2000s Archive

Imagine That

Originally Published February 2002
It may sometimes appear in the form of a mirage, but Lawrence Karol has located a fountain of youth in the Palm Springs desert.

Almost nothing about Palm Springs is as it seems. When you disembark at the airport, you could be excused for thinking you'd taken a wrong turn and ended up under a desert-themed circus big top. Four large palm trees surround a fountain in the center of the arrival lounge, while a huge fabric roof stretches overhead. Walking beneath a sign that welcomes you to "America's Resortport," you proceed through an outdoor passageway lined with patio tables and chairs, then pass a six-hole circular putting green flanked by a small children's playground. It's all a sunny, glorious Harry Potter kind of world that can be enjoyed—like the circus and Harry, I suppose—by kids and adults of all ages.

The famous—Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Ava Gardner, and Bob Hope (who still owns a hilltop house that resembles a swimming jellyfish)—started coming here years ago, and so did I. Even as a child, I found there was something about Palm Springs that made me feel glamorous, that transformed me into someone more exciting than the everyday me.

I remember driving in our turquoise Pontiac station wagon from our house in Los Angeles along a network of freeways so endless that they seemed, in their amplitude, to connect the city to the entire rest of the world. My father was at the wheel, my mother next to him, my sister and I in the backseat. Silence was my self-imposed rule, because I knew the reward that awaited me two hours from home as the view out my window would magically turn from dreary suburban sprawl to desert. And then, magic once again, as the desert gave way to the greenest lawns I'd ever seen and palm trees arched above us, lining both sides of the road. If we were lucky enough to arrive at night, the trees would be perfectly lit from below, as if each one was a prized possession.

Even today, the landscape of Palm Springs and the desert communities nearby (Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, and Palm Desert) is so vast in scale that it makes me feel as if I'm a tiny figure in an enormous diorama. The mountains are like huge paper cutouts against a sky the color of the most-used blue crayon in the box. Other times, it's as if I'm standing on the back lot of a movie set. If I could reach out and touch those mountains, I know they would be made of painted foamcore.

During a recent visit, I drove through the neighborhoods known as Movie Colony I and Movie Colony II. Tall shrubs and walls hide many of the houses, making me feel like Lucy Ricardo in the episode where she climbs over a large brick wall to pick a grapefruit and get a better look at Richard Widmark's estate. I didn't climb any walls or steal any fruit, but I did peer through the gate of Frank Sinatra's former residence on nearby Alejo Road. If you're inclined to take a more dignified approach, tours of the interior are available on a limited basis. But the fun is not so much in seeing the homes—although I did see those once occupied by Elvis and Barry Manilow—but in imagining Rock Hudson or Loretta Young leaving to stroll down Palm Canyon Drive or cruise through town in their convertibles.

Not to be outshone by their more celebrated neighbor, Rancho Mirage and Cathedral City—both within minutes of Palm Springs—have grabbed a piece of the celebrity pie. As I drove down Highway 111 through the newly remodeled downtown of Cathedral City, my head began to spin as I passed West Buddy Rogers Avenue, where there was a sign to George Montgomery Trail; a glance to my left revealed the Mary Pickford Theatre, and a couple dozen yards down the highway was Monty Hall Drive. A few miles later, I hung a left onto Bob Hope Drive and before long had crossed paths with a few of Bob's friends: Dinah Shore Drive, Gerald Ford Drive, and Frank Sinatra Drive.

Palm Springs is no mere appendage of Hollywood, however. Classic architecture is around every corner. Real estate prices climbed as houses designed by 20th-century masters like Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, and Albert Frey were snapped up by young Angelenos who suddenly rediscovered a past they never lived. The style is so popular that motels seemingly straight out of the 1960s have appeared all over the city.

Frey was particularly prodigious, designing many civic and commercial buildings around town as well. City Hall is his, as are a fire station on North Indian Canyon Drive and the Ralph's grocery store on Sunrise Way—where a green General Electric clock looks as if it should be telling you what time it is in 1965—and, at the northern entrance to the city, an art gallery that was once the Tramway Gas Station. The "No Smoking/ Stop Motor" sign still hangs outside.

Much of what's new in downtown Palm Springs contrasts with the old in a wonderfully incongruous way. California Pizza Kitchen is across the street from The Cocky Cactus (which sells touristy trinkets), the decades-old Robann's Jewelers is two stores down from Jamba Juice. The Historic Plaza Theatre District is home to institutions like See's Candies and Desmond's, yet just a couple of blocks from GayMartUSA.

If you sense romance in the air, you're only steps from the Enchanted Garden Wedding Chapel (telephone: 877-PS-I-WED-U). Already married, or simply more hungry than passionate? Skip the chapel and walk over to Tyler's Burgers, where, in a former Greyhound bus depot—the smallest I've ever seen—you can order, appropriately enough, mini-hamburgers known as sliders (three to an order). Or if you're tired or flushed from the heat, try one of the outdoor restaurants and cafés along Palm Canyon Drive that have water misters attached to the awnings, their gentle spray keeping diners fresh and perspiration-free.

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