Photography by Fernando Escovar
Location: Viceroy Palm Springs
Hollywood stars began shining in the desert in the heydays of the 1930s. Miles beyond the reach of the studios, luminaries such as Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby partied and relaxed. No one thought about actually working out here.
Today, film and television industry people — whether raised here or adopting the desert as home — are finding it much easier to live here and work on both local and Hollywood productions.
With a dozen years of acting under his belt at age 18, Jesse James has an acting career that would turn much of Hollywood green with envy: the role of Helen Hunt’s son in As Good As It Gets, Pearl Harbor, The Butterfly Effect, and The Amityville Horror. His latest film — Jumper, starring Samuel Jackson — is scheduled for release later this year.
But James is not the sort to get carried away with all the fanfare surrounding Hollywood. He credits the years he spent living on Clancy Lane in Rancho Mirage for showing him how to keep his head on straight. “I went to St. Margaret’s and St. Theresa’s. I learned to ride a bike here,” James says. “My grandfather was a plastic surgeon for all the big stars in the 1960s — Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra. In the 1970s, he moved to Clancy Lane and flew to Mexico several times a month from Palm Desert to do free medical work.”
James carries the example with him today. “Being on a movie set gives you the feeling of ‘entitlement.’ Living in the desert kept me healthy; it kept me humble. It was good for my moral fiber. I was away from the L.A. scene and all those ‘stage moms.’ I think it has made me easier to work with.”
James commuted from Rancho Mirage to Hollywood for auditions and his early acting roles. “The three- to four-hour commute each way was no fun for a 6-year-old,” he recalls. Now he lives in Santa Barbara, still removed from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles.
James foresees the possibility of a career shift and perhaps more time in the desert. “I could see coming to the desert to relax … maybe to write,” he says.
The daughter of actors Gary Lockwood and Denise DuBarry Hay, Samantha Lockwood spent the first 12 years of her life in Malibu before being moved to the desert, where her three stepbrothers and half-sister were born and raised.
“The desert is a place where you can clear your mind,” she says. “Everyone needs a place to recharge, away from the hustle of city life. That’s affected my career.”
At age 16, Lockwood got her start in infomercials, thanks to her mother’s desert-based production company. And it was through her mother and Palm Springs Women in Film that she met producer Kim Waltrip, who was working on the independent Western Mexican Gold and knew the film’s producers were looking for a young leading actress. Lockwood won the role over the telephone. Her other acting credits include TV’s CSI: NY (“I got killed in a pill-popping episode”) and the films Anger Management and Lords of Dogtown.
An art student at Palm Valley High School, Lockwood also is an accomplished painter, and her jewelry designs are sold at The Jewelry Box in Palm Desert. “Between acting, painting, and modeling, I pay my bills,” she says.
She’d like to see more film work being done in the desert and believes the area could become a niche location. “We could become another Sundance or even better than Sundance,” she says. “We have space and good weather. We need a Napoleon Dynamite type of movie to shoot here.”
A few years ago, an On Stage Theater Co. director from Dana Point discovered Sara Swain during a drama workshop in the desert. Karen Shultz was so taken by Swain that she found the teen an agent and launched her acting career: feature-length movies such as Thirteen Going on 30 and Starsky and Hutch, short films such as Girl Talk and The Beginning of December, and commercials, including Charter Communications, Sav-On, 24-Hour Fitness, KFC, Toyota, T-Mobile, and Dr. Pepper.
“I always saw myself becoming an actor,” Swain says,” but I never expected it would all start here.” The family now keeps a pied-à-terre in Hollywood so Swain’s mother doesn’t have to drive between Palm Desert and Los Angeles. That allows Swain to continue her acting career when she’s not at College of the Desert studying psychology and golf.
Dan Dorrance is already in the midst of a career as an art director and production designer, the roots of which reach into his love of design and architecture engendered by his architecture and design teacher at Palm Springs High School, Richard Williams. Dorrance went to Los Angeles to attend college, took a job with a design house to pay for it, fell in love with art, and then fell into the film business.
“Growing up in Palm Springs, around the works of [Richard] Neutra and [John] Lautner and other midcentury modern architects — and the beauty of the San Jacinto Mountains — brought out the artist in me,” says Dorrance, whose credits include Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, Mission Impossible III, and The Incredible Hulk, the latter due for release this year.
It was on location in Rio de Janeiro for The Incredible Hulk that Dorrance realized one of the producers was also a Palm Springs High School graduate. Remarking on the heat over dinner, Dorrance was surprised to learn that Gale Anne Hurd grew up in Rancho Mirage.
Gale Anne Hurd
Gale Anne Hurd dates her first film experience back to Palm Valley elementary school, when one of her school projects was to make an animated cartoon out of The Canterbury Tales. She went on to graduate from Stanford University, where she became enthralled with films during her junior year abroad in London.
Hurd now lives in Pasadena, because “it’s the deal-making capital of the world.” But she remains impressed with the Palm Springs International Film Festival. “It is one of the pre-eminent film festivals in the country, and it brings a great deal of industry attention to the desert,” she says.
Trent Teigen and Christian Bretz
These twentysomethings have known each other since they were 2 years old and started acting in plays together at the local Montessori school at age 4. They made films together in high school and in 2004 produced How to be Emo, an iconic Internet short film that the dynamic duo hope to turn into a $1 million feature film.
Emo has registered more than 2.3 million hits on YouTube. Filming could start as early as next year, with most of the filming in the desert. “Maybe a few scenes in L.A.,” Bretz says. “Maybe some at Casablanca Studios in Desert Hot Springs.”
“We want to show support for local production,” Teigen adds. “More studios should open here.”
When they’re not working on joint projects, both young men work in the production business. Teigen’s Akraix Entertainment company produces and films freestyle motocross X-games. Bretz edits movie trailers, demo reels, and industrial videos.
Neither plans to move closer to the world’s film capital. “We couldn’t just live in Hollywood,” Teigen says.
This group of movers and shakers now call the desert home, but keep their hand in Hollywood productions
Jack Jones, son of singer-actor Alan Jones, celebrated 50 years in the entertainment industry with a gala concert at McCallum Theatre in November. His parents were habitués of the once hot spots such as the Chi Chi and Howard Manor.
Jones attended Nellie Coffman Junior High before being sent away to boarding school to improve his grades. “Unpaved roads of sand and our house on Via Alta Mira,” he recalls. “It was a charming place … like a doll’s house. The desert was a magical, mystical place. Everyone knew everyone else back then. In summer, we lived a nocturnal existence — slept all day and partied all night. You brought a block of ice to parties to put into the swimming pool, and we had ‘kangaroo courts’ for people who didn’t pay up for charities.
“Sonny Bono wanted a lot for this town,” says Jones, referring to Palm Springs’ late mayor who gave the Palm Springs International Film Festival its start before moving on to become a Congressman. Jones is less optimistic about the future of filming locally. “As long as places like Canada are making things easier and less expensive, I don’t see the film industry coming here,” he says.
Jones returned from Hollywood to the desert to live full time 15 years ago, and now resides in La Quinta. “When my daughter was 6 months old, I decided I didn’t want to raise her in L.A. It was better to return to that ‘dream place.’”
Born in Italy of Russian parents and raised in New York, Fern Field Brooks is one of the originators and producers of the award-winning TV series Monk.
“My late husband and I were staying at the Ingleside Inn back in 1982 and thought we really ought to buy something here,” Brooks says. They did — in Monterey Country Club.
A widow less than a decade later, Brooks sold the condo in 1996 and bought another place in which to retire. Then, she says, “I was offered a full-time job at Tribune Entertainment in L.A.” Along came 20 episodes of Monk in 2002, and she was off to Toronto. “My friends were saying, ‘All Fern has to do to get a full-time job is to say she’s going to the desert to retire!’”
Today, she is adding to her reputation as an author (Letters to My Husband and Food for Thought) with two new books in the works: Producers Don’t Cry and My Accidental Life. She continues working on Monk and other L.A. productions — “I can leave for a job from anywhere. Why not from here?” — and involves herself in local activities such as the Grammar Bee with the Palm Desert campus of University of California, Riverside. She also collaborates with another desert-based producer she met through Palm Springs Women in Film and TV: Sherry Halperin.
About the same time, movie and TV actress Judith Chapman came here to put down roots and add dimension to her career — a move she calls a “rebirth.”
Chapman grew up as an Air Force brat, starting her career in Spain, segueing through New York soaps (The Young and the Restless) and series episodes (i.e., Magnum PI) before moving to the desert.
“I met the man of my life [here] and found a passion for my craft,” she says. She has taught acting at College of the Desert and on Jan. 19 will direct a staged reading of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine at Palm Canyon Theatre.
Chapman has also helped her partner, James Offord, run the St. James restaurant in downtown Palm Springs, which recently changed its name and theme after 25 years to Vineyard Tuscan Grill. “I’m a food and wine lover,” Chapman says. “But running the front of house is really show business.”
Chapman’s desert base has allowed her a second launch into soaps (As the World Turns) portraying a “sexy middle-aged woman who’s got it all.” You might call it typecasting.
With his boyish face and exuberant personality, it’s hard to imagine Wesley Eure has been in “the business” for more than three decades. The former soap actor (Days of Our Lives), network TV actor (Land of the Lost), and co-creator and voice for the PBS children’s series Dragon Tales has been a desert weekender since 1979. He moved to Palm Springs to retire two years ago, then got involved directing a “little production called LollaPOOLooza,” a fundraiser for AIDS Assistance Program, Desert AIDS Project, Desert Pride Community Center, and Women For Equality.
“Since being here, I’ve found new creative outlets: I’m doing more writing, I’ll be producing a new musical by Steven Schwartz called Snapshots.
“The desert draws out your spirit,” he says. “I can live here and do the kinds of work I want. I’ve never had a better quality of life.”
Denise Dubarry Hay
Moving from Beverly Hills to the desert in 1992 meant moving behind the camera for Denise DuBarry Hay, who acted in feature films and was a regular in the last TV season of Black Sheep Squadron. In the desert, she and her husband grew their business (Thane International) into a leader in infomercial production. “I absolutely had to make the shift,” DuBarry Hay says. “It’s impossible to act in anything big here.” She’s out to change that as president of Palm Springs Women in Film and Television. “I’m used to running a production company with 15 projects at various stages of development, so this is fun, even though it’s time-consuming,” she says.
The daughter of producer-director William Asher, Rebecca Asher has been a script supervisor and directs her own projects for multimedia entertainment. Cashino, a production she calls a mockumentary, has been staged in Los Angeles and New York.
Her current project, directing a one-woman show written by Amy Ziff about a woman who reassesses her life after finding herself dead in a bathtub, has been performed in workshop theaters in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. Next on her agenda: directing a series of comedies written by a friend for distribution on the Internet.
Asher comes to the desert frequently to visit her father, who lives here full time. She says she is thinking of buying property in the area, though she does not recall her first experiences in the Palm Springs area as a teenager fondly. “There were not a lot of young people, and it was too hot,” she says. Now, she says, “I find it rejuvenating, and I appreciate how quiet the place is.”
Joel Douglas, son of Kirk and brother of Michael, settled in after co-producing films such as Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile. His father had already been a local resident for 45 years, and he and his wife now live in a home once shared by Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.
“I was looking for access to L.A. without having to live in L.A.,” Douglas says. “When you don’t have to live in L.A., it’s better to be in a great climate with golfing. You still have access to L.A. for meetings.”
“I wanted a quiet existence. I got fed up with the noise and the congestion and the traffic,” Halperin says of her Hollywood agent-producer life. She considered Florida and other locations before landing in La Quinta, where she fulfilled her dream of writing a book. Rescue Me: He’s Wearing A Moose Hat, about over-50 dating disasters, was so successful that was optioned by Darkwoods Productions and is scheduled for production in 2009-2010.
Halperin works from home and drives to Los Angeles for meetings. “They overnight me scripts from the studio,” she says. “Everything is done by phone. I go to L.A. about twice a month for meetings.”
Angel Pine, a post-production supervisor and editor, also works from her home. “When I was buying my condo in Palm Springs in 2000 and working on Hidalgo, I was able to work by phone while the filming was going on in L.A,” she says. A feature-film editor and post-production supervisor, Pine’s credits include Premonition, Pretty Woman, and Overboard. At press time, she was working as post-production supervisor on an independent film, The Nutcracker, that was shot in Hungary and due to be released in December.
Pine represents the third generation of her family to have a Palm Springs connection. Before his death in 1955, her grandfather, Paramount producer William Pine, made more than 80 successful B-movies in the 1940s with actors such as Ronald Reagan and Rhonda Fleming. Her father, Howard Pine, was executive producer for films such as The Survivors, The Competition, and Straight Time. He died in 1999.
“Hollywood-Palm Springs has been a way of life in our family for more than 70 years,” Pine says. “I can make it door-to-door in two hours. So I can spend the week in L.A. and the weekends in Palm Springs. I’m living the life my father led. Palm Springs is not a good place to start a career; however, it’s a great place to live when you’re established.”
Earlier this year, Kim Waltrip, a former model and actress (Voyeur, In the Heat of the Night, Hardball), produced her first film in the desert for what she calls a “ridiculously low budget.” The Adopt a Sailor script crossed her desk in January 2007. The script called for a sailor, the Navy, and a cheap place to shoot interiors. The first two came through sheer hard work and dedication, the last through Kim’s connections in the desert.
“We actually shot the movie in our home in La Quinta,” she says. “[Local furniture store] Mathis Brothers donated much of the furniture. We had deals for the crew from the Hyatt Grand Champions and Palm Mountain Resort, Bel Air Green gave free use of the golf course in the summer, and [American Medical Response] provided a free van for several shots. UCR Palm Desert gave us the free use of offices for our production headquarters. Our production planner was amazed by the deals we could make. I called local people for equipment, and it was here. If you want to shoot in the desert, it helps to work with local people.”
Pat McCarthy is a production manager and coordinator whose credits include Shooter, Fred Claus, and Tyler Perry Meets the Brauns. She and her husband moved to the desert from Chicago to retire, but she continues to work in the film industry and would work even more if the jobs were here.
“I was disappointed and surprised to find there wasn’t more film work going on here,” she says. “Palm Springs doesn’t promote itself. It’s embarrassing. There are plenty of people here with studio connections. We should be getting out in front of location managers and promoting the locations we have here. We don’t make Palm Springs attractive enough.”
Another reason filmmaking is slow to take off in the desert is the perceived lack of a local talent pool. “Everything has to be brought in from L.A.,” McCarthy says. “The Palm Springs area doesn’t have a talent pool or equipment or studios.”
Ron Carr became a key grip late in life precisely because of the lack of local crew.
“My former brother-in-law was a key grip, and he was always looking for crew,” he says. “I was working as a contract engineer in real estate, and he said, ‘This is similar to what you’re doing now,’ and so I went for it. That was back in 1991 when the real estate market went south, so it was a lucky move for me.”
Carr works continuously on such TV series as Nip Tuck. He is another professional who moved to the desert to retire and then didn’t. “The desert is a good place to work once you’ve accumulated a little money,” he says. Today he has his sights set on becoming a producer: developing a golf-based game show set in the desert.
While production in the Coachella Valley is still developing, people involved in the industry aren’t letting geography stand in their way. Whether they’ve “retired” to the desert or are new to the business after growing up here, they’re living proof that Los Angeles — as celebrated as it is — lacks a monopoly on talent.