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Zzyzx: An Unlikely Home of Hucksterism and Miracle Cures

June 16, 2002|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

The way to Zzyzx, Calif.--marked by green and white signs pointing to a road off a desolate stretch of Interstate 15 southwest of Las Vegas--is a road less traveled these days.

This 4 1/2-mile byway with a name like a word on a Scrabble board shoots off seemingly to nowhere, offering travelers glimpses of Mojave Desert history and the days of a radio evangelist-health food huckster and his "Boulevard of Dreams."

Zzyzx (pronounced Zy-Zix, to rhyme with Isaacs) Mineral Springs and Health Resort was a town created out of nothing in 1944 by one of the Mojave Desert's most fabled characters, Curtis Howe Springer.

In a region devoted to health and fitness fads, Springer was an early master, coupling religion with the marketing of "miraculous" health food and water cures. His enduring inspiration, though, was to name his headquarters Zzyzx, figuring that by having the last word in the phone book, he'd have the last word in his business.

The self-proclaimed "old-time medicine man" and self-ordained preacher gained notoriety in the 1940s and '50s not only for Zzyzx, but also for his special line of health foods. He claimed curative powers could be derived from concoctions of carrots, celery, turnips, parsley and brown sugar.

For more than 30 years, believers, health seekers and the just plain curious were drawn to Zzyzx by Springer's promises and the products he pitched on half-hour radio broadcasts carried by 221 radio stations in the United States and 102 overseas.

He hawked such curative wonders as Manna, a "Hollywood Pep Cocktail"; Antediluvian, a peppermint-flavored desert herb tea; and a $25 cure-it-yourself hemorrhoid kit, along with enthusiastic testimonials from their users. Interspersed with all this was gospel music and a homespun philosophy all his own.

Springer claimed that his success began in 1924, after he sang a solo for the Pittsburgh experimental radio station that evolved into KDKA, the nation's first commercial radio station. Over the next two decades he preached, sang and managed resorts in six states before coming to California.

In 1944, when he and his fiancee, Helen, arrived at Soda Springs, along with his daughter, Marilou, they filed a mining claim on federal land they described as a "mosquito swamp," a patch of 12,000 acres 8 miles long and 3 miles wide south of Baker.

All that was left of an old 1860 Army post and a railroad station were a few abandoned buildings, so on the promise of food and showers, Springer recruited cheap labor from Los Angeles' skid row and built a two-story, 60-room hotel he called the Castle on the "Boulevard of Dreams."

The bed-and-board labor arrangement, he said later, "proved to the government that I am helping humanity; that is why my foundation is tax-exempt."

Over a very few years, he created food-processing and printing plants, a recording studio, a dining hall, a chapel, a cross-shaped swimming pool, his own private airstrip called Zyport, and a man-made lake called Lake Tuendae, which he said was an Indian word that means "where the waters come together."

Then Springer opened the doors of Zzyzx, a Christian resort espousing the curative powers of its mineral waters, the evils of drink and the destructive nature of arguing. Smoking was acceptable: "Smoke anyplace on our 12,000 acres," the rules read, "except our dining room, bathhouse, sun deck or pools. It's not pleasant to step on a hot cigarette 'butt' in one's bare feet."

He advised users of Zy-Pac, the mineral salts he collected from the lake bed, to rub them over their scalps, then bend over and hold their breath as long as possible. The resulting flush on the cheeks and scalp, he claimed, was proof of the salts' beneficial action.

In return for an "appropriate" donation to the Springer Foundation, guests could partake of Springer's spiritual and physical regimen. Permanent residents, mostly elderly and disabled, listened to Springer's booming voice through two sermons daily, soaked in mineral water and mud, basked in the sun and followed an eclectic diet that included rabbit meat, fruit and homemade ice cream.

And all this he advertised in newspapers, magazines and brochures distributed across America. He spent three days a week in Los Angeles to promote his regimen.

He stayed in a suite at the Alexandria Hotel, where he ordered ingredients for his food products, mailed out his weekly radio tapes to myriad stations, and returned listeners' phone calls.

He offered free bus rides every Wednesday morning from the Figueroa Hotel at Olympic Boulevard to his desert resort.

Many curiosity seekers, elderly and homeless people rode out just for a free meal.

Those who dialed Springer's Los Angeles number heard a cheerful recorded greeting: "Hello, this is your old friend Curtis Springer coming to you from Zzyzx Mineral Springs out in the heart of the great Mojave Desert."

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