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Star Power, Frozen in Time

Exhibition of candid shots from 1954-60 documents Hollywood at play in Palm Springs.


This was the good life.

Frank Sinatra relaxing after a great steak, surrounded by friends, the table strewn with heavy-bottomed cocktail glasses. Women in pearls, in diamonds the size of ice cubes. Men in stylish shirts, gold cuff links glinting in the candlelight. Laughing, everyone laughing.

It was Palm Springs in the 1950s, and photographer William Anderson saw it all. Shot it all. Collected hundreds of images of Hollywood's stars golfing, swimming, dining and playing. As official photographer for the Racquet Club of Palm Springs from 1950 to 1971, Anderson spent almost every weekend blending into the background with his camera.

Excerpts from the resulting body of work have become a popular draw at the Palm Springs Desert Museum. The current installment, "Stars at Play," features two dozen photographs Anderson shot in Palm Springs between 1954 and 1960.

"This was the ultimate representation of the Hollywood fantasy," said Robert Landau, who co-authored "Hollywood Poolside," a book of photos that chronicles celebrities' love affairs with their swimming pools. "It was irresistible--sex, fame and riches, all in an ideal setting."

Anderson's subjects infused even the most ordinary actions with glamour. Whether polishing off a steak, belting back some scotch or posing prettily on a chaise longue, the stars made their actions seem important.

"These were people with the ability to light up for the camera," Landau said. "And even in so-called candid shots, they were certainly aware whenever a camera was being pointed at them."

In 1956, the camera caught a giggly Donna Reed at a cocktail party, surrounded by women in seriously high-fashion cocktail dresses. At a birthday party in 1959, Kirk Douglas listened to an elegantly dressed Janet Leigh, a tangle of four charm bracelets on her left wrist.

In a 1958 photo with Jane Powell, Liberace's gilded tux, golden bow tie and candelabrum-shaped pinky ring hinted at the flamboyance yet to come. And in a 1960 bikini shot, Jayne Mansfield, all dewy lips, platinum hair and copious cleavage, pioneered the Baywatch babe.

"It's very interesting, because Pam Anderson is definitely the Jayne Mansfield of our day," said Charles Phoenix, whose book "Southern California in the '50s: Sun, Fun and Fantasy" was released by Angel City Press this year. "They're not great actresses, but each worked to become someone we're all willing to take a second look at."

As is the decade the photos span.

"The 1950s are a period of time we tend to glamorize," said Phoenix. "We think of it as simpler somehow, though that, too, is a fantasy."

There's little in Anderson's photos to suggest that intensive change was taking place across the globe. In 1955, the year Kirk Douglas mugged for the camera with his sons, President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, and the Rev. Martin Luther King led a boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala.

In the winter of 1956-57, Anderson snapped Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood flirting on a golf course. News of the day had Israel invading the Sinai Peninsula, Grace Kelly marrying the Prince of Monaco, and Albert Sabin developing the first oral polio vaccine.

By 1960, as Anderson caught a pensive Audrey Hepburn perched with her Yorkshire terrier at the edge of a beach chair, the pill made its debut in doctors' offices, and the Cold War was in full swing.

But the Palm Springs that made its way into Anderson's photographs tended to pleasure and leisure. In the 21 years he photographed the rich and famous during "the season" at the Racquet Club, Anderson concentrated on the stars at play.

After his death in 1973, Anderson's widow, Dorothy, donated his negatives to the Palm Springs Desert Museum. With regular exhibitions of a portion of the collection, glamorous midcentury Hollywood stars stay ever-young.

"These photos are always one of the most popular exhibits," said Toni Decker, a museum spokeswoman. "Older people look at them to remember, and the younger ones are very interested in learning what people looked like back then, and how things used to be."

"Stars at Play" will be on view at the Palm Springs Desert Museum, (760) 325-0189, through March 3.

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