Historic Articles

Desert Circus – Desert Magazine (November 2014)

“Crime does not pay-but you will!” admonished the Kangaroo Court citation issued by deputized teenage girls who were instructed by Sheriff Two-Gun Thompson to arrest anyone who wasn’t properly attired in western wear.

Desert Circus Week
For one full week each spring, the whole town would be subject to the Kangaroo Court. Judge Leo Fields presided over the court, usual held on the grounds of the Desert Inn, where all those cited were duly convicted of the “revolting crimes” of not being decked out like a real cowboy in western regalia, or not wearing the proper Desert Circus badge (a get-out-of-jail free card) or just on general principle. Confinement to the stocks was at the court’s pleasure, but was easily avoided by paying the fine. The money collected was distributed to various local charities.

The Desert Circus started during the depths of the Depression in 1934 as a modest amusement for local residents and in an effort to raise funds for the community. The proceeds of the first and second years benefitted the Catholic and Community churches, respectively.

The humble beginnings of a parade and a few assorted children’s games grew over the next 50 years to require expansion of Cody Field (later known as the Field Club) and included horse shows, gymkhana, a steeplechase, pony express races, circus acts, boxing, children’s spoon and egg race, a Grand Parade down Palm Canyon past the entrance of the Desert Inn. The weeklong celebration culminated in the Big Top Ball, a fancy dinner dance at either the Racquet Club or the El Mirador Hotel. There were cash prizes for the games and horseplay, and for the best parade entry.
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Harry Oliver – Desert Magazine (October 2014)

“I never did learn how to spell-but I did learn the typesetter’s rule ‘Set up the type as long as you can hold your breath without turning blue in the face, then put a comma. When you gape (sic), put in a semicolon and when you want to sneeze, that’s the time to make a paragraph.'”

And with a firm understanding of such, Harry Oliver set out to make the “Desert Rat Scrap Book.” It was an unusual news paper. Whenever he had collected enough stories, procured some poems and had a good cartoon from a friend, including Walt Disney, he would issue the diminutive little couch of amusement. All in all, he made some 44 such publications (and several more books). The masthead of the Desert Rat Scrap Book” heralded it to be the “smallest newspaper in the world..published at Fort Oliver..four times a year.” Oliver prefaced that with the admonition that,”This paper is not entered as 2nd class mail. It’s a first class newspaper.” And indeed its subscribers were all over the world. He also cheerfully added that the offer of subscription “expires when I do.”

Oliver had a very successful career before he became a newspaperman and desert humorist.
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Water in the Desert – Desert Magazine (Summer 2013)

Despite its designation as a desert, the Coachella Valley is blessed with water. The very names associated with the places in the desert, such as The Oasis Hotel, Deep Well, Indian Wells, Palm Springs, Snow Creek and River Estates all conjure up pretty images of water but the early story of desert water is more utilitarian than picturesque; it literally can be seen as a history of ditches.

More than a century ago a prescient and practical few understood that water was the most precious of all resources in such an arid region. Hydrology was the purview of engineers, and naturally, they moved the precious liquid in ditches. The most famous Southern California water story is that of William Mullholland and his grandiose ditch, the Owens Valley Aqueduct. His scheme to ensure a reliable water supply for burgeoning Los Angeles came at the cost of turning a once fertile pasture surrounding a lake situated 200 miles away into a dust-polluting salt flat the size of San Francisco. But here in the natural desert, there were visionaries thinking about using local water and building their own ditches to deliver it.
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Gardening in the Desert – Desert Magazine (May 2013)

“I’m an enemy of the average” stated world-famous Polish opera singer, socialite and six-time-married Madame Ganna Walska, who certainly wasn’t average. In 1941 at the age of 58, she purchased a sprawling Montecito estate and spend the remainder of her long life cultivating the 37-acre property named Lotusland.

Fascinated with desert plants, Walska created a stunningly beautiful garden at her Santa Barbara home, one that rivaled other spectacular landscapes seen up and down California in the first half of the 20th century.

Another notable early desert garden was developed for the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego. Even today, The 1935 (Old) Cactus Garden contains some of the largest cactus and succulent specimens in Balboa Park.

In San Marino near Pasadena, railroad magnate Henry Huntington’s extravagant gardens complimented his even more fabulous art collection. The Huntington Desert Garden, covering 10 acres on the several-hundred-acre property, is unparalleled in the world. Featuring towering mounds of golden barrel cactus among the more than 5,000 species of succulents and desert plants from fabulously distant climes, this desert garden is now nearly a century old.

But all these remarkable desert gardens were nurtured in the temperate Mediterranean climate of coastal California. Hard at work cultivating amid the sand dunes and heat of the Coachella Valley during those early years were brave, determined and decidedly un-average gardeners.
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The Painted Desert – Desert Magazine (April 2013)

All of the big names were here. These artists, whose paintings now garner unimaginable sums at auction, worked “en plein air,” away from their studios, capturing the changing colors in the great outdoors.

It was a time of innocence and exploration in California’s desert wilds. Some painters were driven to escape the ravages of tuberculosis, and others, like Lockwood de Forest, who made 10 documented visits in the very beginning of the 20th century, were drawn by the extraordinary landscape made glorious by an indescribable yellow light.

But De Forest, Maynard Dixon, Conrad Buff, Clyde Forsythe, Milford Zornes and other “California Impressionists” weren’t the only ones; there was a cadre of more permanent desert dwellers. The desert proved a haven, a place to work where one could survive and make a living at fine art. As a result, the desert’s thriving artist community in the early 20th century rivaled that of Taos, Santa Fe or Carmel.

John Hilton, R.Brownell McGrew, Fred Penney, Karl Albert, Carl Bray, and Jimmy Swinnerton became local stars known beyond the valley. Painstaking representations of the unusual landscape and its adapted plants were contrasted with loose, interpretive styles; the subject scenery was conducive to both.

Pools in Paradise – Desert Magazine (March 2013)

While public baths have figured prominently since ancient times in civilization-providing both cleanliness and socializing-the widespread presence of private swimming pools for leisure and entertainment in one’s own backyard is truly a 20th century phenomenon. And nowhere is it more evident than here in the desert where the swimming pool is the very definition of leisurely resort living.

One of the first in-ground, concrete pools in the United States was the Deep Eddy pool in Austin, Texas. It was a Works Progress Administration project that started with a bathhouse, much later than our own Agua Caliente bathhouse, built at the site to service a pre-existing swimming hole. It later evolved into a resort, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Also listed is the first above-ground pool in the U.S. built in 1907 at the Philadelphia Racquet Club by then-famed Brooklyn Bridge-contractor Roebling Construction Company.

The Agua Caliente bathhouse dates to the 1880s, and had multiple incarnations notably in 1910, 1930 and finally in the William Cody-Donald Wexler version that dates to the 1960s. Throughout the eight decades, visitors came to plunge into the waters for the health benefits to be enjoyed by soaking.

After World War II, swimming pools flourished in the warmer parts of America, made even more popular by their appearance in movies. Buying a house and building a pool was a sure mark of success and living the American Dream. In the Coachella Valley, the backyard pool completed the picture of relaxation sought in the warmth of the desert.
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Dates in History – Desert Magazine (February 2013)

“It’s a date!” the title of the thin tome proclaims with a cheeky wink. Chronicling the Coachella Valley date industry from a 1930s perspective, this book, written by Wayland Dunham, takes an amused view of this agricultural wonder. The publication recounts the fact in great detail, in a “simple yarn, told in lighthearted, non-technical terms, of the history, romance, propagation, and usage of the fruit of the Date Palm…”

the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is one of man’s oldest cultivated plants going back not just centuries in history, but millennia. Dates appeared in cultivation in California in the latter half of the 18th century at the Spanish missions up and down the coast. However, the coastal climate wasn’t particularly conducive for date production.

In the late 1800s, seeds and offshoots were imported rom Egypt, Algeria and the Persian Gulf to the arid Southwest of the United States. In 1904, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established a date experimental station in the Coachella Valley. Different varieties, both from offshoots and seeds, were tried.

In the following decades, crop production grew exponentially, from approximately 100,000 pounds in 1919 to 1 million pounds in 1926, and then by 1955 to 48 million pounds. Ultimately, some 85 percent of U.S. date acreage was situated in the Coachella Valley. This production derived predominantly from 14,000 offshoots of the Deglet Noor variety imported from Algeria.
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Nightclubbing – Desert Magazine (January 2013)

When the sun goes down in the desert, the cool night sky sparkles with stars. But back in the day, earthbound movie stars spotted locally-just a two-hour drive from Hollywood-seemed to outnumber those in the sky. To go stargazing then, you only had to go nightclubbing. For a few decades in the middle of the last century, the intimate hot spots of the desert were nearly unequalled anywhere in the world, not only for their fabulous entertainment but for the internationally renowned celebrities sitting around you in the audience.

The most notable of all was the Chi Chi. Opened in 1936 as the Desert Grill, the restaurant was eventually purchased by Irwin Schuman who remodeled it in a fancy Polynesian them inspired by the famed oil painting on black velvet of the Tahitian woman Hina Rapa by “American Gauguin,” Edgar Leeteg.

In a play on the Spanish translation, the prominently displayed painting of this topless native woman was dubbed “the Chi Chi girl,” for obvious reasons, by local painter Jack Church. The club was thenceforth called the Chi Chi Grill Cocktail Lounge and went on to present every major entertainer of the next two decades: Lena Horne, Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, Jerry Lewis, Hoagy Carmichael, Carmen Miranda, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole, only a fraction of the list.
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"Santa Baby" – Desert Magazine (December 2012)

Sand dunes and 80-degree December temperatures might seem like the last conditions on earth to inspire the creation of timeless holiday songs, but, in fact, the Coachella Valley figures prominently in the writing and recording of a few that we hold most dear.

There are several stories about the genesis of “White Christmas,” surely the most famous tune of all, but one tells of Irving Berlin writing it poolside at the La Quinta Inn-today’s La Quinta Resort & Club. (Another puts him poolside at The Arizona Biltmore). After finishing, he quickly called his secretary in New York reportedly exclaiming, “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written!”

That statement certainly makes sense in retrospect, considering that according to Guinness World Records, the version recorded by Bing Crosby, another desert fixture, ultimately became the bestselling single in history.

Regardless of the specific desert locale, most believe that the song was written in December 1937 for a Broadway show that was never produced. But later Berlin pulled it out of “the trunk” of song ideas he carried around as a possibility for Paramount Pictures’ 1942 musical film “Holiday Inn.” The beginning of the original first verse was dropped but it certainly could be describing the desert:

The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway

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Pearl McCallum McManus – Desert Magazine (November 2012)

Although a century has passed since her father planted the first fruit trees at the foot of Mount San Jacinto, Pearl McCallum McManus’ influence in the Coachella Valley continues to enhance our quality of life today.

Among the first to understand and imagine the possibilities of a gracious life in our desert setting, Pearl’s father was visionary. But he would not survive to see the valley’s transformation into the dreamy irrigated landscape he imagined. He did,however,firmly inculcate that vision into his daughter Pearl,and she spent the remainder of her long life bringing it to fruition.

With lush green golf courses and world-class resorts situated today from one end of the valley to the other, it’s difficult to imagine in their place endless dunes and scrub. Yet it was in this sand-swept setting that Pearl and her husband Austin McManus took the fearless step of commissioning Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, to build the Oasis Hotel.

Situated at the corner of what is now Tahquitz Canyon and Palm Canyon Way in Palm Springs, the couple’s project was built of slip form concrete, which ensured a continuous, cast-in-place structure. When completed, the Oasis was the first architecturally designed building in the desert.

Suddenly, the adjacent Desert Inn’s tent and clapboard housing looked inferior. It was a situation that spurred Nellie Coffman, the inn’s owner, into a massive building project in order to compete. Thereafter, the standard for hotels was forever lifted from rough camping grounds to proper hotels.
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