The History of Palm Springs | Hollywood’s Desert Utopia
Where can you enjoy a martini at Frank Sinatra’s home, spy on Dean Martin’s family at his luxurious estate, and enjoy an afternoon strolling around the Casa de Liberace? It’s not Hollywood; it’s Palm Springs. This hidden gem nestled in the Coachella valley will forever be linked to Tinseltown and the Golden Age of movie icons. But it’s the variety of excitement and breathtaking beauty that draws everyone from sitting US Presidents to Northeastern snowbirds to the “world capital of golf”. So how did a tiny hot spring turn into a desert utopia full of dining, entertainment, gambling, and lavish celebrity estates? Let’s discover all of this and more in this brief history of Hollywood and Palm Springs.
With over 100 world-renowned golf courses, 300 days of sunshine, and exhilarating casinos flush with the rhythmic hum of spinning wheels and flashing lights—it’s easy to see why tourists spend $5 billion dollars a year while visiting Palm Spring, California.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Here’s how Chicago mobsters, the fine print of Hollywood contracts, and a bold move from President Dwight D. Eisenhower paved the way for turning this tiny oasis into the desert utopia it is today.
From Agua Caliente to Hollywood’s Best Kept Secret
Long before the hordes of tourists and chic mid-century architecture, Palm Springs was known Se-Khi. “Boiling water” was the source of the Cahuilla people’s most prominent and powerful leaders. The same sunshine, water, and shade that attracted movie icons centuries later is what lead these proud people to call the Coachella Valley home. Their petroglyphs stand today in memory of their love for this land and the life it gifted them.
When the land was claimed by an independent Mexico, the name became Agua Caliente. Soon it was ceded to the United States and became a destination for some of America’s first medical tourists. Illustrious visitors included John Muir, Vice President Charles Fairbanks, and Fanny Stevenson. They all came seeking the mysterious health benefits of valley’s unique climate. Even with the allure of better health and great weather, Palm Springs remained a sleepy town until it was discovered by some of America’s most famous names.
The “Two-Hour Rule” and Gangsters in Paradise
America’s love affair with the big screen is what turned Palm Springs from a desert retreat to a tourist Mecca. The combination of great weather, hot springs, and endless swaths of beautiful land made it a favorite among Hollywood directors desperate for a natural location to shoot their westerns and Middle East-themed films. Stars like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Kirk Douglas loved the location so much that they bought homes in the area. Palm springs was a natural choice for L.A.’s rich and famous thanks to the “two-hour rule” that stipulated all actors/actresses had to be within a two-hour drive from the studio in case they were needed. Soon this sleepy village would become Hollywood’s playground.
The Desert Inn, one of the most iconic names of classic Palm Springs, was the site of many secret rendezvous of Hollywood’s A-list couples. Some scandals even went to court! If it weren’t for the Desert Inn and the El Mirador, Palm Springs might not be home to 15,000 hotel rooms today.
Celebrities looking for beautiful weather and seclusion from the glitz and glamour weren’t the only ones flocking to the Coachella Valley either. The area attracted famous personalities of another sort, too—Chicago Mobsters. Palm Springs was the first gangster’s paradise in the 50’s and 60’s. Mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Ray Ryan not only lived here, they invested heavily in the town. By the late 1970’s, the nearly 100 mobsters had invested $50 million dollars into the desert. Palm Springs was considered “mob Switzerland”, a neutral zone where wiseguys could relax, get well, and count their money without worrying about getting whacked.
Palm Springs Today
Zsa Zsa Gabor’s famous black-tie parties and Clint Eastwood’s Hog Inn are distant memories, but Palm Springs is more popular today than ever before thanks to the efforts of Hollywood giants. Just a short drive from Los Angeles and San Diego, it is a convenient getaway teeming with fun and excitement. From the trendy, walkable downtown core to Native American resort casinos, Palm Springs has everything you’d expect from a vibrant resort city. Here are just a few highlights of what this desert paradise has to offer:
- The over 100 golf courses in the city have earned Palm Springs the nickname of “golf capital of the world”.
- The Little San Bernardino Mountains, Colorado Desert, and the Mojave Desert offer outdoor enthusiasts endless adrenaline pumping action in pristine ecosystems.
- Joshua Tree National Park is less than a 1-hour drive.
- The world’s largest rotating tramcar soars above the city, taking tourists to the chiseled cliffs of the Chino Canyon.
- The Palm Springs International Film Festival attracts over 100,000 visitors every January!
- Palm Springs is often called a “living museum” for mid-20th century architecture. Architecture enthusiasts from around the world flock to the desert to revel in the 50’s-era homes of the city.
Palm Springs is re-branding itself from a Hollywood and mobster playground to a trendy, hip, and affordable desert retreat for families, movie enthusiasts, and outdoor adventure seekers. After a dip in the mid 2000’s, the city is experiencing a renaissance. New visitors and investment are pouring in, and the revitalization of the city’s entertainment, music, dining, and art scenes are causing an explosion in tourism resulting in record-breaking numbers. And Palm Springs destination weddings are now one of the most popular cause of visitors coming to the city, bringing in people from as far away as Australia to get married!
Palm Springs has always been a winter retreat. From the storied leaders of Southwestern America’s most powerful native people to the wealthiest movie icons and mobsters, people have trekked to the desert for its weather, seclusion, and excitement. But you don’t need a reason to visit Palm Springs. You can just show up and enjoy a day full of fine dining, spas, thrilling gaming, and entertainment until the early morning. And, hey, you might even catch a glimpse of one of Hollywood’s stars hanging around. They are still spotted every day!