From the beginning, Palm Springs has always been a sporty place. People first came because the dry desert air was good for the lungs (actually, its clean air, devoid of pollution, helps people with conditions like asthma), but it wasn’t long before the sports-minded crowd followed with their tennis rackets, golf clubs, polo mallets, and hiking staffs. Nellie Coffman laid down the first tennis court at The Desert Inn in 1927. Thomas O’Donnell enlisted William Tanner to design his namesake nine-hole golf course beginning in 1927. It wasn’t until 1944 that the course became a private club where one (if one was lucky) could join and play. For the first 15 years of its existence, it was for the exclusive use of O’Donnell and his friends. Meanwhile, in that pivotal year of 1927, Smoke Tree Stables opened in South Palm Springs to give weekend cowpokes a taste of life in the saddle.
To be sure, the valley has always lured great amateur and professional sports people from all over the world who live to partake in their favorite outdoor passions during months when the rest of the country is buried in snow or gloom. Some of these sporting types were so passionate that they benefited the entire valley.
Dinah Shore: THE STARLET
If actress, singer, talk show host, and golfer Dinah Shore were alive today, she might be surprised to learn that the most popular lesbian festival in the world, the Club Skirts Dinah Shore Weekend, was named in her honor. Commonly known as The Dinah, the long weekend of poolside and nightclub festivities typically coincides with the LPGA ANA Inspiration golf tournament.
Considering Shore’s ardent promotion of women’s professional golf and a career that always defied expectations, she’d likely be delighted. As she would be with the LPGA tradition that the winner of the tournament, which launched as the Colgate Dinah Shore in 1972 and spawned the namesake girl party, celebrates her victory on the 18th green by jumping in “Poppie’s Pond.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
Not only was Dinah Shore the Oprah Winfrey of her era, but she also found time to promote women’s professional golf and sponsor what has become one of the world’s premier golf tournaments.
The daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants who operated a store in a small Tennessee town, Dinah Shore graduated from Vanderbilt University and then began looking for work singing with big bands. She didn’t land a gig. Far from discouraged, she struck out on her own and became one of the most successful female solo entertainers of the ’40s and ’50s. However, it was television that proved to be Dinah’s true calling. In a series of variety and talk shows that stretched from 1950 to1991, she became a small-screen favorite, as much for her Southern charm and musical talent as for her willingness to book an extraordinary range of guests, from best buddy Lucille Ball to rock legend David Bowie, and even comedian Andy Kaufman who, in the guise of his obnoxious Tony Clifton character, famously dumped a pan of eggs on Shore’s head.
She would be honored that thousands of gay women gather in Palm springs to celebrate “The Dinah.”
A well-known figure around the village of Palm Springs in its infancy, she commissioned architect Donald Wexler to design an extraordinary home for her in Old Las Palmas (it is now owned by Leonard DiCaprio). However, it is her commitment to and untiring promotion of women’s golf that have had the most lasting impact.
A passionate practitioner of the game, Shore was persistent in championing the LPGA (the name itself a clear indicator of the era in which it was created — Ladies’ Professional Golf Association) and in 1972 was one of the driving forces in the creation of the Colgate Dinah Shore golf tournament at Mission Hills Country Club, Dinah’s home course. (She was also a member and golfed regularly at the exclusive Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles.) The entertainer, who was married to actor and longtime desert dweller George Montgomery and who was romantically linked to younger men such as Burt Reynolds and Iggy Pop, died shortly before she was elected an honorary member of the LPGA Hall of Fame in 1994. She would have been thrilled to know that her event, now the ANA Inspiration, is one of the top professional women’s golf tournaments in the world. And, no doubt, she would be honored that thousands of gay women gather in Palm Springs the same weekend to celebrate “The Dinah.”
Gene Autry: The Yodeling Cowboy
The “Yodeling Cowboy” came a long way from his family’s hardscrabble ranches in Texas and Oklahoma. Discovered by humorist Will Rogers in 1929 when he was singing at radio station KVOO in Tulsa, Autry wasted no time making a name for himself on the national stage both as a singer and an actor. Though it may seem a dubious distinction these days, Autry was the pioneer who almost single-handedly created and popularized a cinematic subgenre known as the “musical western.” His records sold more than 100 million copies and he completed over 93 feature films.
And he didn’t stop there.
In 1950 Autry was one of the bona fide few to embrace the new medium of television. Not only did The Gene Autry Show become one of the first big hits on the small screen, Autry’s company also produced other television programs such as Death Valley Days and Annie Oakley. He remains the only entertainer to have secured all five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — for radio, recording, motion pictures, television, and live theater.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
Gene Autry may have acquired the Angels out of spite, but he was a passionate believer in their future greatness and was named by his players the team’s 26th man.
Yet one of the greatest passions of Autry’s life was the national pastime of baseball. A former sandlot and semi-pro player in his youth, Autry signed a deal with Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley to broadcast their games on his radio stations when the team moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Somewhere along the way the deal soured and O’Malley ended the relationship. But Autry was not about to let go.
At that time, the California Angels had long been one of the most popular teams of the Pacific Coast League. Autry bought them and spent millions to elevate the Angels to prominence in the American League. They certainly bit into O’Malley’s profits. There are 25 players on a team’s roster and in 1982 the Angels presented Autry with a jersey emblazoned with the number 26 to honor his efforts as owner. Though Autry helped the team earn a division title, he passed away before they won their first World Series.
The Angels did their spring training in Arizona, but Autry — a part-time Palm Springs resident — brought them to the valley for a few weeks of training and some exhibition games. He purchased an old Holiday Inn (now the Parker Palm Springs), refurbished it, named it the Melody Inn, and housed his team there. The antics and parties were legendary and the place was usually mobbed with celebrities and ballplayers. Autry also converted the old Palm Springs polo grounds into a stadium for his team and for more than 30 years, the Angels entertained locals and snowbirds while the rest of the country was knee-deep in snow.
He remains the only entertainer to have secured all five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
Though most widely known for his tireless and successful efforts to make the BNP Paribas Open a major tournament, Charlie Pasarell was also a major player in his day.
Charlie Pasarell: The Ace
As with many great desert dreamers, there was a big before for Indian Wells Masters (now, BNP Paribas Open) founder and tournament director Charlie Pasarell. The San Juan, Puerto Rico, native was a star at UCLA along with teammate Arthur Ashe. Ranked 11th best professional player in the world in 1966, Pasarell beat some of the most notable names of his time including Ashe, Stan Smith, Roy Emerson, and Pancho Gonzales. In fact, prior to John Isner and Nicolas Mahut setting the record for longest match at Wimbledon in 2010, Pasarell and Gonzales had an epic battle on that court and held the record for longest match — five hours, 12 minutes. Though he never won a major, Pasarell finished his career with 23 singles championships and, in doubles play, made it four times to a major finals.
On the island of Puerto Rico, the Pasarell family is tennis royalty. His mother and father, brother, aunt … (the list is endless) all won titles on the island. With the sport coursing through his veins, it was natural that Pasarell got involved on the organizing side; in 1974 he helped create a little tournament in Tucson, Arizona. Two years later he moved it to Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage. Unfortunately, a 1980 flood washed out the event and the country club management wanted no more tennis tournaments.
But Pasarell was undaunted. He set his sights on the La Quinta Hotel and, as he later recounted to writer Bill Dwyre in a 2016 profile in Palm Springs Life, he and his crew were working so frantically to get the grounds ready for the 1981 tournament that “as the players were walking out to play their first matches, we were still painting lines on the courts.”
Pasarell kept building and the tournament kept growing. Certain events resulted in leaps such as the unlikely victory by local pro Larry Stefanki in 1985. Pasarell convinced Indian Wells to allow construction of a stadium and in 1987 Boris Becker won the first of his two men’s titles in what would become the tournament’s permanent venue.
Today, Charlie’s little Tucson tournament is one of the most popular tennis tournaments on the planet. After Wimbledon and the French, U.S., and Australian opens, it is considered to be the (unofficial) fifth major. Now owned by Larry Ellison and sponsored by French bank BNP Paribas, it hosts nearly a half-million fans that flock to the Coachella Valley to spectate the best women and men players.
Charlie Pasarell’s dream was 42 years in the making, but it came true.
The Ring Leader
While many famous athletes from Arnold Palmer to Steve Garvey have made their home in the desert, Tim Bradley is the valley’s true homegrown sports success story. Born in Palm Springs in 1983 and raised in Cathedral City, Bradley graduated from Cathedral City High School with a deep desire to make his fame and fortune in the ring, but little idea how to make his dream come about.
Like a lot of local kids, he got work after high school in a restaurant, working his way up from dishwasher to waiter. In his spare time, he trained hard and occasionally landed a fight at a local venue such as a ballroom.
PHOTO BY PETER YANG
Born in Palm Springs and a graduate of Cathedral City High School, Tim Bradley had a dream he wouldn’t — and couldn’t — give up on.
The pay was pitiful, but Bradley knew the only way he was ever going to get a shot at the big prize money was by paying his dues — and never losing a fight. His first professional match pitted him against Francisco Martinez in 2004. He went on to win World Boxing Council Youth welterweight and super lightweight titles.
He was still waiting tables when one day he ran into a school acquaintance named Monica Monzo. Recently divorced and with two kids, she was not initially as interested in pursuing a relationship with the fighter as he was with her. However, she came to realize what the boxing world would soon find out: Tim Bradley never gives up. They eventually got together, but there were tough times ahead for the couple. Even though Tim was fighting and winning, they never seemed to get much of the purses. They fought foreclosure on their house and often had to take themselves and their kids to their parents’ for dinner. At one point, Bradley flew to England to fight Junior Witter. It was a big gamble for the Bradleys; they only had $11 in the bank. Bradley won.
Monica, a savvy businesswoman, studied the boxing world and finally stepped in to manage her husband’s career. It was a propitious time. Bradley had achieved the seemingly impossible by beating Filipino Manny Pacquiao in the first of their three meetings (he lost the next two). Currently, Bradley’s record stands at an impressive 33-2-1. Monica may negotiate a few more fights, and they will no doubt be highly lucrative, but as Bradley heads into his mid-30s, retirement from the ring is a possibility. He has often said that he would never have gotten where he is today without Monica. Evidently, the Boxing Writers of America agree. In 2015, she was nominated as boxing manager of the year.
As great as Bradley’s story is — a kid who literally fought his way to fame and fortune — he is also a local celebrity who never forgets to give back, whether it’s the time he spends volunteer-coaching the La Quinta High School football team or serving on the board of a Coachella Valley football program that supports underprivileged kids. And when they are not herding one of their five children to various extracurricular commitments, they are focused on a new business venture of Monica’s — a Hawaiian sushi restaurant called Haus of Poké. Hawaiian sushi in the desert? Take a tip. Never bet against the Bradleys.
The Health Nut /
“Exercise is king and nutrition is queen, and together they make a kingdom.” This and many other LaLanne aphorisms were always sprinkled liberally throughout The Jack LaLanne Show, which the exercise guru paid for out of pocket to broadcast on a local television station in his hometown of San Francisco in 1953. The show became so popular that it was syndicated nationally and aired until 1985.
An admitted “junk food junkie” who changed his life after attending a lecture on health and nutrition when he was 15, LaLanne opened the nation’s first health and fitness club in Oakland in 1936.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALAMY
When Jack LaLanne opened the nation’s first fitness club in Oakland, local doctors warned patients that bodybuilding would hurt their sex drives.
He went on to spread the gospel of good nutrition and exercise through television, radio, books, and outrageous public appearances that often involved outrageous stunts like towing boats a mile across the water while his hands were manacled.
Like many Hollywood celebrities of the ’60s, LaLanne bought an unprepossessing ranch house in Palm Springs to get away from it all … except in the hyper-energetic LaLanne’s case, it became another venue to preach clean living.
He had a receptive audience among the huge number of retirees who were spending their golden years in the desert. While there is scant evidence that LaLanne was actively engaged in leading local seniors in weightlifting and other LaLanne-approved exercise routines, the fact is, the fitness and wellness institutions that have such a positive impact on seniors’ lives in this valley owe their existence and success to LaLanne.
When he first started out, people thought he was a healthy “nut.” When success came, he was recognized as the godfather of the American fitness movement. The active lifestyles enjoyed by valley residents, both young and old, stem from his unyielding belief that we can all live longer, healthier, better lives.