PALM SPRINGS -- Modernism Week, which begins Thursday and actually lasts 10 days, is when this city gets all dolled up and revels in its mid-century chic, goes on a civic three-martini-lunch bender and pretends the Rat Pack never left.
Scores of tourists, and quite a few residents, will tramp through open-beamed ceiling, wide-windowed homes that typify the era and give this desert oasis its retro charm. They will do drivebys of examples from the “star-chitects” of the period – Richard Neutra, William Krisel, Donald Wexler, George and Robert Alexander – oohing and ahhing at the arch construction. They will snap selfies next to Eames lounge chairs, send them off into the Twittersphere.
That’s all well and good. Quite edifying, really.
But permit me to suggest a lower-brow tour that gives the non-designed-obsessed visitor just enough mid-century modern edification to impress friends back home but mostly provides people with what they really want – a peek at the homes of Hollywood stars of the era, coupled with a dollop of dirt about their private lives.
For 50 years, the outfit Palm Springs Alive has offered a 21/2-hour “Celebrity Grand Tour,” via bus, of the city’s most starstruck neighborhoods – Las Palmas, Movie Colony, Racquet Club Estates – where the addresses once housed folks with surnames such as Crosby, Hope, Sinatra, Monroe, Presley, Gable, Streisand and, of course, Liberace.
Call me cretinous, one of those pond-scumming celebrity stalkers, but this cheesy caravan through the Golden Age of Hollywood – or, at least, where Hollywood came for R&R – was worth every penny of the $46 I plunked down. Whereas you couldn’t pay me enough to tour the stars’ homes in Beverly Hills or Malibu, this Palm Springs version seemed harmless enough because most of the stars are long since dead or moved on to more exclusive estates in trendier locales. And, like a Playboy subscriber who only gets the magazine for the articles, I can say I was only taking the tour for the architecture.
Oh, and this, too: Bob Noble was our tour guide.
There is nary a stray, insignificant fact about the Palm Springs glitterati that Noble can’t spout from memory, laced with humor, ironic twists and impersonations that range from the dead-on (Liberace) to the head-scratching (Edward G. Robinson).
What strikes tourists most at first is that the homes, with rare exceptions (such as Bob Hope’s “party house” on a ridge), are not palatial and gaudily adorned. Some are as small as 2,500 square feet. My, how did they live in such cramped quarters?
Hope’s first desert abode, in 1940, was modest, a three-bedroom, three-bath 2,126-square-foot Spanish colonial at 1014 East Buena Vista Drive. He did, however, trade up after five years and get a 3,000-square-foot home with a pool at 1188 East El Alameda, two blocks away. Both Hope homes were in the palm tree-and-bougainvillea draped Movie Colony neighborhood, just off the downtown shopping hub. For what now looks like a pleasant, if unexceptional housing tract, the Movie Colony once was home to the industry’s biggest stars (Cary Grant, Al Jolson, Jack Benny) and moguls (David O. Selznick and Harry Cohn).
Noble, of course, provides the context: “Back then, actors were contract players. One of the common clauses was that actors could not leave the area in case they needed to do reshoots. The studios would buy homes here and let stars use them. Las Vegas was too far away, but Palm Springs is 110 miles from Hollywood, just far enough. Malibu, as we know it today, didn’t exist yet. So, after making four or five movies a year, they’d take two weeks off and get away from the stalkers and paparazzi of Hollywood, play some tennis, lay by the pool and work on their tan.”
By 1940, stars were buying up homes themselves in the Movie Colony ’hood. Noble slows the bus to show the group Bing Crosby’s home at 1011 El Alameda on two lots and how, after Dorothy Lamour told him she wanted to move to the Colony, he “chopped off the top of his own house and made a separate home for Dorothy.”
The Colony’s biggest attraction is Sinatra’s first desert home, Twin Palms, where he stayed for 10 years starting in 1947 before building an 8,000-square-foot manse on a golf course in Rancho Mirage. It was designed by noted architect E. Stewart Williams and ... do you really want to hear more about the house? Noble sensed that and told us Frank at-the-house stories.
“He had to sell because of his divorce to Ava Gardner,” he said. “Frank was ordered by the court to sell the home and ordered to give his ex-wife half the proceeds. Frank said, ‘Yes, Sir, your honor,’ and sold the house for one dollar. … In the back is a swimming pool in the shape of a baby grand piano. The covering over the walkway leading from the gate to the house (has) holes so that in the morning the sunshine goes through the baby grand piano. Very stunning visual.
“I took a tour of the home, and Frank and Ava had the worst fight ever in this home. I’ve seen the hole in the kitchen wall where Ava lunged at Frank with a steel saucepan. He ducked and it took a chunk out of the wall. Frank left the hole because he thought it made a great story.”
Sinatra never owned a house in the Las Palmas neighborhood of Palm Springs, where in the 1950s and ’60s the majority of stars settled. But he played a role in one of the best stories around the neighborhood. Elvis Presley had a “honeymoon” home built at 1350 Ladera Circle before his marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu. It was an imposing, winglike structure that resembled a space craft, built by Krisel. The media learned of the impending nupitals, so Sinatra volunteered to have his private limo around back (near Marilyn Monroe’s abode, by the way) and whisk the couple to Vegas for the ceremony.
“They actually spent their wedding night here because the media had gone home by then,” Noble said.
The stories came fast and furious as Noble bused us around Las Palmas. There’s Jack Benny’s home, where the notoriously cheap comedian installed a parking meter to charge guests. There’s one of three Liberace homes, with marble lions and a sculptured piano mailbox out front. There are the homes of Sammy Davis Jr., Alan Ladd, Dean Martin, Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor (a separate house for her furs), Kirk Douglas, Telly Savalas, Kenny Rogers, Jay Leno, Brian Boitano, George Hamilton ...
By the time Noble got to Trini Lopez’s house, the pop-culture shine had dimmed considerably.
But then he stopped at the sprawling, rectangular Kaufmann House at 470 Vista Chino, star attraction of Modernism Week. Made of buff-colored Utah stone with floor-to-ceiling windows, it was built for Pennsylvania department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann in 1946 by Neutra, a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé. Noble reeled off some architectural terms that breezed over the group’s heads, but he found a way to win back our attention.
“Hey,” he chirped, “this also was Barry Manilow’s first house in Palm Springs.”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.