Palm Springs: Old Hollywood Hangout Has Become a New Escape (Guest Blog)

The pandemic shut down many of Palm Springs’ attractions, but residents remain hopeful, Michele Wilens writes

Last Updated: February 9, 2021 @ 4:01 PM

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In the 2020 Andy Samberg film “Palm Springs,” the characters undergo a Groundhog Day-style time loop. To which the real-life residents of, and visitors to, this town say: If only.

If all had been normal, Jennifer Lopez, Quentin Tarantino, Joaquin Phoenix, Martin Scorsese and many others would have now returned to their homes, after a sun-baked week of screenings and parties. The Palm Springs International Film Festival has become one of the favorites for those promoting their work. Alas.

At the same time, a top-flight group of authors — Walter Isaacson, Dave Barry, Peter Baker, Eddie Glaude, Jr., Doris Kearns Goodwin and more — would be reading their latest to the sold-out Rancho Mirage Writers Conference. Last year’s concluded with Michael Douglas being interviewed on stage, days before his father passed away.

A third event — Modernism — a celebration of art and architecture, has also been a boon for this city. This year, it’s gone virtual. And then there is the Indian Wells Tennis Tournament, owned by Larry Ellison, which has risen to the top of the second tier in the tennis world. Sure, Ellison is rich, but taking a $5.5 million hit is, well, a double fault at best.

Sunnylands, the Annenberg estate that has become a popular tourist site (for the second straight year) is also closed. Not to mention the Coachella Music Festival, which just canceled for the second straight year. While many other locales have suffered from cultural cancellations, it’s difficult to think of one this size (population approx. 48,000) that has come to rely on so many big ones.

Live theatres are also dead, covered in apologetic signs that read “Sorry for the intermission.” Hershey Felder, who has done his hugely popular musical memoirs here every year since 2000, notes, “I was the last one to perform before all came to an end, and I was supposed to be there right now. They are good people and deserve to return to normal.”

Despite all that, Palm Springs has become something of a haven for those seeking an escape, lured by the mild weather, the mountains, the orange groves and the clean air. “There has been a huge influx into the Coachella Valley since COVID began,” Sandie Newton, a local TV reporter, says. “We are close to L.A. and San Diego, we are very affordable, and there is a sophistication here not seen in most small towns.”

One East Coast media advisor says she is renting because, “New York was debilitating, and the vibe in Palm Springs is seductively appealing.” Film producer Wallis Nicita moved here last May and remains committed to its unique qualities. “Palm Springs is where the tacky and the natural intersect,” she says. “It’s a place for sports enthusiasts, partygoers, and quiet retirees. The night sky is so clear and close that it looks almost touchable.”

Dolores Robinson, a beloved talent agent whose many clients include Mark Hamill, moved a few years back and says, “I came to hide out in a way, before the pandemic. Now, that’s no problem since I never go out!”

But with California’s surge, and on-again, off-again lockdowns, temporary visitors are not getting any semblance of an active shopping or nightlife. Going out after dark can be hazardous. You are reminded to keep car windows closed, as the homeless wander the streets. Many businesses are hanging on for life.

“Normally, we would have 10 or 20 people standing outside, waiting to get in,” says the owner of Chillin, an ice- cream store that is empty most of the day. One savior may be L.A.-based billionaire Ron Burkle, who recently purchased a trio of entities, including a few event spaces, and Le Vallauris, which, before closing, was considered by many the best restaurant in the area.

Robinson says one lure for her was the area’s Old Hollywood feeling. Yes, if nothing else, one can always sit poolside and remember. And just follow your GPS: Right on Bob Hope, left on Frank Sinatra, right on Kirk Douglas, and so on. Palm Canyon Drive is paved with the names of Hollywood stars that literally go on forever. The Rat Pack, JFK, they all came to play. Don Draper had one of his more depraved weekends here on “Mad Men.”

My family belonged to the legendary Racquet Club, started by actors Charlie Farrell and Ralph Bellamy in 1934. We played doubles with Janet Leigh, Kirk and Anne Douglas, and Dinah Shore. I learned to twist at Dinah’s house, which was later bought by Leonardo DiCaprio. I remember when the mysterious husband (think Robert Duvall in “The Godfather”) of her best friend, club regular Bea Korshak, flew in from Chicago. There was a sudden and very distinct hush. I was an innocent kid and had no idea what something called the mafia was. The club was burned down in 2014 and the land is for sale. The sign alone made me cry.

That was then. Now, those who have moved, or are visiting, here are hopeful and have no regrets. Debbie Miller, executive producer of the Writers Conference, says, “98% of the 1000 people who bought tickets are not asking for refunds, but are waiting for next year’s.”

New York artist Anthony Mosca bought a condo here in 2020 and says, “Palm Springs continually springs back. It’s resilient and that will make it a post-COVID success.” World-famous photographer Michael Childers moved here two decades ago with his life partner, the director John Schlesinger. “It is hipper, younger … and yes, gayer now,” he says.

In his lovely new memoir, actor Gabriel Byrne writes, “To remember and imagine can be the same thing.” As I write, I am staying in the bungalow once owned by Gloria Swanson. I imagine her most famous screen character would look back and say Palm Springs is ready for its next close-up.

Michele Willens is a bi-coastal journalist. She writes a weekly theatre report -- Stage Right Or Not -- for an NPR affiliate.