, Phil Harris, was “renewing acquaintance” with Wertheimer at The Dunes and bowling with new police chief Gus Kettmann in the same week.

In 1949, radio and Broadway superstar Eddie Cantor shared an idea with local showbiz friends to raise funds for the new Palm Springs Police Officers Association. He, Sinatra, Hope, Jolson, and others played to 5,000 people on a hot February night in the Palm Springs High School gymnasium, with more fans standing outside, making it the best-attended concert in Palm Springs history at that time. Hope promoted the benefit on his NBC radio show (one of many remote broadcasts done from Palm Springs) and was named honorary police chief. Cantor and Jolson, who died eight months later, got replica “Oscars.”

The Police Shows ran through 1977 with appearances from Sinatra’s Rat Pack and most major desert-based entertainers, except Elvis. But other local events had similar glitz.

Sinatra produced star-studded fundraisers for the Catholic Charities through the ’50s. The 1958 benefit at the Chi Chi featured Sinatra, Van Heusen, Harris, Alice Faye, Joey Bushkin, Bing Crosby, and Duke Ellington. Afterwards, several dropped by Van Heusen’s lounge at the Desert Inn.

Sinatra hosted a Celebrity Golf Classic and $100-a-plate gala in 1962 at Canyon Country Club, featuring more stars than any Bob Hope Desert Classic. Then he, Van Heusen, and Dean Martin kept the party going at the Chi Chi.

The Chi Chi epitomized elegance with formally clad maître d’s, cigarette girls, and staff photographers. Bill Alexander, who began leading a house orchestra in 1949, also drummed at the Racquet Club.

“The first time I played the Racquet Club was 1949,” he once said. “I went home and told my wife, ‘You wouldn’t believe all the stars I saw tonight under one roof.’ What happened was, the Racquet Club drew all these people, masses of stars, and they would hit the Chi Chi on Friday or Saturday nights. That was a good part of our audience on the weekend, all of these stars. It was Camelot this town.”

Liza Minnelli at the Palm Springs Art Museum Annenberg Theater.

Rock ’n’ roll was kept at bay in the ’50s. Jody Reynolds, Palm Springs’ first resident to have a rock hit with “Endless Sleep” in 1958, only played rock out of town. His band, The Storms, featuring jazz drummer Renner and boogie-woogie pianist Bobby Craig, got a 1961 gig at the Farm House, near the old Dunes casino site, that became the only local place where people could dance “The Twist.”

Renner’s wife, Diane, told her friend, Ray Ryan, a millionaire oilman and gambler who owned El Mirador, “You’ve got to come out and hear my husband’s band.” Ryan did and promised to book them if Diane fronted the group. So Diane Twisted in front of the quartet.

“When Diane got Ray Ryan to go see us at the Farm House, that’s when rock ’n’ roll came to Palm Springs,” Renner said. “Until then, it was Billy Alexander and his society orchestra playing Lawrence Welk music. Eddie Howard had a [society] band in the big room at El Mirador. We were playing what was going on in rock ’n’ roll.”

The Renners spun off a band that played for conventions and charity events. Reynolds and Craig played the Howard Manor, the site of the old Colonial House, and Elvis came by one night.

Top 40 cover bands soon dominated Palm Springs nightlife. The only big outdoor concert in the city in the decade after Palm Springs Pop was May 29, 1976, when War played Palm Springs Stadium. Sonny Bono championed more rock shows at the stadium and the new Palm Springs Convention Center upon becoming mayor in 1988, but the acts were mostly “oldies” — Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Donovan. Craig accompanied Chuck Berry at the convention center.

Barry Manilow succeeded Sinatra as the go-to star of Palm Springs charity shows at venues such as the convention center and O’Donnell Golf Course. He and Liza Minnelli performed memorable customized benefits at the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Annenberg Theater. But, for all the stories about big-name music acts playing lavish benefits and private parties, few contemporary stars performed affordable shows.

An underground music scene sprang up in the 1980s among young people excluded from the elite, older culture, including future sensations like Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal. They brought generators to the remote desert and played original music that sparked an international desert rock movement — without mainstream local support. Brant Bjork of the pioneering band, Kyuss, said they weren’t proud of being from Hope and Sinatra’s hometown.

“One thing I thought a lot of bands in the desert had,” Bjork said, “is, we all had chips on our shoulders because we weren’t from a cool, hip place. It was painful to grow up in the middle of nowhere. But I had the epiphany that maybe the pain and the chip on the shoulders of being a desert band could be what it was all about for us.”

Small venues showcasing intimate artistry sustained through the disco, house, and EDM eras and continue to thrive with today’s LGBTQ+ and Splash House pool parties. DJ Day, celebrated on KCRW public radio, tells stories about Palm Springs through his sound mixes.

Meanwhile, renowned pianists seem drawn to Palm Springs to labor in comfortable obscurity. Among them: Don Tosti had his own Spanish-language television show in Los Angeles. Phil Moody directed Mae West’s live shows. Kitty White was featured in the Elvis film, King Creole. Larry Flahive played with Stan Kenton’s big band. Joe Massters was mentored by Thelonious Monk in Boston but discovered at the Spa Hotel by industry executives who got his album, The Jazz Mass, produced by Columbia super scout John Hammond.

Dennis Michaels, music director for Grammy winner Keely Smith and sidekick to frontmen Pat Rizzo, Bobby Milano, and Mike Costley, remains a link to the amazing artists showcased at piano bars like Ruby’s Dunes. His arrangement of “Palm Springs Jump” was discovered and used by Lucie Arnaz.

Sinatra used to have a saying when pianists asked what he’d like to hear.

“I’d like to hear Oscar Peterson,” he’d say. “But I’ll take what you got.”

I was in Chaplin’s in Rancho Mirage when Sinatra, wearing a Dodgers windbreaker, looked up from his meal and said of Michaels, “Good chops.”

It was a supreme compliment that he’d probably given to Pfeiffer, Marino, Larry Foy, Ian Bernard, Morty Jacobs, and Fred Witmar over the previous half-century at Ruby’s Dunes — and in retrospect, it is also a fine summation of the music prowess that has been cultivated throughout history right here in Greater Palm Springs.

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