Trailblazers and Dreammakers

Famous (and not-so-famous) visionaries created the illusion, says historian Kevin Starr, that in Palm Springs, “You could escape time alongside celebrities who had kept you company throughout your life.”

Howard Johns Arts & Entertainment 0 Comments

Since it debuted on newsstands in March 1958, Palm Springs Life has documented the comings and goings of the nation’s top politicians, movie stars, and sports heroes who have vacationed and lived in the Coachella Valley.

Some of those illustrious names stayed; others left and periodically returned to the desert like flocks of migrating birds. All created a lasting impression — their accomplishments recorded for posterity in the magazine’s monthly coverage of news, entertainment, art, and fashion.

In retrospect, what stands out is the number of significant events of the past 50 years that either occurred in and around the desert or were influenced by the stony terrain, which has been a mute witness to innumerable cases of human achievement and opportunism.

If it wasn’t for a serendipitous grouping of sports-loving Hollywood personalities — a handsome actor named Charles Farrell, a goofy comedian known as Bob Hope, and smooth band singer Bing Crosby — Palm Springs and its environs, as we know it, may never have existed.

But the gods were in good humor that special day and decreed that the desert’s future would be a bright one. Venture capitalists from Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York pooled their resources to build fancy hotels, restaurants, tennis courts, and golf courses to entertain Hope, Crosby, and their celebrity friends.

These wealthy folks could afford what the Native American Indians couldn’t accomplish in the era before they were granted legalized gambling, their funds providing the resources for bulldozing roads and constructing houses, shopping centers throughout the valley.

Promotion of the desert’s premier lodgings — El Mirador, Racquet Club, The Desert Inn, and La Quinta Hotel, the benchmark for all others — fell to a smart-thinking Colorado cowboy, Frank Bogert, and a fast-talking Englishman, Tony Burke. This energetic duo mailed out snapshots of men and women luxuriating in the winter sunshine to the nation’s newspapers.

Thus began an unending stream of tourism from across the country and around the globe — a lucrative trend that has since taken giant leaps and bounds up to the present. But things have changed considerably since those simpler days.

In that conservative era, TV reality shows, spring breaks, and gay and lesbian circuit parties, which now channel appreciable income to the area, did not exist. The desert’s social interaction, which had a strong Western flavor, took place around campfires and chuck wagons.

A subsequent explosion of commercial offerings and residential developments irrevocably altered the valley’s horizon and changed people’s perceptions of the word “desert.” Nowadays, local Indian tribes own luxury gaming casinos throughout the area — the biggest sources of revenue anywhere in Riverside County.

But it wasn’t only the rich and famous who staked a lucky claim here. Real estate developers Raymond Cree, Alvah Hicks, Robert Alexander, Paul Trousdale, and Roy Fey were among those brave speculators who punted their life savings and helped pave the way for various civic accomplishments.

Golfer-turned-developer Johnny Dawson was the brains behind several posh country clubs — including Thunderbird, Eldorado, and Seven Lakes — that boasted their own landscaped 18-hole golf courses.

Meanwhile, aviation pioneer Clifford Henderson and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen founded the city of Palm Desert with its glitzy retail anchor, El Paseo, boasting some of the desert’s swankiest boutiques, art galleries, and bistros.

Farther east, Ray Ryan, a Midwestern oil driller, invested substantial money in the exclusive township of Indian Wells and watched it blossom. The Indian Wells Tennis Garden, a $75 million, 16,100-seat sports arena, opened in 2000.

Later, Ryan and Ernie Dunlevie teamed up to build the community of Bermuda Dunes, where actor Clark Gable and bandleader Fred Waring resided. This group of bold visionaries helped to make the Coachella Valley the highly diversified place it is today.

“Here was Palm Springs at its apex,” says California historian Kevin Starr, “the golf, the celebrities, the galas … and above all else, the illusion that in Palm Springs you could escape time alongside celebrities who had kept you company throughout your life.”

Of course, vital to any successful retail or housing development is architecture, and different forms of this pleasing aesthetic — from art nouveau and California ranch to French Regency — have been a dominant presence since the desert’s beginnings.

Long before the sleek midcentury modern style unfolded its bright, colorfully optimistic, minimalist aesthetic, many of the great houses or casas grandes in Palm Springs were designed in the Spanish Mediterranean vogue favored by renowned Pasadena architect Wallace Neff, who crafted several fine desert houses for the jovial likes of Harpo Marx and Red Skelton.

Eventually, this ornate tradition was replaced by European minimalism — a smooth, rectangular look advocated by American architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, and John Lautner, whose fabricated steel-and-glass living spaces complemented the natural elements.

Each of these acclaimed draftsmen contributed memorable building designs to the area. Lautner, in particular, showed great versatility, designing the Desert Hot Springs Motel, his first concrete building, as well as rendering the futuristic concept for Bob Hope’s third desert home at a cost of $3.5 million.

Local architects Albert Frey, William F. Cody, Donald Wexler, and E. Stewart Williams also used minimalist concepts in their streamlined designs for homes, schools, and offices stretching from Banning to the Salton Sea.

Another important catalyst of the last 50 years, as reported in Palm Springs Life, was the influence of U.S. media, which had a substantial impact on the social and economic development of Palm Springs. Several prominent media owners, who amassed vast fortunes from their empires, sought refuge in the desert from the everyday stresses of corporate life.

The family of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who shaped public opinion through audacious (often mendacious) headlines, had strong ties to the Coachella Valley. His eldest son, George Randolph Hearst, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, retired here in 1972. Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies was also an influential desert landowner.

Hearst’s younger rival, TV Guide founder Walter Annenberg, who built his own lavish compound named Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, courted royalty and politicians, while dispensing his wealth to a multitude of worthy recipients, including state colleges and museums, through various grants and trusts.

Like a giant chessboard on which opposing kings and queens have played, the desert’s vast expanse has also fueled the literary imaginations of a collection of worthy knights and pawns that dwelled here.

Truman Capote, Sidney Sheldon, Herman Wouk, Ray Bradbury, Harold Robbins, and Joseph Wambaugh were among the valley’s gifted storytellers. In 2006, best-selling novelist Anne Rice paid more than $4 million for a home at Mirada Estates in Rancho Mirage. Her best-selling novelist son Christopher Rice visits with great frequency.

It’s sometimes difficult to comprehend the sheer force and number of outstanding personalities who’ve gathered in the shadow of Mount San Jacinto — the 10,834-feet-high monolith that looms at the entrance to this charmed paradise.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, an exhilarating ride that takes rotating cable cars of passengers from the desert floor to the mountaintop, was hailed as the eighth wonder of the world when it opened in 1963.

The same granite peaks and canyons spurred America’s first billionaire Howard Hughes, a frequent Palm Springs habitué, to build experimental airplanes so he could fly over them. Desert wildlife inspired another famous resident, Walt Disney, who owned two houses here, to create the exhibits at Disneyland and make several award-winning documentaries.

The desert’s breathtaking geography has even stimulated the brain cells of Bill Gates, the third richest person in the world with a personal fortune of nearly $60 billion. When he’s not developing Microsoft computer software, Gates admires the mountain vistas from his new home at The Vintage Club in Indian Wells.

What would the benefits of such technological accomplishments be, however, without goodhearted philanthropy? Gates is not alone in having donated a sizable chunk of his company’s profits to medical research.

Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Dinah Shore were among the entertainers who helped to raise money for the building of Desert Hospital in Palm Springs and Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. Gene Autry donated $5 million to EMC for an acute-care facility.

Hollywood moguls and Palm Springs residents Samuel Goldwyn, Jack Warner, Darryl F. Zanuck, and Lew Wasserman, who manipulated audience’s emotions through their timeless and pervasive films, also gave substantial endowments to the arts and humanities.

The Betty Ford Center, the world’s leading drug and alcohol treatment and rehabil-itation center, was founded by the wife of President Gerald Ford and their Rancho Mirage neighbor, Leonard Firestone, the former president of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.

It’s often surprising to learn how many captains of U.S. industry, CEOs, and chairmen of the board were desert homeowners during the five decades of Palm Springs Life’s publication.

Financier Lawrence Giannini, president and son of the founder of Bank of America, owned a house in Palm Springs. Conrad Hilton, the founder of Hilton Hotels, also lived here. (Hilton’s grandson Richard is the father of socialites Paris and Nicky Hilton.) Isadore Sharp, founder of the Four Seasons empire, often oversees his ventures from his Palm Springs home.

Multibillionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who took over film giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and later built the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, was another prominent Palm Springs resident.

Brothers Maurice and Richard McDonald, the industrious founders of McDonald’s fast-food restaurants, which they started in San Bernardino and later sold to Ray Kroc, both retired here.

Scientific minds and intellectual geniuses were only some of the deep thinkers touched by the Coachella Valley’s powerful divinity; many product innovators imbued with the spark of creativity built working prototypes or perfected their designs while living here.

Indian Wells philanthropist Joan Kroc, who inherited McDonald’s Corp. bequeathed $200 million to National Public Radio — the largest monetary gift ever received by an American cultural institution.

Industrial designer Raymond Loewy, voted one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century, created the eye-catching logos for Coca-Cola, Greyhound, Exxon, and Air Force One while living at his Chino Canyon house, designed by Albert Frey.

And, William Scholl, the original “Dr. Scholl” — whose footwear company invented rubber insoles, corn pads, and orthopedic sandals — perfected many of these useful inventions at his Palm Springs estate.

Other business tycoons with a proud history of Palm Springs homeownership include Will Keith Kellogg, inventor of corn flakes, who lived in Las Palmas Estates.

There’s also been Davis Factor, chairman of international cosmetics firm Max Factor; Oscar Mayer Jr., president of the Oscar Mayer meat production company; and Donald Douglas, founder of Douglas Aircraft, who built the first DC-class commercial airliners.

These men were true desert pioneers, making deals and signing contracts in between playing tennis or golf and hosting weekend barbecues.

A lot of big business occurs practically on Gates’ doorstep. His Vintage Club neighbor, Lee Iacocca, former chairman of Chrysler Corp., now sells electric-powered automobiles. Gulfstream Aerospace CEO and champion horse breeder Allen Paulsen lived nearby.

Veteran TV talk show host Merv Griffin, who created the quiz shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, built a beautiful lakeside house in La Quinta. When Griffin sold his production company for $250 million, he became one of the richest performers in showbiz history.

Some achievements defied logic or explanation. One person that stood out was Sonny Bono, whose unique contribution to the desert spanned two careers: performing arts and politics. A 23-year valley resident, Bono founded the Palm Springs International Film Festival and served one term as the city’s mayor. In 1994, he was elected to U.S. Congress and proved to be so popular on Capitol Hill that he was re-elected two years later.

Although his career and life was tragically cut short, Bono epitomized the desert’s eternal spirit with the upbeat slogan: P.S. I LUV U.


Leave a Reply