by Tobias Sauer
Palm Springs’ heyday in the 1950s has not only left behind a great architectural heritage, but also a reputation as a refuge for the stars that the city still claims.
Palm Springs’ heyday in the 1950s has not only left behind a great architectural heritage, but also a reputation as a refuge for the stars that the city still claims. In these days Palm Springs sparkles with festivals and events for everybody.
Deep down in the valley, just two kilometres below the lookout on the alpine Mount San Jacinto stretches Palm Springs: a carpet of white houses and green dots in the middle of the desert of southern California. If one only had eagle eyes. Then not only the many gay resorts with their high hedges would reveal many secrets. Maybe you could also watch Leonardo DiCaprio admiring the Oscar he won eventually. The film star is one of the homeowners in Palm Springs – and thus continues the tradition of many Hollywood colleagues who enjoyed their lives here.
On the other side of the mountains lies Los Angeles at a distance of roughly 180km. And it was this closeness to Hollywood that made Palm Springs famous. Until the 1960s, the actors of the big studios were obliged to be on call for filming. Their contracts stipulated that they were not allowed more than 200 miles from LA. Palm Springs became the ideal refuge: Even within the permitted distance it offered good weather and at least some protection from the press. Frank Sinatra celebrated lavish parties here, Elvis married Priscilla Presley, Marilyn Monroe was discovered in Palm Springs, Barbara Streisand also owned a house. DiCaprio is in good company.
In style: Mid-century modern
All these stories are told by Guide Bob Gross, who follows the footsteps of the stars through the desert city. Bob himself moved here seven years ago for two reasons. Firstly, because of the good weather: “In San Francisco I sometimes didn’t see the sun for weeks because of the fog,” he says. “And secondly because of the architecture.”
The era of the stars shaped Palm Springs’s architecture above all. Many celebrities had wonderful villas built, often in the style of “Mid-century modern”. In this style, huge windows blur the boundaries between inside and outside, the facades often reflect the shapes and colours of the landscape. These principles are particularly visible in Frey House II, which was built by architect Albert Frey in Palm Springs in 1964. It can be visited during the annual Modernism Week. As sort of sun protection the flat roofs were often extended over a large veranda or terrace that bordered with a pool where you cold go for a swim. A few palm trees were the finishing touches.
When stars were no longer employed at the studios in Hollywood but only hired for single films, Palm Springs lost its appeal to the VIPs. Forty to fifty percent of the population are homosexual,” estimates Bob Gross. “It’s probably the gayest place in the world!” Although gays have always played an important role in Hollywood and Palm Springs, the openly gay history of the city is not that old. El Mirasol was the first gay resort to open in 1976, and the Mirage was the first hotel to offer “clothing optional” in 1984. But gay life at that time took place in the discretion of the guesthouses, which concentrated mainly in the district of Warm Sands. On holidays, behind high green hedges one could forget the norms and rules of everyday life.
Gay metropolis in the desert: Palm Springs
The city only became more open in the early 1990s. “The first gay bar, the Street Bar, opened on Arenas road in 1992,” says Bob Gross. Before that, the neighbouring town of Cathedral City, bordering directly with Palm Springs, offered gay life – even today there are gay hotels like the CCBC and bars like the Barracks. Palm Springs itself has become much more liberal in the meantime. “Our current mayor is gay, his predecessor was, and we had the first African American mayor,” Bob proudly states. Gay bars, clubs and shops that cater for homosexual daily needs – tank tops, panties, accessories – dominate the scene, especially on Arenas Road.
This development into a gay desert metropolis was possible because the city consequently opened itself up to queer tourism, which provides the necessary demand for bars and clubs. Especially the big festivals attract many visitors. The highlight of events is the White Party, to which attracts about 30,000 guests every year – to a city that itself has just under 50,000 inhabitants. A blessing for Palm Springs, which, as Bob Gross knows, brought in a million dollars in guest taxes alone.
Events all year round
The city is fully committed to events – and the queer community is happy to join in the festvities. E.g. halloween in Palm Springs is firmly in gay hands : The Arenas Road is closed to traffic; the road belongs to muscular supermen, gay minions and strong SWAT teams. The best costumes are awarded prizes on a large stage – and the bars can hardly keep up with the demand for drinks. Only one week earlier the Leather Pride attracts all those who want to show off in their latest leather and rubber gears. Lesbians come to Dinah Shore Weekend, one of the largest lesbian festivals in the world. And also to Pride is a joint celebration between the local community and numerous visitors – not only from Los Angeles but from all over the world.