Long before the hipster hordes began their annual passage to the Palm Springs area for the Coachella festival 19 years ago, the area offered a swinging, closer alternative to Las Vegas. Home-away-from-home to the likes of vacationing Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, as well as Elvis’ honeymoon house with Priscilla and Colonel Parker’s nearby digs, the desert enclave has been a haven from Hollywood for those seeking respite in the sun and heat. That legacy remains to this day in local streets named after the likes of former residents Bob Hope, Dinah Shore and Gene Autry.
Veteran industry publicist Bob Merlis, who bought the first of his three Palm Springs homes in 2003, explains the town first attracted vacationing celebrities with the so-called “two-hour rule,” the film studios’ requirement its stars stay that close to L.A. for any possible reshoots, which effectively eliminated Las Vegas or Hawaii as destinations.
These days, the California desert’s place in rock lore centers around Joshua Tree, which encompasses both Gram Parsons (who loved the park and died there of a heroin overdose in 1973) and U2’s album of the same name, not to mention the sun-blasted rock of locals Queens of the Stone Age.
In nearby Pioneertown, Pappy & Harriet’s has become a music venue of note, particularly when Paul McCartney and his band played there two years ago during Desert Trip, which prompted his longtime guitarist Brian Ray to buy a home in the area. More recently, Queen musical director Spike Edney and partner Chris Haines opened the Pink Satellite Studio in Joshua Tree, a home recording facility which has been described as “’Mad Max’ meets Abbey Road.”
The area’s current crop of home-owners read like a who’s-who of music industry power brokers, from UMG’s Lucian Grainge, Justin Bieber/Kanye West manager Scooter Braun, Coachella founder Goldenvoice’s Paul Tollett, Apple Music’s David Dorn, Irving Azoff and mega-manager Brandon Creed to artists like longtime resident Shelby Lynne and former Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum.
“It’s a sophisticated and diverse small city only two hours from L.A.,” explains Ian Montone, the manager of Jack White, LCD Soundsystem and Vampire Weekend, among others, who is on his second home in the area. “The mountains are beautiful, the air is clean, there’s great architecture, a growing food scene and a diverse artist community. There’s also a real sense of history here, which I appreciate.”
The affordable real estate prices and the renowned Midcentury Modern architectural style, which stressed low-slung horizontal lines, wide vistas and indoor/outdoor living, are what attracted Merlis to the area also.
“I had the same prejudice, that it was for ‘gays, grays and golfers,’” he says. “But I don’t even play golf. There’s just so much socializing going on. It’s any excuse for a party, much more than I ever experienced in L.A. Coachella opened people’s eyes to the possibilities here.”
The architecture, particularly the classic Midcentury Modern style —created by the likes of “desert modernism” pioneer Albert Frey and E. Stewart Williams, who helped build the famous Twin Palms estate for Sinatra — adds to the area’s allure for style mavens. Every February, the town celebrates Modernism Week, with visitors like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons arriving to search for “cool vintage things,” according to Merlis.
The entertainment industry in Palm Springs and its surrounding towns – Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Cathedral City – is dominated by Native American tribal casinos like Agua Caliente and its downtown Spa Casino, owned and operated by the Band of Cahuilla Indians, and home to one of the area’s premiere venues, The Show. The intimate, 2,200-seat venue, which debuted in 2009 with a Billy Joel concert, is a miniature arena, boasting state-of-the-art lighting and sound design, along with two giant Panasonic video screens on either side of the stage. With tribal gaming grosses having grown to $31.2 billion in 2016, The Show is able to book acts that could easily headline larger arenas, featuring a diverse mix of classic rock, country and Latin music, including Sting, Brad Paisley, Dolly Parton, Van Morrison, Duran Duran and Luis Miguel. The venue’s eclectic talent lineup goes beyond music to feature comics Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias and Ken Jeong, as well as TV mediums Tyler Henry and Theresa Caputo.
“We want this to be a destination,” says Agua Caliente COO and veteran casino operator Saverio “Sal” Scheri III, who aims to offer his customers the level of service they’d find at the Four Seasons or the Ritz-Carlton, except for a more affordable price. “We’re aiming to make this a transformative experience by exceeding our guests’ expectations.”
Saturday night in downtown Palm Springs, and we’re at the Spa Casino’s outdoor venue for a “Concert Under the Palms,” where Gin Blossoms are performing to an enthusiastic if mellow crowd, seemingly relieved to be removed from the day’s hot dry winds. Even staunch Palm Springs admirers avoid the summer months while insisting the weather every other time of the year is perfect.
The same could be said of Palm Springs… It’s not just a place one passes through on the way to Coachella, but a destination for those weary of the big city tumult.
“We love the laid-back lifestyle,” says veteran radio reporter Ed Brown, who first bought a weekend getaway in Palm Springs in 2002, and last year began to work out of his home full-time for trade publication All Access. “There’s a little bit of everything here… glitz to glam, bohemians, hipsters, tourists, locals. And the pace is so much more relaxed.”
Montone sums up the vibe with a sentiment that many Palm Springs devotees share: “You can feel yourself relax as soon as you exit the 10 onto the 111.”