Jan 11, 200603:31 PMThe Life
Close to the vest
Jan 11, 2006 - 03:31 PMDuring today's lunch break, I sauntered two blocks from the office, entered a fancy casino, and plunked two bucks down on a blackjack table. Thirty seconds later, I walked out with five whole dollars clutched in my sweaty little fist.
But it hasn't always been so easy to gamble in this town.
When Riverside County's casinos were outlawed in the 1930s, private gaming clubs like the Dunes and One Thirty Nine sprung up, partly to keep Palm Springs hotels filled during the Depression. Since there was no city authority, with only one deputy sheriff who rarely visited from the county seat, townsfolk turned a blind eye toward these establishments. Everything ran smoothly as long as club owners kept the wagering out in the sparsely-inhabited desert, away from the Village, and prevented local working people from gambling away their paychecks.
The plush, split-level Dunes Club was built in 1934 on 20 acres of desolate land, at the end of a private road which later became Date Palm Drive in Cathedral City. It was a classy joint: 220-foot mahogany bar, velvet hangings, and croupiers in dinner jackets.
A year later, Earl Sausser opened the One Thirty Nine Club, not far away. Earl's style much less formal: he dressed in shirtsleeves and sported an enormous collection of brightly-colored vests. His casino was a honky-tonk dive, featuring a brick turret out front with boilerplate-lined slits cut into the sides. A prizefighter sat inside the bunker-like enclosure and peered out at patrons who wanted to enter. In case of trouble, he had a gun and a direct telephone line to the club's main room. In the unlikely event that someone got past him, the front door was also fitted with a peephole. Down in the basement hangout, the walls were covered with rough brown plywood sheets.
Nothing special. Nothing fancy.
But this desert speakeasy attracted some of the brightest luminaries of Hollywood's Golden Age: Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth, Jack Benny, Gracie Allen, George Burns, Betty Grable, Cole Porter, Dorothy Lamour, Don Ameche, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Fanny Brice, Jack Haley, Chico Marx, Amos & Andy, Rudy Vallee, Van Heflin, Guy Lombardo, Tommy Dorsey, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Ralph Bellamy, Alice Faye, Rosalind Russell and Dick Powell, among many others.
How do we know these celebrities visited the One Thirty Nine? Because those plywood walls were covered with their autographs and doodles, usually etched into the wood with a hot iron.
The Dunes burned down in 1943, and One Thirty Nine was bulldozed in 1985 to make way for a library building. For a long time, the 4x8' plywood panels were assumed lost.
But two years ago, Lake Tahoe collector Jacqueline Brown walked into the gallery of local artist Carlo Wahlbeck, and casually mentioned that she had the entire 29-piece collection. A year later, Carlo acquired the panels, and now plans to use them in spotlighting this area's colorful history, by creating the Palm Springs Center of Fine Arts. At the moment, he's making framed prints of the panels and donating them to various fundraising events to increase awareness of his project. The Swedish-born sculptor, shown here with a Dick Powell autograph emblazoned atop one of the panels (closeup of Jack Schurch's artwork), is very passionate about his dream... click to listen.