I always knew “Everything old is new again …” even in death. But I never experienced it until my most recent trip to Palm Springs during their “Modernism Week.” It is kind of like the Super Bowl for architects and design fans for everything mid-century modern; from houses to antique shows to vintage cars to art. Palm Springs has now become the “MIDMOD” mecca. It has more restored and renovated houses per acre than any other location.
Personally I wouldn’t know a Neutra house from a trailer. I grew up in an authentic 1965 Japanese Modern home, which my 95-year-old mother just got rid of. So I was fearful that some of this excitement over 1960 “retro restoration” would bore or depress me with moldy memories.
Besides, the last time I visited Palm Springs was mid-1980s with pal Carrie Fisher who insisted we go for three days to get over her split with Paul Simon and to visit her grandparents — Debbie Reynolds’ mom Maxine and dad Ray Reynolds.
So before I went on my 2017 Palm Springs Pilgrimage, I decided to go visit Carrie and Debbie’s gravesite at Forest Lawn in Hollywood to pay my respects.
Actually, before I did that, I went to Beverly Hills’ Will Rogers Park to visit the infamous public men’s room where George Michael got busted “performing lewd acts” in 1998. Apparently it was because of that incident that Michaels came out. That bathroom arrest changed his life. Now it has become somewhat of a “shrine” — though no signage is present. Nowadays mostly Arabs (staying next door at the Beverly Hills Hotel) are in the park walking their dogs and baby carriages. I knew Carrie would approve of this LGBT pit stop.
Carrie and Debbie’s Forest Lawn “Wall” was in the “Courtyard of Treasured Love” — with a full view of the Hollywood Mountains and across the street from the Warner Brothers Studios. And it is right next to Liberace’s memorial “crypt” or vault. I went right after Valentine’s Day, so there was an array of flowers and candy decorating both graves. Apparently Debbie was close to Liberace and even played his mother in the HBO hit “Candelabra.” Forest Lawn was the best final scene for all of them.
Hooray for Hollywood!
But it was Carrie who originally inducted me into Palm Springs … in her way. We stayed at Two Bunch Palms (which, at the time, was a popular shabby spa/resort known for being “Al Capone’s getaway”). She insisted we drop Psilocybin and go shopping. Later we would sit in the hotel’s mineral baths. We did all of that while I was tripping. I thought Carrie became Eddie, and she ended up spending (à la Michael Jackson) $15,000 in a tourist memorabilia shop on the main drag. Later she bought both of us entirely new outfits and she insisted we wear them out of the shop and leave all of our clothes in the dressing room.
It all felt ridiculous and so Hollywood. We OD’d on “date shakes,” and then she did even more shopping damage in some sad antique stores while tumbleweeds rolled across the dusty isolated highway.
We stopped to visit Debbie’s parents Max and Ray, who were living in a modern innocuous house with a chartreuse shag rug and plastic covered ersatz French furniture. Carrie made me sit on every plastic piece in the living room as a joke. The living room was a shrine to Debbie — paintings, pictures, and awards crowded the walls. Ray stayed in the garage “treating” his crusty skin cancers, removing them with a kitchen knife!
We eventually left on a small plane for LA, both of us itching with dermatitis from the polluted hotel mineral baths, concealing our bags of crappy treasures and still wearing our “new costumes.” Carrie sang “Fly Me to the Moon” in the plane aisle to the 20 other passengers and no one knew who she was. It was “The Trip” of trips and those were the days — or “daze” as Carrie would have called it.
Fast forward to the same month 36 years later — and I am on my way to Palm Springs to visit my dear pal and supreme magazine editor Stephen Drucker. Stephen was with House Beautiful, Martha Stewart Living, Town and Country, Architectural Digest, and the New York Times Style Magazine, to name a few. This man has lived, written about, and truly KNOWS “lifestyle.” He insisted I visit during Palm Springs’ “Modernism Week” (a sold-out week for the last ten years) to get the full throttle of the NEW but true Palm Springs.
I never stay with anyone in his or her home or apartment. But this time I was “royally invited,” and since Stephen had just completed a year of his own mid-century renovation, I figured it would be a great way to “catch” the “MIDMOD” fever. Also, he just published THE hot design coffee table book on the desert this year, “Sunnylands: America’s Midcentury Masterpiece” by Janice Lyle and edited by Stephen for Vendome Press.
“Sunnylands” is the full story in pictures of Walter and Lee Annenberg’s Rancho Mirage “Versailles.” It is a must read on the architecture and social life of that world at that time. It was often called “The Western White House.” Now you can actually tour Sunnylands … if you can get a ticket. Sunnylands has become the “Hamilton” of the desert. Tours are sold out for months. But so is the entire Modernism Week. Hotels are booked and the popular double-decker bus tours are almost unavailable 5 months ahead.
Luckily Stephen choreographed my entire 4-day stay in Palm Springs to perfection (knowing how cranky I can get with too much touring, too many people).
We started my modern immersion with a visit to the Integratron in Landers (near Joshua Tree) for a “sound bath.” Don’t forget cleansing and healing is a big part of the desert experience and Betty Ford Center is not far from town in Rancho Mirage. So why not begin my visit by going to the mountains in a barren setting (think “Breaking Bad”) to “get clear.”
The Integratron is a wooden geodesic dome built by ufologist George Van Tassell in 1959, financed by Howard Hughes to “house visitors from Venus.” Nowadays it is used as a retreat studio for “sound baths” — a 45-minute concert of crystal quartz bowls played by the “bowl musician.” The sound reverberates through the dome and in and around your body. We were with 30 other people lying in a circle on yoga mats. The sound is supposed to heal every fiber of your body. One could only hope! Some people passed out, but I mostly felt simply “vibrated.” You do feel mellow when it’s over. It is considered an “Anthony Bourdain” experience because it is out of the way and unique (which means sold out).
We left peacefully — not saying a word to the other “sound bath mates” or to the amicable staff. It did not resemble Woody Allen’s “orgasmatron “ in “Sleeper.” Perfect start to my Palm Springs “restoration journey” — since I felt somewhat restored and the dome itself had been “restored” to its original space alien style.
With our bodies detoxed, we started a round of house tours that were all astounding … even for me who considered Mid-Century modern architecture as something out of the “Jetsons.” We must have visited more than twenty houses — some actually restored down to the original “Sunbeam” ovens from 1950. While others were renovated with tons of brilliant neon pink pillows, orange rugs, hard-edged furniture, and amoeba-shaped lamps.
The one thing I got out of all the varied homes we saw was the wonders of a great outdoor giant umbrella — known as “Canopy Sunshades” (far swankier than “beach umbrella”). Santa Barbara Umbrellas are apparently the best and designer (photographer) Gray Malin’s turquoise and white double decker designs really got to me. There are also giant covered “pavilions” but that might require a giant space, or at least being an Orange County Bravo Housewife. I wanted one with tassels in multiple layers — a good umbrella reminds me of a great standard poodle. And Standard Poodles are the most popular dog in Palm Springs, of course, since they are all about “high stepping” style.
Of course certain houses like Piazza de Liberace stood out for all the decorative piano key references and insane statuary. Mary Martin’s 1938 Spanish Colonial was old school “Peter Pan” and Mary Pickford’s gardens were filled with lush tall sturdy “Gumby” cactus and bougainvillea walls. Frank Sinatra’s “Twin Palms” seemed very understated from the top of a tour bus.
But nothing looks better in the desert than all the highly explosive use of color — especially turquoise. Even the home tour paper “booties” were a gorgeous hue of aqua blue. It has to do with the desert light and the clarity of the air.
My last day was the Premier double decker 2-hour bus extravaganza. My tour leader and narrator was “The Founding Father of Modern Week” Jacques Caussin (he is now very active in Palm Springs Preservation). Caussin gave us the most complete overview of all the modern civic and commercial buildings and neighborhoods … all related in his great French accent, and with a lot of humor and insight. It was stunning to see such city growth when you consider it all started in 1934 with Charlie Farrell’s Racquet Club (now no more) for Hollywood Stars (when land went for $30 an acre.
Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architect and Design Center runs Modernism Week with lectures, exhibits, tours and a great souvenir shop. There is even a “classic car” rental if you want to see the sites in a turquoise vintage Thunderbird. They set up CAMP (Community and Meeting Place) in the center of town. There is a huge gala opening night of all the international decorators and fine art dealers and that show goes on for 4 days. It was a room of “Mad Men” decor at the Convention Center.
I saw more men dressed in colorful Trina Turk pants and jackets. In fact, Trina Turk is clearly the Versace of Palm Springs. She outdoes Lily Pulitzer in her popular downtown store with men’s and women’s wear, and home décor (great towels). Turk has nailed the Palm Springs color palette and she lives in a vintage house high on the mountain.
By the way, we ended our three days of house touring by visiting Frank Sinatra’s grave. “The Best Is Yet To Come” was engraved on his tombstone which is usually decorated with Jack Daniels bottles, but it was Presidents’ Day so American flags were displayed. His best pal and body guard “Jilly” Rizzo is buried beside him with “He was the Best” on his gravestone (Jilly or Frank?).
Everywhere we went Stephen had 107 MOD FM playing in his car. It was the nonstop “American Songbook Station” — in particular the most popular Palm Springs D.J. Don Wardell holds forth. Wardell is from England and worked at Decca Records and earned a Grammy with Sinatra. He has been broadcasting for more than 20 years and his lilting “Hollywood” voice and personal stories are priceless. His show and station are the soundtrack for Palm Springs. Now I ask you … what city has an actual soundtrack?
It dawned on me that on my first historic “Carrie Trip” we went to a birthday party at Suzanne Somers’ Palm Springs mountain home where Jack Jones, Keely Smith, Merv Griffin, Barry Manilow and Michael Feinstein all sang to Suzanne with a live big band by her swimming pool. Carrie and I didn’t sing and left early as the drugs were wearing off. And sadly, Frank and Dean never showed up. But that music and those people were the heart and soul of Palm Springs, and in a way, they still are.
Or maybe not, with the current craze of the Coachella Music Festivals, and last year’s super successful “Old Chella” with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Palm Springs is all about the music for a lot of people, just pick your era.
After all the homes and MIDMOD gardens I saw, it was Stephen Drucker’s home I liked the most.
He bought his house at the Marrakesh Golf Club (which is one of Palm Desert’s most exclusive gated communities) a year ago. When my LA driver dumped my dirty suitcase in his all white living room he exclaimed, “What is this place — I feel like I died and went to heaven.” At Marrakesh the wind is much less, the views are better and I learned that desert real estate is all about how close you are to the mountain. And how much wind you can tolerate. Remember, this is a town known for its fields of windmills.
I realize a lot is changing in Palm Springs. Big deluxe hotels like the Andaz and the Kimpton are moving into downtown in the next year. Real estate is going way up (or way down) — “depending.” It is now a highly popular year-round destination (even though the toasty summers can stay at 119˚). Many of the “empty” golf courses (less people are playing) might become more housing developments (I hope not). But it is Palm Springs history with Hollywood and high design that will always make it unique and very different from Florida’s South Beach, which has its Basel Art, deluxe hotels and ocean. These cities are very similar, but not. Both were rebooted by the gay community … and designers.
No question the gays arrived in Florida as home properties declined, and older residents died and vacated properties. They bought it all up and restored it brilliantly. In Florida’s case with the 1997 death of designer Gianni Versace things changed. Many of the gay communities moved on, but the Cubans and South Americans picked up the slack.
With Palm Springs it seems a different history. A designer friend explained it to me. “Originally a lot of the California gay men came to Palm Springs in the 1990s to die when AIDS was a mortal epidemic. The houses were cheap and the desert was healing. They not only ended up surviving, but thriving, and they brought a booming culture with them of style with the Film Festival, art galleries, restaurants, and of course, vintage and design interior stores. Now preservation is going full blast and they opened this life up to everyone — straight, old, and young. If feels joyous and totally inclusive as a city.”
“Palm Springs” has now spread up the highway to Palm Desert, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Indio and La Quinta. Currently it is all blowing up — and not in tumbleweeds and dust. There’s Morongo Casino (and casinos in general) and the highly popular Cabazon and Desert Premium Outlets featuring Gucci, Prada and Loro Piana. Palm Springs is now giving Las Vegas a run for its money. KA-CHING!
As for real estate, I don’t think any of this is about the Jeff Lewis style of “flipping and leaving.” Some people might, but most will stay. At least for now. After all, Bob Hope’s “Mushroom Mountain” vintage house just sold for $13 million.
And as more fashion shows and photo shoots choose the Palm Springs vintage homes and hotels as locations, it will get ever more style heat. Jonathan Adler’s Parker Hotel is already a famous backdrop for most spring catalogues. That hotel became famous in 2005 when Brad and Angelina did their Steven Klein Casita photo “romp” for W magazine called “Domestic Bliss.” Looking at those photos now it was clearly a premonition of tough times to come.
Obviously Palm Springs is no longer a tumbleweed and date shake dustbowl. If anything, the current preservation community will keep “Old Hollywood” alive and well with all the Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra street signs. Those signs and memories will never be replaced. In fact, the whole town seems like “Brigadoon” (ironically, Alan Jay Lerner wrote the “Brigadoon” lyrics and had a house downtown). But it is not a city frozen in time. The people I met in and out of the towns’ “design community” seemed authentically happy, welcoming, and open to share their homes and lives without an ounce of arrogance or snobbery. Everyone seems so inspired by style and addicted to the magic of the San Jacinto Mountain backdrop.
As Stephen drove me to the Sonny Bono Airport, “Come Fly with Me” was playing on 107 MOD FM. He warned me about the typical bumpy windy lift-offs through Banning Pass (as you leave the San Jacinto Mountain range). It was indeed turbulent and the clouds and rain were ahead of us in L.A. But as I turned back to see Palm Springs from the air, it was all sunny and turquoise and green. As Lerner wrote:
Blooming under sable skies.
There my heart forever lies.
Let the world grow cold around us,
Let the heavens cry above!
In thy valley, there’ll be love!