The words P-A-L-M S-P-R-I-N-G-S may not be spelled out in billboard-size letters, straddling the mountainside like the familiar Hollywood sign, which has beckoned generations of sightseers to the world’s filmmaking capital. That’s because Palm Springs has always preferred its anonymity, hosting the rich and famous instead of shining the spotlight on itself.
Not anymore. Each year, 3 million holidaymakers flock to Palm Springs and the surrounding cities of Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Cathedral City, La Quinta, Desert Hot Springs, and Coachella to play tennis, golf, and lounge by the pool. Many people captivated by the gorgeous lifestyle have become full-time residents in the area’s most affluent neighborhoods.
Among the influx are talented artists and filmmakers, cameras in hand, who marvel at natural and human-made wonders such as the wind energy farms, Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Indian Canyons, and The Living Desert. These recognizable attractions appear not only on countless postcards and magazine covers, but also in numerous feature films and television shows.
Heading the impressive list of cinematic gamblers who’ve set up lights and cameras under clear desert skies is the all-star remake of Ocean’s Eleven, which visited Palm Springs to shoot the memorable scene where George Clooney plans to steal $150 million from three Las Vegas casinos.
At the opposite end of the valley, Val Kilmer went undercover to bust a drug ring on the shores of The Salton Sea. Meanwhile, in the high desert, Chris O’Donnell followed the trail of a bag of stolen money in the quirky film noir 29 Palms.
These are only a few recent films that showcased the desert’s raw beauty in glowing Technicolor and widescreen Panavision. During the past 12 months, television and cable networks also filmed a variety of reality-based TV shows on the same terrain: NBC’s ratings smash Average Joe about 16 eligible bachelors hoping to win the heart of beauty queen Melana Scantlin delivered its male contestants by limousine to a secluded Palm Springs getaway.
Not to be outdone, Bravo’s hit Boy Meets Boy, billed as “television’s first gay dating series,” was photographed extensively in Rancho Mirage. MTV’s Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, depicting the marital ups and downs of pop singer Nick Lachey and his bride Jessica Simpson, filmed on Palm Canyon Drive for its second season.
That same year, Latino heartthrob Mario Lopez and former Baywatch beauty Brooke Burns co-hosted the 21st annual Miss Teen USA competition — broadcast live on NBC — from inside Palm Springs Convention Center. And to top it all off, the nationally televised “Wedding of the Year” between Trista Rehn, the shapely star of ABC’s The Bachelorette, and her hunky beau Ryan Sutter, surrounded by 30,000 pink roses, was held outdoors at The Lodge at Rancho Mirage.
In 2003, producers spent nearly $19 million on hotel accommodations, meals, equipment rentals, and other services while shooting scenes for approximately 100 film and video productions in the greater Palm Springs area, according to the Inland Empire Film Commission.
That’s why Palm Springs is often referred to as “Hollywood’s largest back lot” — for its proximity to Los Angeles and its diversity of exotic settings: snowcapped mountains, stately palm trees, and rolling sand dunes that can resemble almost any place on earth.
Besides their aesthetic beauty, these wonderful sights offer filmmakers several tangible benefits, including year-round sunshine, lower production costs, and convenient locations. So let’s dim the lights, break out the sodas and popcorn, and take a look at some unforgettable movie moments, past and present, that happened right here in the desert!
Palm Springs Weekend, which defined fun in the sun for a whole generation, started the trend of filmmaking in the desert. In this frothy time capsule, college students Troy Donahue, Connie Stevens, Stefanie Powers, and Robert Conrad check into the Riviera Resort (1600 N. Indian Canyon Drive) for two days of nonstop carousing. Western dude Ty Hardin plays the guitar at Desert Palms Inn (67580 Jones Road, Cathedral City) — now a gay resort.
Twenty years later, Tim Robbins and Cameron Dye played fraternity brothers out to get nerdy classmate Stephen Geoffreys laid during Spring Break in Fraternity Vacation. The boys stay at Casa Verde condominiums (1100 E. Amado Road), pick up girls at Zelda’s nightclub, and attend a pool party at Ramada Inn. Police Chief John Vernon uses a bullhorn to control rowdy teenagers outside Palm Springs City Hall.
A more cautionary tale was told in Bret Easton Ellis’ bestseller: Less than Zero. Freshman Robert Downey Jr. owes $50,000 to cocaine dealer James Spader. Best friends Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz want Downey to quit taking drugs. They drive to Palm Springs in McCarthy’s red Corvette. Spader gets Downey high in a hotel room at Hyatt Regency Suites (285 N. Palm Canyon Drive). He escapes but collapses on the street and later dies.
On the lighter side, teenagers Corey Feldman and Zach Galligan borrow a friend’s Rolls-Royce for a joyride to Palm Springs in Round Trip to Heaven — unaware that crook Ray Sharkey has stashed his loot in the trunk. They pose as waiters to meet female bikini contestants at Wyndham Hotel (888 Tahquitz Canyon Way). Police arrest Sharkey after a noisy shootout on the hotel’s fourth floor.
Veteran writer Don Roos directed his first two films in Palm Springs and, despite his lack of experience behind a camera, convinced big stars to appear in both of them.
In The Opposite of Sex, a pregnant Christina Ricci runs away with boyfriend Ivan Sergei. Ricci inadvertently shoots the baby’s real father during a struggle in room 316 of Royal Sun Inn (1700 S. Palm Canyon Drive). Sheriff Lyle Lovett seduces Lisa Kudrow, the sister of Ricci’s half-brother Martin Donovan, in room 224.
And in Roos’ poignant follow-up, Bounce, sober advertising executive Ben Affleck leaves Desert Drug and Alcohol Center (1151 N. Via Miraleste). He takes widowed real estate agent Gwyneth Paltrow and her two kids to Knott’s Soak City U.S.A. (1500 S. Gene Autry Trail) and plays miniature golf at Boomers in Cathedral City.
In the updated version of the Rat Pack classic Ocean’s Eleven, George Clooney discusses his bold plan to rob the Bellagio, Mirage, and MGM Grand to accomplices Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, and Carl Reiner while gathered for cocktails and dinner in the living room of financier Elliot Gould’s Las Palmas estate (999 N. Patencio Road).
James Caan as fedora-wearing private eye Philip Marlowe, meanwhile, followed a trail of greed, lust, and murder in the HBO movie Poodle Springs, set in the desert, circa 1963. Caan’s dingy office is located upstairs in La Plaza (115 S. Indian Canyon Drive). He cruises by Elvis Presley’s Honeymoon Hideaway (1350 Ladera Circle) in an Oldsmobile and noses around smoky bars looking for clues.
In City of Industry, Timothy Hutton enlists the help of older brother Harvey Keitel to rob an expensive Palm Springs jewelry store — actually Welwood Murray Memorial Library (100 S. Palm Canyon Drive) — but is double-crossed by partner Stephen Dorff. The brothers rent a room at Caliente Tropics Resort (411 E. Palm Canyon Drive).
Mario Puzo’s bloody saga of Sicilian gangsters, The Last Don, was turned into a four-hour TV miniseries starring Danny Aiello, Joe Mantegna, and Darryl Hannah. The wedding scene between Aiello’s daughter and the son of a rival mob family was filmed at a nine-bedroom Las Palmas mansion (555 N. Via Monte Vista).
In Mulholland Falls, cynical police detective Nick Nolte questions high-ranking scientist John Malkovich about a pretty girl’s murder and learns the truth about an elaborate cover-up involving secret atom bomb tests in 1950s Nevada. Army Col. Treat Williams shows Nolte into the living room of a heavily guarded Mediterranean-style villa (2201 E. Smokewood Ave.). Incidentally, this same house — minus the period furnishings — was later used in the first season of TV’s Average Joe. Newspaper publisher William Landsdale was the home’s original owner.
Canyon Country Club was the pivotal setting for Richard Gere’s star-making performance in American Gigolo. In the film, Gere drives his black Mercedes 450-SL convertible from Beverly Hills to Palm Springs. He takes Interstate 10 to Highway 111, continues past Windy Point and arrives at a wealthy client’s home (2389 S. Yosemite Drive).
In Ruby, shady nightclub owner Danny Aiello takes his girlfriend Sherilyn Fenn to see a Frank Sinatra sound-alike at Las Vegas Sun, an old-time gambling casino with bright neon lights, red carpets, and bellboys. The casino marquee and lobby scenes were filmed at Canyon Hotel (2850 S. Palm Canyon Drive). A presidential helicopter lands next door for a surprise visit by JFK!
Canyon Hotel was also used for the lighthearted TV drama series P.S. I Luv U, starring Connie Sellecca as a con artist in a witness protection program and Greg Evigan as a New York cop assigned to protect her; they hide out as husband and wife in Palm Springs.
Filmmakers have preferred the sacred Indian Canyons since the advent of the movies. Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon won two Academy Awards (Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing) by transporting moviegoers to a Utopian civilization high atop the mountains of Tibet. The famous sequence where Ronald Colman rides horseback and gazes at Jane Wyatt swimming under a 60-foot waterfall was filmed in Tahquitz Canyon.
Another cult favorite, The Wild Angels starring Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra, was directed by Roger Corman along Palm Canyon Drive and into Palm and Andreas canyons. The cool streams also doubled for a Caribbean jungle in the Errol Flynn swashbuckler Captain Blood and were an island paradise in Her Jungle Love, starring Dorothy Lamour.
Hollywood production designer Ken Adam availed himself of two well-known Palm Springs residences for the seventh James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. In one scene, Sean Connery discovers Lana Wood’s body floating in a swimming pool. It’s supposed to be in Las Vegas but is really the former home of actor Kirk Douglas (515 Via Lola).
Later, Connery takes a savage beating from two female gymnasts named Bambi and Thumper in the living room of sausage king Jimmy Dean’s desert fortress (2175 Southridge Drive) — actually Arthur Elrod’s hilltop home, which was designed by renowned Los Angeles architect John Lautner.
Prominent engineering landmarks have brought the desert some of its most noteworthy publicity. In The Wrecking Crew, gun-toting secret agent Dean Martin and sidekick Sharon Tate (in her last film) are pursued on foot through Palm Springs Aerial Tramway by evil Nancy Kwan and her Chinese henchmen. The frantic chase takes place in the Valley Station.
The Tramway was also the chilling backdrop for two TV movies — Skyway to Death with Stefanie Powers and Hanging by a Thread — that had almost identical plotlines: A cable car breaks down, trapping terrified passengers 8,000 feet in the air. Thankfully, no such mishap occurred when eccentric grandfather Walter Matthau dined at Elevations Restaurant at the top of the Tramway in the heartwarming comedy Kotch, directed by Jack Lemmon.
The wind energy farms on Interstate 10 are another popular attraction. Tom Cruise and Valeria Golino drove past the Palm Springs windmills in the opening minutes of Rain Man. Cruise exits from a convenience store at Windy Point on Highway 111 and puts sun block on the nose of his autistic brother, Dustin Hoffman. The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture.
In Slow Burn, based on Arthur Lyons’ mystery novel Castles Burning, a man hires newspaper reporter-turned-detective Eric Roberts to find his missing wife (Beverly D’Angelo) and son (Johnny Depp), both seen near the windmill farms.
And in Terminal Velocity, skydiving instructor Charlie Sheen drives a Cadillac Allante convertible out of a flying cargo plane in mid-air. He freefalls and lands between the windmills while being pursued by villain James Gandolfini, whose parachute tangles in the spinning blades.
Probably the most surreal moment of all occurred in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure: goofy Herman hitchhikes across the country in search of his stolen bicycle and comes face to face with a 150-foot brontosaur and a 65-foot tyrannosaur at the Wheel Inn Restaurant in Cabazon, 17 miles west of Palm Springs.
Palm Springs is not the only city, however, that is highly sought after for its many different looks. In The Player, Robert Altman’s dark satire of Hollywood moviemaking, lovers Tim Robbins and Greta Scacchi take a refreshing mud bath at Two Bunch Palms Resort & Spa in Desert Hot Springs. Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson roared their motorcycles along nearby Dillon Road in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man. (Rourke also filmed scenes for the psychological thriller Exit in Red at Luigi’s barbershop and Desmond’s menswear store in downtown Palm Springs.)
The sensational real-life manhunt Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, starring Robert Blake as a Piute Indian wanted for murder and Robert Redford as the sheriff who follows him to the Mojave Desert, was largely filmed in Thousand Palms Canyon, Whitewater River, and Pioneertown (located 25 miles north of Palm Springs off Highway 62). In 1999, actor Bryan Cranston from TV’s Malcolm in the Middle wrote and directed the independent film Last Chance there.
Six miles east of Yucca Valley, Warner Brothers built an old-fashioned Western prison costing $300,000 at Joshua Tree National Park for There Was a Crooked Man. A helicopter whisked stars Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda to and from the location. In 2001, FBI agent Lou Diamond Phillips tracked a witness through a lonely stretch of park wilderness in the modern-day ghost story Route 666.
In 29 Palms, hitman Chris O’Donnell collects $200,000 in a bag from Devil’s Playground Casino, recreated in the former Muriel’s Supper Club (210 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs), where he observes scantily clad Indian go-go dancers, slot machines, and roulette wheels. When a greedy security guard steals the bag, O’Donnell gives chase across the countryside.
Meanwhile, Boy Meets Boy host Dani Behr and single gay man James Getzlaff got comfortable at a Rancho Mirage home (70551 Tamarisk Lane) where they interviewed 15 potential soul mates in search of Mr. Right. The anxious “mates” stayed a few streets away (39767 Desert Sun Drive).
The fifth season finale of Beverly Hills 90210, titled “P.S. I Love You,” was filmed at Marriott’s Spanish-style Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa (41000 Bob Hope Drive). Set amid lush gardens and lakes, the two-hour episode featured Luke Perry, Jason Priestley, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Ian Ziering, Tori Spelling, and Jamie Walters.
Producer-director Stanley Kramer brought 180 cast and crew members to Palm Springs and Yucca Valley to make the Oscar-winning comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Five 1948 Chevrolets were pushed off a cliff near Pines to Palms Highway 74 in Palm Desert for the introductory sequence where Jimmy Durante crashes his car and “kicks the bucket,” sending Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, and Jonathan Winters on the greatest treasure hunt in movie history.
Special agent George Maharis combed the nearby roadside for a missing deadly toxin in The Satan Bug. Thirty years on, retired cop Edward James Olmos follows Sean Young in a dangerous car chase along the same highway in the suspense thriller Mirage.
The Holy Land, complete with Arabian tents and donkeys, was authentically recreated in La Quinta Canyon and the sand dunes west of Indio for The Big Fisherman, a $4 million religious spectacle starring Howard Keel as Saint Peter.
The flood berm north of Indio was used for skyline shots of camels crossing the desert in the biblical epic The Silver Chalice, starring Virginia Mayo and Paul Newman (in his film debut).
Seemingly lost, punch-drunk boxer Jason Patric shared femme fatale Rachel Ward’s bed in the crime thriller After Dark, My Sweet, photographed in the honky-tonks along Miles Avenue in Indio and the date farms of Coachella.
In The Professionals, a group of skilled mercenaries led by Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan attempt to rescue millionaire Ralph Bellamy’s kidnapped wife from Mexican revolutionaries. Their dusty trek on horseback took place in Mecca Hills, 13 miles east of Indio. A perilous train journey made use of the Kaiser Steel iron mine railroad between Salton Sea and Eagle Mountain.
The vast Salton Sea basin has been the backdrop for a multitude of oceangoing films. They range from U.S. Marines’ heroic defense of a Pacific atoll in Wake Island to the fictitious attack of prehistoric giant mollusks in the science-fiction classic The Monster That Challenged the World.
The surrounding hills were an apocalyptic world in Damnation Alley and a desert planet in Dune. Second-unit photography of Navy ships stranded in the water took place there for the revelatory climax of James Cameron’s sci-fi epic The Abyss, which won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
More recently, Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, and Harvey Keitel were on hand for Bugsy, the true story of the notorious gangster and his dream to build the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, which was carefully reconstructed over a nine-week period at Ocotillo Wells, 20 miles to the west. The film received two Academy Awards: Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
Val Kilmer was a trumpet player looking for the man who killed his wife in The Salton Sea, whose title serves as a metaphor for life and death. A flashback takes place on neighboring Bombay Beach, where crew members erected a “meth house” for a key scene with actors Kilmer, Chandra West, and Meat Loaf; another scene has Kilmer filling up his car at North Shore store and gas station.
In March 2004, NBC’s political drama The West Wing, starring Martin Sheen, shot an entire episode — “Gaza” — near Salton Sea. They recreated a veritable war zone, complete with Israeli and Palestinian soldiers driving military tanks and carrying machine guns. Cast members Janel Moloney, John Amos, and Jason Isaacs joined 200 extras dressed in Army fatigues.
It’s Hollywood magic at its best.
Special thanks to Eleni Austin, Wherehouse Music; Sylvia Borrego, City of Rancho Mirage; Carolyn Cooke, Coachella Valley Historical Society; Dan Taylor, Inland Empire Film Commission; Adam Larkey, ABC; Manny de la Rosa, KMIR 6; Kelly Smith, City of Indio; Debbie Toohey & Associates; and Lois Ware, City of Palm Springs.