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California and the West

Palm Springs Is Hot and Loving It

Resorts: The town is humming with diverse visitors as more restaurants, shops and galleries open. This time, the civic rebirth appears to be the real thing.

May 23, 1999|DIANA MARCUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PALM SPRINGS — On a Friday night, this city's sleek new supper club was jamming as cabaret singer Eartha Kitt took the stage. The crowd at Muriel's ranged from early 20s to early 80s. Gay couples held hands. The country club set sipped martinis. Everybody swayed.

It was vintage Palm Springs, a scene that is becoming common at the cafes and clubs along Palm Canyon Drive, the city's main drag.

This desert resort town has been declared a comeback more times than swing music, khakis and Cher combined. The reality for most of the last decade was a main street dotted with empty storefronts and shops selling price-slashed "P.S. I Love You" tank tops.

But this time, it's different. Downtown Palm Springs is being revived with new restaurants, shops and art galleries, many of which have opened in the last two years.

Tourism officials credit the boom to a healthy economy and something more surprising for a town with an image of country club conservatism: a diversity attracted by the town's long-standing social laissez faire.

"Palm Springs is a major gay destination and a conservative Republican enclave at the same time. We have motorcyclists, Elvis weekends, hotels where people run around naked and a huge retirement community, and everyone seems to get along," said Bill Clawson, executive director of Palm Springs Tourism.

"Movie history plays a part. In the early days, Hollywood studios built hideaways so their stars could have affairs and carry on away from prying eyes. There's a history of tolerance here. . . . Palm Springs evolved as a place to let your hair down and be who you want to be."

Such a history has attracted entrepreneurs such as Doug Ahlers, a partner in Muriel's, the new supper club seeking to re-create the Palm Springs night life of the 1950s and '60s.

"I took one look at Palm Springs and instantly knew it was going to be the next hot place," said Ahlers, vice president of an Internet advertising agency. "It had history, character, cachet. It had funky architecture and, best of all, it had the most perfect weather."

Sherman Harris, owner of Sherman's Deli & Bakery, has watched the "youngsters" overlap with Palm Springs' old-timers at his restaurant off Palm Canyon Drive.

"Two months ago Bob Hope was sitting on the patio having Danish and coffee and signing a few autographs," he said. "The next day there was a guy with a bone through his nose sitting in the same chair. Only in Palm Springs."

The back booth at Sherman's is reserved for regulars such as comedienne Shecky Greene, singer Keely Smith and former Palm Springs Mayor Frank Bogert. "The thing is, we have a downtown," said Bogert, 82. "No other place [in the desert] has a street where people walk up one side, cross over and walk back down the other just to watch all the other people doing the same thing."

Rebirth Dogged by False Starts

City officials tried for years to jump-start downtown and bring back the free-spending tourists who strayed to neighboring towns such as Rancho Mirage and Desert Hot Springs.

In 1991, the city spent $1.5 million to refurbish streets and install old-fashioned lampposts. Then Southern California was hit with two earthquakes and a recession, and downtown Palm Springs continued to struggle.

The rebirth finally gained momentum in recent years, with downtown becoming home to such diverse ventures as the Spa Hotel & Casino and the Follies, a revue starring "long-legged lovelies" all over the age of 60.

There are more than 2,500 hotel rooms within walking distance of downtown, home to a $7-million Spanish-style marketplace that debuted this spring. The Desert Fashion Plaza, which was so empty that shoppers could hear their lonely footsteps echo throughout the mall, is undergoing a $35-million make-over. The plaza reopens at the end of the year as an outdoor promenade with a live theater, movie theaters, shops and yet more restaurants. A 24-hour live cam now broadcasts downtown action on Palm Springs' tourism Web site.

"We always knew the history and potential and we were creeping along," said Jerry Ogburn, the city's director of downtown development. "Then one restaurant opened and did well, then another, and it started building on itself."

As lazier summer days approach, business owners are tallying what they say has been their busiest winter season in years. The official sales tax numbers are not yet in, but Ogburn has his own way of quantifying. "I count baby carriages and stretch limousines," he said. "There's no better way to measure it than to just look at this diverse crowd of people."

Gay Tourists Are a Key Factor

As with Florida's Palm Beach and Miami Beach, faded resort towns that regained their sparkle in the 1980s, gay money is a key factor in Palm Springs' resurgence. Gay tourists added about $90 million to the city's economy last year, tourism officials say. Palm Springs is one of the few cities that advertises in gay publications.

"The growth in gay tourism is phenomenal. We've been here 10 years and every year it's bigger," said Kevin Rice, co-owner of the Triangle Inn, a gay hotel.

On Easter Sunday, the town's "come one, come all" attitude was on display. The annual White Party Weekend, the nation's largest gathering of gay men, was in full swing with banners and stages set up downtown. It also was the height of school vacations.

Families in their churchgoing best, golfers in creased walking shorts, and sunburned tourists in Hawaiian shirts waited in a block-long line for brunch at Las Casuelas Terraza, a popular Mexican restaurant. Near the restaurant, men in an Easter bonnet contest danced across an outdoor stage.

Soon the entire restaurant line was cheering the winner of best bonnet, a man in a multicolored pyramid of plastic eggs, birds, nests and chicks.

"It drew people together," said event producer Melinda Tremaglio. "It was a classic Palm Springs moment."

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