Ford Motor Co. gave Velma and Johnny Dawson one of the first 1955 Thunderbirds to come off the assembly line.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY THUNDERBIRD COUNTRY CLUB
This article was co-written by James Munn and Greg Williams
“We each supplied something the other didn’t have,” Velma Dawson once said of her marriage. “Johnny was the visionary; I was the artistic one.” By the time the couple settled in the Coachella Valley in 1949, Johnny had made his mark as a champion golfer, while Velma had become an experienced dancer, actress, puppeteer, and ceramicist. By the time they divorced in the early 1970s, Johnny had given the desert a new way of life, while Velma had given the world a cultural icon.
Born in Wheaton, Illinois, in 1902, Johnny Dawson grew up near a golf club, became a caddie, and soon discovered a talent for the sport. In 1920, Johnny graduated from high school and immediately went to work for A.G. Spalding, the top sporting-goods company of the day. “I worked my way up from the shoe department,” Johnny said in a fall 1978 interview in FORE, the magazine of the Southern California Golf Association, and he soon found himself attending golf tournaments throughout the country to find players who would endorse Spalding products.
Johnny began competing in — and winning — amateur golf tournaments, with sports writers dubbing him the “uncrowned king of golf.” As bad luck would have it, the United States Golf Association ruled that working for a sporting goods company negated Johnny’s amateur status, prompting him to resign from Spalding in 1929 in order to compete.
Spalding refused Johnny’s resignation, however, and he remained ineligible to golf in USGA-sponsored amateur tournaments for more than a decade. Finally, in 1947, he left Spalding for good and resumed competition. During his career, Johnny played the Masters Tournament seven times, made 11 holes-in-one (all during competitive play) and was the U.S. Senior Amateur Champion from 1958 to 1960.
Johnny Dawson, a caddy as a young
boy, became one of the top amateur golfers in the United States.
For years, a mutual friend of Velma and Johnny kept telling her, “There’s only one man in the world for you: Johnny Dawson.” The two finally met in 1931 while Velma was touring on vaudeville’s Orpheum Circuit and Johnny was traveling the country for Spalding. Velma already had a date for the evening and brought him and her mother along on her first outing with Johnny.
For years they dated infrequently because of their busy schedules, but married in 1937 at a small chapel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Velma was 25 years old; Johnny was 10 years her senior. Though both resided in L.A., they knew Palm Springs fairly well, as she had vacationed at the El Mirador Hotel and he had participated in the O’Donnell Golf Tournament for many years. They honeymooned at the Desert Inn, though it would be more than a decade before they would make the valley their permanent home.
Both of them were eager to learn and, early in their marriage, took courses at Hollywood High School — she in ceramics and chemistry, he in land and property. Though Johnny eventually went to UCLA to get his broker’s license, a great deal of his education came from being on the road for Spalding, learning firsthand what went into a successful golf course.
Velma’s curiosity veered more toward the creative arts, with puppeteering a particular fascination. It was a profession that required a great many skills — sculpting, painting, costume design, scriptwriting, stagecraft, lighting, voice work — all of which she would eventually master. Most important, she gave each one of her pieces a distinct and vivid personality.
While Velma honed her talents, Johnny dreamt of the possibilities the desert had to offer. “There was the O’Donnell nine-hole golf course as you entered Palm Springs and, at the other end of the valley on the Cochran Ranch, was another nine-hole facility,” Johnny recalled. “This was all the golf there was in the entire desert.”
By 1948, he had done a complete study of the area with regard to water, wind, sun, and views, with special emphasis on the type of soil, grass, and fertilizer that would create the best turf. What’s more, Johnny noted that Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, and other nearby communities typically got 90 more minutes of sunshine than properties in Palm Springs. Taking all this into account, he was convinced that the 182-acre-spread in Rancho Mirage known as Thunderbird Dude Ranch would make an ideal spot for Coachella Valley’s first 18-hole golf resort.
It was a time when swamp coolers provided air conditioning and, according to former actor and future Palm Springs Mayor Frank Bogert, “the summertime population and temperature were the same — 130.” Fellow golfer Ben Hogan told Johnny that such a club couldn’t succeed. Johnny disagreed, and in 1949, the Dawsons came to the desert to begin work on Thunderbird Country Club. “Johnny put $5,000 in escrow and then went looking for investors,” Velma said. “With help from his friends, he bought the property.” Thunderbird officially opened in January 1951.
Johnny, in collaboration with fellow golfer Jimmie Hines, next set his sights on a parcel of land in Indian Wells where grapefruit, date palms, and grapes were growing in abundance. The land was purchased in 1956 and Eldorado Country Club opened in November of 1957. Once again, the club featured an 18-hole golf course and, as with Thunderbird, the interiors were designed by Velma. Former President Dwight Eisenhower had a home on the 11th fairway.
“You’re like a hog in a pen eating apples,” Johnny once remarked about his new vocation. “You’ve always got your eye on the next one.” The next one happened to be Seven Lakes Country Club, which opened in 1964 in Palm Springs and was comprised of 346 midcentury modern condominiums. Once again, Velma designed the clubhouse interiors.
Next came Palm Desert’s Marrakesh Country Club, completed in 1978 with Hollywood Regency-style condominiums designed by architect John Elgin Woolf. Despite her divorce from Johnny in 1970, Velma took part in the interior design for the clubhouse, using soft desert hues that played off of the pink exteriors of the homes. She even ventured to Morocco to bring back pierced brass lanterns, hammered tin trays and inlaid mirrors to add to the décor. The country club expects to reveal a $10 million renovation in spring 2022.
“I’m a sucker for beautiful property,” Johnny said. “I’m jealous and scared that somebody else is going to ruin it if I don’t go ahead with the project myself.”
While Johnny was getting his feet wet with his golf resorts, Velma received a commission that would change her life — to create a Western-style puppet with a Stetson hat, boots, jeans, and an “honest freckled face.”
In late 1947, The Howdy Doody Show, created by legendary puppetmaster Frank Paris, debuted on NBC. Soon thereafter, Buffalo Bob Smith joined the show as its long-running host. It was a smash from the beginning and aired for almost 13 years — and Howdy Doody quickly became a household name.
As the show grew more popular, NBC asked for various merchandising, with Paris naturally wanting a part of the profits. NBC balked at the idea, so Paris took his puppets and left, leaving NBC stranded and effectively making Bob Smith the human star of the show. (Howdy Doody ultimately garnered about $3 billion in merchandising.)
But now NBC needed a new Howdy Doody. Norm Blackburn, the network’s national program director, knew of only one puppeteer, Velma Dawson, and remembered attending one of her marionette performances in Toluca Lake.
He called her. Desperate for the puppet, NBC pushed her to create Howdy in a mere nine days. (It would normally take months.) She was paid a paltry $300 for her efforts, a fact that Paris, who sued NBC for $250,000 — and won — would tease her about for years to come.
Shortly afterward, Velma began a one-woman local television show featuring her puppet creations that aired every day from 5 to 5:15 p.m. on KTTV in L.A. Two months in, she realized that she was running out of material and was relieved to get another call from NBC: Howdy’s puppeteer had broken the marionette’s head. Velma ended her TV show, telling the audience that she was needed in New York “to fix Howdy Doody.”
In their later years, Johnny and Velma continued to plan, create, and achieve, but their marriage didn’t last. After 32 years, the couple divorced. In 1984, Thunderbird began hosting its annual Johnny Dawson Tournament and, two years later, its namesake, 83 years old, died of complications resulting from Parkinson’s Disease compounded with a series of strokes. “Nobody in the world could be doing more interesting work than I’m doing,” Johnny once said. “You’re creating something out of nothing. You’re changing a person’s way of living, and you’re not hurting a soul with what you’re doing.”
In later years, Velma devoted her time to painting, philanthropy — and puppets. “Once you do puppets, they’re always with you,” said Velma, who continued to entertain with her marionettes. Her favorite puppet was Madame, a saucy character who worked the crowd, neatly playing into her talent for ad-libbing. Fans sought her out, and successful, 40-something gentlemen flew in just to meet Howdy’s famous mom and take her to dinner.
Velma was enthusiastic about community work and, in 1957, became a charter member of the Pathfinders, one of the Coachella Valley’s earliest nonprofit organizations benefitting the Boys (and now Girls) Club of Palm Springs. She was also deeply involved in the Palm Springs Desert Museum (now Palm Springs Art Museum) and the College of the Desert. Velma died at her home in Marrakesh in September 2007. She was 95.
“All I did was make a stupid puppet,” Velma said of her involvement in the Howdy Doody phenomenon. That puppet became an international superstar, receiving hundreds of fan letters every week. Meanwhile, all Johnny did was help ignite the desert’s development boom by pioneering its gated, 18-hole residential golf clubs.
In the end, the Dawsons brought to the desert all the ambition, talent, persistence, and luck necessary to make their mark on both a laid-back resort community and the world at large. Coachella Valley’s reputation as a mecca for golf enthusiasts remains a monument to the man and his dream. As Johnny put it, “If you give a man a good golf course, a good view, and a concept that eliminates the millions of petty irritations he is going to run into elsewhere in life, you are off to a pretty good start.”