Before Tommy Tune would sign the contract to perform his one-man show Here and Now! at The Purple Room over Labor Day weekend, he wanted to take a good, long look at the inside of the storied supper club. Tune’s concern wasn’t whether the intimate space was too slight for the stature of a 10-time Tony Award winner. His concerns were practical.
“You see, I’m 5 feet 17 inches,” he says with a well-practiced rim shot at his legendary height. “So sometimes my height is a problem when I perform cabaret,” he adds, recounting how it was necessary to remove the stage at New York’s Café Carlyle so he wouldn’t graze his head while performing one of his patented high kicks, which he still manages with ease despite his 77 years. “I didn’t want to do my show sitting down.”
Tune, whose towering frame is topped with a thick mane of silver hair that offsets his deeply tanned skin, is thrilled to debut his more intimate cabaret act for the desert audience.
“Usually I’m performing on a big stage and playing to the balcony,” he says. Some of his former gigs include such classic Broadway musical fare as My One and Only, Nine, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. He describes his new show as a “Broadway biography,” and says of his Purple Room debut, “It’s so much fun and so personal to be so close to the audience. It’s a whole new world for me.”
Tune, a newcomer to The Purple Room, is the latest in a long line of lofty headliners who have graced the diminutive stage. Since the doors opened one autumn evening 56 years ago, the venue’s entertainers have included Oscar-winner Shirley Jones, celebrated Broadway actress Carole Cook, numerous local performers such as Roberta King (dubbed “the valley’s first lady of song”), and provocative drag performer Jackie Beat.
Most famous, however, was a trio of pals who were never officially booked or promoted, but on occasion would patronize the place, and leap to the stage when the spirit moved them. Their names were Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin.
Michael Holmes, current owner of The Purple Room, intends to honor his establishment’s reputation for combining talent and surprise.
“Sinatra loved to perform here. He used to drive out to Palm Springs so we’d get him coming and going. He liked to patronize the Purple room. He called it a saloon. He said he was a saloon singer and loved to hang out in saloons.”
“I truly think [the Purple Room] is the essence of Palm Springs,” he says. Holmes knows firsthand the popularity of entertainment of a certain vintage. Every Wednesday, he’s front and center of the Michael Holmes Trio, which “swings the Great American Songbook,” as he describes it.
On Sundays, Holmes dons late-era Judy Garland drag to wow audiences with The Judy Show, a high concept sendup of the star’s 1963 CBS variety series. He performs several standards associated with the late legend before quick-changing into impressive guises as her famous guest stars, including Carol Channing, Bette Davis, and Pearl Bailey.
Although specific details of the club’s early days, including the name of its first owner, seem lost to history, the opening ceremony for the club and its parent residence Hotel Trinidad, was by most surviving accounts an impressive affair.
“Gov. Pat Brown [father of current Gov. Jerry Brown] came down to cut the ribbon on the Hotel Trinidad and The Purple Room,” reveals Art Brigman, former longtime manager of the venue. Today, he’s the CEO of Club Trinidad, as it’s now known. The walls of his office are a shrine to the Rat Pack era.
One of the most enduring, and certainly the most romantic, stories associated with The Purple Room is that it was where Frank Sinatra proposed marriage to Barbara Marx in 1976.
For anyone with even a passing interest in the history of the club, Brigman is the keeper of the flame and happily shares its tales both tall and verifiable. They involve politicians (Brigman has a Purple Room menu signed by former Vice President Spiro Agnew) and a wide array of entertainers including Lucille Ball and Steve McQueen, both of whom spent much of their time away from the set in Palm Springs, and regularly visited The Purple Room.
Most of the stories, however, involve Sinatra. “Sinatra loved to perform here,” Brigman says. “Frank would drive into Palm Springs so we’d get him going in and going out. He liked to patronize The Purple Room. He called it a saloon. He said he was a saloon singer and loved to hang out in saloons.”
According to Brigman, Sinatra even had the phone number for Hotel Trinidad programmed into his phone at the home in which he died. “If he wanted to come, he’d call and say ‘I’m bringing 18 people,’ and they’d have it all set up for him,” Brigman recalls.
Tony Curreri tended bar at The Purple Room from 1973 to 1976. His generous pours of Jack Daniels led Sinatra to hire him for many private events held in his various desert homes. Curreri got to be very familiar with the singer and members of his extended Italian clan, including his famously feisty mother Dolly.
A favorite story Curreri enjoys sharing begins with Dolly sitting alone in The Purple Room one evening enjoying a bowl of soup. Her son’s classic tunes were being piped in over the speakers nonstop. Dolly motioned for Curreri to come to her table. “Hey Tony, can you get this guy off?” she said as she pointed to the loudspeakers. “He’s driving me fucking crazy!”
Michael Holmes, the new owner of The Purple Room, performs as Mae West.
One of the most enduring, and certainly the most romantic, stories associated with The Purple Room is that it was where Sinatra proposed marriage to Barbara Marx in 1976. The couple remained married until Frank’s death in 1998. Whether the tale is true or not, only Mrs. Sinatra can confirm, but both Brigman and Curreri like to pass it on.
The passage of time isn’t always kind, and over the years The Purple Room has gone through different identities and name changes that included the Lounge at the Trinidad and Patty Z’s. The 1990s were a challenging time for the venue. “You could see there was great history there,” says Robert Imber, an architectural historian who conducts Palm Springs Modern Tours. “But it was just not that interesting. It was in a time warp.” Brigman remembers a few years when he used the space as storage.
Tony Marchese and Mark Van Laanen, owners of Trio Restaurant, purchased the club from Brigman in 2013 and returned some of its glorious Purple luster by adding a state-of-the-art sound system with notable local cabaret performers including The Gands, and an updated menu. Holmes bought the venue in December and has continued the improvements by booking bigger productions onto the relatively small stage.
The “saloon’s” bar is a favored place to catch the show … such as Michael Holmes, here as Judy Garland with Shawnrica Santillanes.
Marquee-name entertainers enjoy the intimate setting, according to Palm Springs theatrical producer Dick Taylor. “When the performer is standing center stage singing a number the audience is as close as 6 feet away,” he says. “Our audiences in the desert really get turned on. Standing ovations happen. We deliver for the performers so they feel good.”
To prepare for The Purple Room’s recent grand reopening with Tune’s performances, Holmes closed the venue for six weeks to give the club a makeover, including a shiny new floor and vintage-looking light fixtures. “It’s still very true to the original spirit of the place,” Holmes says. “It’s historic so you can’t alter it too much.”