Our Neighborhood Yesterday

by Linda Meierhoffer of Camino Real

Sunshine, golf and celebrities are woven into our neighborhood’s history, making the stories of A-list movie stars with a connection here more than urban legend. In 1963, the Frank Sinatra Open Invitational was held at Canyon Country Club to benefit desert charities, and Frank's Rat Pack pals Sammy and Dean often played in this PGA tour event.  The comings and goings of other notables through the years have also been chronicled:  Doris Day lived here in the late ‘60s following the death of her husband.  Fess Parker and Chuck Connors, famous for their roles as frontiersmen, owned homes in the neighborhood.  Richard Gere roared up in a Mercedes 450 SL to a Yosemite Drive address for a scene in the movie, “American Gigolo.”  Canyon Country Club was featured many times on the covers and pages of Palm Springs Life Magazine, providing readers a snapshot into the glitz and glam of those heady years.

Writer Josh Kun, a journalism professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, USC, once made regular visits to the Canyon Country Club home of his grandparents.  In the Los Angeles Magazine article, “Ghosts in the desert:  The road from Palm Springs is strewn with mirages, dinosaurs, and other tricks of the light.  Sure, you can drive away, but can you really leave?,” (September 2004) he shares boyhood memories of our neighborhood, his Jewish roots and all that he loves about this place.  Here’s an excerpt, reprinted with Kun’s permission:

“That year, we came to them.  It was spring and it was Passover, and my grandparents were too sick to make the trip from Palm Springs to Los Angeles.  So my parents, my sister, and I headed for the desert to remember, over salt water and boiled eggs, 40 days and 40 nights of exodus across a different desert.  We went as deep into the desert as Reform Jews in a Mercedes convertible could go, to Canyon Country Club.

The dining room of the Canyon Country Club is fine for a crisp house salad and an iced tea.  But with its gleaming chandeliers, bigscreen TVs, and views of the course, it is no place to reflect on a people’s exile.  Yet there we were, my family and a dining room full of elderly Jews soaked in cologne and perfume being led in a Passover seder by a retired rabbi whose throat wouldn’t clear and whose microphone wouldn’t work.  My grandmother said that the man by the window looked like Martin Landau was Martin Landau.  At the table across from us, awash in hair spray and black eyeliner, was the actress Ruta Lee, who had parts in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Funny Face in the ‘50s and then liberated her Lithuanian grandmother from a Siberian labor camp in the ‘80s.

The land the country club is built on is technically Sections 35 and 36 of the Agua Caliente Indian reservation, just over the ridge from the historic Palm Canyon oasis, where you can pay $6 to imagine what the desert looked like before developers.  In the late 1880s, the land was sold to the area’s first non-Indian settler, John Guthrie McCallum, a San Francisco lawyer with a tuberculosis-stricken son, who then sold it to another wide-eyed prospector, B. B. Barney.  Barney dreamed of an irrigated agricultural utopia and named his subdivision the Garden of Eden.er Barney began irrigating Eden with illegally imported Indian water from nearby Andreas Canyon, the government expelled him from the Garden and handed it back to the Indians, who started calling him “the serpent in the Garden of Eden.”  The land went commercially unused until 1962, when construction began on the new private country club.  My grandparents joined soon after, and for years—never in jeans and never without a collar on my shirt (clubhouse rules)—I joined them for lunches between card games and golf matches.  By 1983, they made the headlines of The Desert Sun (“Mort and Joni Kamens grab Guys and Dolls golf honors”), and my grandfather received the greatest tribute a club regular can get:  They named a salad after him. 

The Palm Springs they lived in was the Palm Springs that Barney and all the other early settlers had imagined:  a valley of bounty, a desert oasis of health and serenity.”   

The Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians who settled here centuries before us left behind a tangible legacy--the desert fan palms they cultivated for food and basket weaving still stand tall over the valley floor, and remnants of the tribe’s dams, reservoirs, house foundations and rock art can also be found in surrounding canyons.  A website devoted to their culture says they were “industrious and creative with a reputation for independence, integrity and peace,” and one can hope that this intangible legacy, too, remains.   

Kun asks in the article, “…can you really leave?” about his grandparents’ Palm Springs.  For those of us who now live in this “bountiful valley” and in this neighborhood that sits on the land considered sacred by those Indian settlers, the answer is obvious.