Like their historic forerunners — gentlemen’s clubs established by aristocrats in London’s West End during the 18th century — the clubs in Palm Springs are private and provide the camaraderie men learn to enjoy from boyhood sports and later in fraternities and the military. Besides fellowship during their annual escapes to the desert from freezing climes, members of two men’s clubs in Palm Springs share common interests, be it the local business climate or world events.
The two most prominent Palm Springs gentlemen’s clubs are Committee of Twenty-Five, founded in 1949, and the The Palm Springs Club, launched in 1956. Each has been the subject of considerable local gossip, curiosity, and media investigation ever since.
True to their resort environment, however, the two big dudes on the men’s private club scene here are far more relaxed than their stuffy British prototypes and far more comparable to other private clubs in downtown Los Angeles or San Diego. San Francisco, with its Bohemian Club, is closer to the 18th-century standard, focusing on national business and political power in a historic landmark building that also functions as a member hotel. A number of Bohemian Club transplants to Palm Springs from the Bay Area continue to attend the mysterious Bohemian Grove encampment hidden within the redwoods of Sonoma County every summer. (That’s another story, however.)
Instead of sipping Spanish port or Scotch neat in a formal library, The Palm Springs Club and Committee of Twenty-Five members occupy unpretentious early Palm Springs buildings that started out as charming private residences. With their tile roofs and adobe walls, these were the “Palm Springs modern” of the ’30s and ’40s. The daytime drink of choice at both clubs may have been a harder potion before the arrival of the health-conscious 1970s, but it has been iced tea for decades. Smoking jackets and cravats are extinct at these clubs, where members often wear cotton golf shirts, khakis, loafers, and sneakers. Knee-length shorts are common on a sweltering desert day.
Wives and lady friends are not banned or relegated to a pink-flower wallpapered room where they can hear the plumbing. Rumor aside, they are invited to sit side-by-side with the men to share evening social events and to hear special Committee of Twenty-Five luncheon speakers.
Club presidents Realtor John Stiles, of The Palm Springs Club, and Joe Schulman, M.D., of Committee of Twenty-Five, agree their clubs are no more interested in exerting political or social power than they are in building man caves in the canyons.
Pulling strings behind the local political scene is not what binds the members of either club. For one, it is topical national and international issues and meeting fellow seasonal residents from afar. For the other, it’s getting away with other locals from the desk, the exam table, courtroom, or family business for a stress-cleansing focus on, of all things, the game of dominoes.
Gambling? That rumor is kaput. Gambling was pre-empted long ago by rogue nightclubs emerging from unincorporated scrub and later by country club golfers with their locker room card games and fairway foursome side bets.
One thing both clubs do have in common is Smoke Tree Ranch, which by happenstance was the starter ingredient for gentlemen clubs desert-style. Smoke Tree Ranch residents, known for their enjoyment of the natural landscape, were among the founders and early members of both Committee of Twenty-Five and The Palm Springs Club.
Both clubs met there during the early days, when Smoke Tree Ranch had one of the few private dining rooms in the desert. The Palm Springs Club also later met at the old Desert Inn Coffee Shop until the club found a permanent home.
What is the glue that brought these gentlemen together in this small desert resort town in the first place? What has kept them together at a time when Facebook, Twitter, and iPads have been decimating face-to-face sociability throughout the culture?
Committee of Twenty-Five
Committee of Twenty-Five often is confused with the O’Donnell Golf Course Board of Trustees, a group of 25 men originally appointed by developer Tom O’Donnell to manage the property, located on prime downtown real estate at the mountain base.
The club is independent of the trustees and leases the Kline House, which O’Donnell built as a residence in the late 1920s for John Kline, who was the oilman’s golf course construction superintendent. The clubhouse entrance is located on Alejo Road on the northern periphery of the course and across from Temple Isaiah.
Today, Committee of Twenty-Five members, who meet from fall to mid-April, are mostly seasonal residents retired from illustrious corporate, professional, or entrepreneurial careers. These credential-packing snowbirds migrate from primary residences scattered from coast to coast, with a concentration in the heartland. Some have homes at Thunderbird Country Club or in the Las Palmas neighborhood of Palm Springs.
The group was launched by corporate leaders and entrepreneurs who vacationed at Smoke Tree Ranch: Asa Call, president of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance; Lawrence Giannini, president of Bank of America; Herbert Johnson, president of S.C. Johnson & Son; and Paul Helms, founder of Helms Bakery, famous for its custom delivery vans featuring gleaming, pastry-laden wooden drawers.
Helms, who wintered at his Smoke Tree Ranch home, invited President Dwight and first lady Mamie Eisenhower to Palm Springs and hosted the president at the Committee meetings on several historic occasions.
The actual Kline House building is much larger today; a dining and meeting area, added during the 1990s, was designed to disappear behind tall hedges. Golf course views from inside the building are spectacular and feature a water hazard and seldom-seen fountain. Alterations are created in the same unfettered style as the original building. Even a decorative wooden ceiling designed by the late Arthur Elrod makes an intricate but modest statement.
Committee of Twenty-Five President Schulman chaired the speakers program for several years before being elected president of the organization and recently started a library for the many members who love to read.
The Committee has about 100 current members, whose names could not be disclosed for print. Former members include Bob Hope and former Parade magazine publisher Red Motley.
Schulman, who likes to keep member and speaker names private, says, “We invite speakers to our lunches several times a month. Because of the contacts our members have, we have a very active and prestigious speakers program. Our wives enjoy the speakers as well, and we have dinners and social gatherings with our wives a few times a month.”
Joining the Committee in 1971, Milt Jones, publisher of Palm Springs Life, holds the membership longevity record of 43 years. “Normally, I’m not a joiner,” Jones says. “I think the service clubs are great and thought about joining years ago. Yet the demands of building a business made it impossible to belong to any group that requires weekly meetings, or obligations to make up the meeting somewhere else if you are out of town on business.”
Jones then looked for a club that would give him attendance flexibility — and his choices were Committee of Twenty-Five and The Palm Springs Club. “Both started out as do-gooders for the town and then shifted into dominoes and speakers, but I have no interest in playing dominoes or watching people play dominoes and never will,” Jones says with a chuckle. “But I like to hear interesting speakers and enjoy meeting successful people from around the country.”
Consequently, Jones opted for Committee of Twenty-Five. But he also counts members of The Palm Springs Club among his closest friends.
Schulman, who has a laid-back sense of humor, has a simple way of explaining the club’s low-key tendencies. Committee members have a favorite dessert straight from the farm belt that’s as all-American and uncontroversial as it gets: “What else? Apple pie and vanilla ice cream,” Schulman says.
The Palm Springs Club
Palm Springs Club members are civic-minded townies for the most part. Year-round or permanent residents, they own or manage local businesses, run major corporations locally, and are professionals or are retired from those positions. Like the Committee of Twenty-Five, they seem to prefer the club’s quiet, under-the-radar activities to the city’s more visible glitterati doings.
Even the man who designed the Magic Kingdom looked for fellowship here. With Disneyland a success, Walt Disney — who had a getaway at Smoke Tree — finally had the time to relax and enjoy camaraderie as a desert men’s club member. Disney visited The Palm Springs Club, decided to join, and sent in his membership check. He died soon after, on Dec. 15, 1966.
The club, protective of member widows who might need funds, immediately rallied to return the membership fee to Disney’s widow, Lillian.
It was always common knowledge among desert media that The Palm Springs Club had high-profile local leaders among its membership. This fact has led to speculation about the group.
“I remember years ago,” Stiles says with a laugh, “when the media insisted The Palm Springs Club was controlling local politics and new reporters looking for their Pulitzers would write ‘exposés.’
One local activist told the Press-Enterprise that we were not only up to no good, we also had the political tentacles of an octopus. Some of our members may have talked about municipal elections and other issues, as any local gathering would, but the real reason we got together for lunch was to relax and play dominoes with friends,” Stiles says.
Bob Hird, a retired Southern California Gas Company executive, was The Palm Springs Club president in ’72 and ’73, a time when at least three members of the Palm Springs City Council were members. Hird is one of the club’s most avid and expert domino players and a keen club historian as well. “After we had visits from members of other men’s domino clubs, in Palo Alto and Eureka, many of us were hooked,” Hird says. “We liked it because it involved skill but was fun and sociable. You could play, visit, and get your mind off work, all at the same time,” Hird remembers.
One invited guest’s visit turned out to be epic for the dominoes-smitten members. It was like having Garry Kasparov demonstrate chess strategy or having a whirl on the driving range with Arnold Palmer.
“Dominic Armanino, whose Dominoes: Games, Rules & Strategy is still available on Amazon, visited our club,” Hird recalls with reverence. “It was an unforgettable experience. Armanino is the master!”
The club met at various locations from its inception in 1956 until 1973, when it was able to purchase a permanent site thanks to the leadership of longtime member John Bernet and a trust fund down payment from founding member Arthur (Bill) Bailey, a Smoke Tree Ranch resident.
Finding the right property was a lesson in local real estate and member innovation, according to Hird. The club was looking for a house, but it had to find one in a neighborhood that would allow commercial use. He also says he realizes what a bargain the clubhouse is by today’s standards.
“It boiled down to two choices: the old Wolff house east of Indian Avenue [now Indian Canyon Way] on Via Altamira at $48,000 or the Robeson home on West Tahquitz at $175,000,” Hird explains. “We could afford the Wolff house, but the Robeson house was too expensive for us. The Robeson house later was sold to restaurant owner Paul Bruggemans and became the world-famous Le Vallauris.”
Members then pitched in to fix up the former Wolff house. Architect Donald Wexler created alteration plans; contractor and councilman Bill Foster, who became mayor the following year, found the skilled workers; and nurseryman Earl Neel, also a councilman, landscaped the grounds. Hird went about furnishing the building, finding a used Wolf range so serviceable it lasted for decades.
The social nature of dominoes, however, almost led to the building’s downfall — literally. The large room now dominated by game tables originally was divided in two, with a fireplace between a smaller living and dining room. Members, tired of trying to chat and kibitz through the fireplace opening to the other room, got the bright idea to tear down the fireplace wall. It was removed, but the front of the building soon began to sag. The clubhouse was saved by Wexler, its member architect and builder, who figured out how to shore up the front wall without replacing the removed wall. A more recent clubhouse addition is a whimsical domino-shaped mailbox designed by member George Marantz.
The Palm Springs Club now boasts generations of members following in the steps of founders Tom Kieley, Arthur E. Bailey, and Herb Foster. Tom Kieley III and Arthur (Bill) Bailey are active members, as are Herb Foster’s grandson, Chris Foster, and great-grandson, Jason Foster.
Hird says that in the late 1970s, the health-conscious wife of Don Blubaugh, the then-portly city manager, accidentally started a tradition that has lasted 40 years. After Blubaugh’s wife read him the riot act for ordering a chocolate ice cream sundae at lunch every day at The Palm Springs Club, the members rallied to give him cover. To this day, members order a “Blubaugh salad” whenever they crave the syrupy caloric treat.
As members of both Committee of Twenty-Five and The Palm Springs Club look to the future, they see even greater need for a place where men can forget about the pressures of work and the world. For them, there is no electronic gadget that can ever substitute for the companionship of trusted friends with common interests.
Masters of the Game
Even if it’s a scorcher and the air conditioning at the office goes belly up, members of the all-male Palm Springs Club have their game on when they head to the clubhouse for lunch. No matter what they order, there’s always a large side of domino tiles with their place settings.
Dominoes have ruled since town fathers founded the club in 1956 and moved to their own building in 1973. Depending on the level of the players, this is no simple kid’s game. It can be as strategic in blocking and scoring as plotting a military exercise or a Super Bowl defense. The game takes members’ minds off business — it’s the smart man’s free tranquilizer sans side effects.
Historians say the game of dominoes was derived from dice and was first presented to a Chinese emperor more than 1,000 years ago during the Song Dynasty. Dominoes appeared in Italy by the 18th century after Italian missionaries returned from China. The game soon caught on in France and became popular in English coffeehouses and pubs just about the time gentlemen’s clubs became the rage in Britain and were introduced to the United States.
Today, the game is popular all over the world, especially in Latin America. There are hundreds of thousands of serious players from Miami to San Diego and even the White House, where President Barack Obama reportedly plays dominoes.
The most common sets are double six with 28 tiles, also called bones, and double nine with 55 tiles. The black dots that give the tiles their dice-like numerical designation are called “pips” and resemble black apple seeds, also named pips. A set is a deck.
The word “domino” itself has Latin and clerical origins and comes from the root meaning “master.” It’s a game best learned from people, not just books or Internet sites; the game has built-in incentives to promote fellowship. Any group of players can refine their own rules, and they do — a welcome opportunity for a little creativity and personal empowerment.