Monday, March 22, 2021

Old Hollywood Haunts: Charlie Farrell's Racquet Club in Palm Springs



Charlie Farrell, top center; Ava Gardner, bottom left; on the right, Marilyn Monroe and Spencer Tracy

Many years ago, Charlie Farrell was a movie star. He first gained fame as a leading man in the late 1920s when he was in his late 20s. He'd started out in Hollywood as an extra, appearing momentarily in films like the Lon Chaney classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Ernst Lubitsch's first Hollywood film, Rosita (1923), starring Mary Pickford. After a minor role in DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923) his career began to build. In 1927 he was cast opposite Janet Gaynor in 7th Heaven. A smash hit, the movie was nominated for the very first Best Picture Academy Award and brought Oscars to director Frank Borzage, screenwriter Benjamin Glazer and to Janet Gaynor, who won Best Actress for this and two other film performances. Charlie would always joke that he was the only one connected with the movie who wasn't nominated for an Oscar. The two luminous, newly minted young stars were then teamed in 11 more pictures between 1928 and 1934 and, as the most popular couple in movies, were known as "America's Favorite Lovebirds."

 

Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in 7th Heaven (1927)

Though Charlie successfully transitioned to talkies, Fox Film Corp. was in flux. When William Fox lost control of the company after the stock market crash, Chase National Bank put his volatile protege, Winfield (Winnie) Sheehan, in charge. Sheehan was not a Farrell fan. Some said it was because the boss had an eye for Janet Gaynor and was miffed that she'd been romantically involved with her co-star. But, at the same time, the trend in leading men was shifting toward "tough guys," which Farrell was not. Looking back on his career much later, the dapper Massachusetts-born/Boston University-educated Farrell would admit he'd gotten weary of "trying to portray James Cagney" when his accent sounded "more like James Mason's." 

The Desert Inn (left) and the El Mirador, two early destination resorts in Palm Springs

Charlie Farrell reportedly got his first glimpse of Palm Springs in 1929 when the studio sent he and Janet Gaynor to the desert for voice training. This was in preparation for converting their film Lucky Star (1929) from silent to sound. Palm Springs was then in the beginning stages of its transformation from modest health spa town with a few dude ranches to ritzy winter retreat for the wealthy and well-known. The Lloyd Wright designed Oasis Hotel opened in 1925 and on New Year's Eve 1928 the sprawling El Mirador Hotel threw open its opulent doors. The Desert Inn, where Charlie stayed during his visit, was a poshly renovated and repurposed former spa.

sagebrush and sand
It was Janet Gaynor who suggested to Charlie that he take a winter home in Palm Springs. Through local realtor Harold Hicks, he found an apartment at the Casa Palmeras. Then one day in 1933 Hicks told him about 200 acres for sale on the north end of Palm Springs. The price was $30 an acre and the location was not far from the El Mirador. Charlie talked to his tennis buddy Ralph Bellamy and the two men decided to purchase the land together. Since the courts at the El Mirador and the Desert Inn were few and always busy, they decided to build two tennis courts along with a serviceable dressing room/shelter on their newly acquired expanse of sand and scrub brush.

Ginger Rogers

The courts opened in December 1934. The facilities were spare and amenities non-existent, but top Hollywood stars attended Farrell and Bellamy's "grand opening" anyway, among them Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers, Robert Taylor, Frank Morgan, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The two men hadn't originally intended to turn their sandy lot into a club but, as Charlie put it 30 years later, "Places like the Racquet Club are not planned. They just happen."

The Racquet Club soon sported a clubhouse, a full restaurant and bamboo bar (designed by Hollywood director Mitchell Leisen), guest bungalows, a swimming pool with poolside dining, locker rooms, showers, and four more tennis courts. Far enough away from Hollywood for movie folk to let their hair down in relative privacy, but near enough to get back within the two hours required by the studios, the Racquet Club became a haven for film stars. By 1936 the club had sold all available memberships and closed its list to new applicants.

 

A recent video tour of the Charlie Farrell Tachevah Drive residence, where he lived for nearly 40 years

In 1934 Charlie and his wife, former actress Virginia Valli, built a house on the Racquet Club grounds that would be their desert home for the next 18 years. In 1952 they moved to East Tachevah Drive in the Movie Colony compound and remained there for the rest of their lives. Charlie bought out Ralph Bellamy's interest in the business in 1937 and from then on oversight fell entirely to the Farrells. Charlie played the role of host/ringmaster and Virginia kept an eye on the business side. To supervise day to day operations, they hired a general manager. Together Charlie and Virginia were, according to one longtime club member and Palm Springs resident, "the backbone of the club - and the town."

Lana Turner and Artie Shaw honeymooned at the Racquet Club
The Farrells prospered and Palm Springs flourished as Hollywood's glitterati continued to flock to town. They came for tennis or polo, or to relax - or to take part in hi-jinks of one kind or another among kindred spirits. Over time, as the club developed regular events, parties and tournaments, plane loads of Hollywood's most famous would fly in for the festivities. Oftentimes it was Howard Hughes who piloted them to town. Eventually, many film and entertainment legends would build getaway homes in the area (there are neighborhoods in Palm Springs known as "Movie Colony," "Movie Colony East" and "Little Beverly Hills") and the gathering place/watering hole du jour would, for years, be the Racquet Club. Bartender Tex George, who was on the job for 39 years, liked to tell a story about the day a woman, a member's guest, sat down at the bar, ordered a cocktail, looked over her surroundings and asked him if there were any movie stars around. Tex turned to the man sitting a couple of stools away from her and asked if he'd seen any celebrities. "Nope," replied Clark Gable, "haven't seen a single one."

Racquet Club days: Charlie and Clark Gable play chess; Charlie with tennis champ Alice Marble and Errol Flynn

New Year's Eve at the Racquet Club was the place to be for members who were in town over the holidays and reservations sold out months in advance. The main dining room would be packed to the rafters with the likes of Alice Faye and Phil Harris providing impromptu entertainment. At one party Dixie Lee Crosby, Bing's first wife, quietly pressed Charlie to ask Bing to sing. She said her husband was feeling blue because no one, so far, had asked. Charlie said sure, but he didn't get to it right away. Walking through the bar a bit later, he realized that Bing had left the party because there he was, alone at the piano singing all by himself. Of course, Bing was quite familiar with the club's Bamboo Bar, even knew it well enough to occasionally take over for Tex George and mix drinks for the crowd. And Bing, no doubt, was adept at making one of the club's trademark cocktails, the Bloody Mary. Local lore has it that it was Charlie Farrell who dreamed up the drink as a morning-after "hair of the dog" antidote for pesky hangovers. Although New York's 21 Club has claimed to have originated the Bloody Mary, Palm Springs historians insist that the recipe was borrowed from the Racquet Club.

 

Bill and "Mousie" Powell
In 1940 club member William Powell married MGM contract player Diana Lewis and in 1941 the couple moved to Palm Springs. Mrs. Powell was decades younger and a foot or more shorter than her husband. Because she was youthful and so petite he gave her the nickname "Mousie," teasing that she seemed tiny "like a little mouse." The Powells were fixtures at the Racquet Club and Mousie's name would one day figure prominently there. It started when she suggested an evening of round-robin tennis followed by a burger cookout at the pool. As the night wound down, one of the players proclaimed that the burgers being served were "Mouseburgers." The round-robin weeknight tourney caught on and grew so popular that it turned into a year-round weekly event attracting the local hierarchy as well as Hollywood's finest. It was called the "Mouseburger Tournament" and became the Racquet Club's signature event. But the Racquet Club would also establish itself as a serious tennis mecca, so well-respected in its heyday that the U.S. Davis Cup Team trained there.

Marilyn Monroe and Johnny Hyde at the club on New Year's Eve
In his priceless (no pun intended) compendium, A Treasury of Great Recipes, Vincent Price (with co-author/wife Mary) offered recipes from world-famous restaurants, including a few Racquet Club specialties. Of the restaurant he wrote, "The chef is French, but some of the greatest dishes here are salads, West Coast seafood, and monumental sandwiches. Cheesecake at the Racquet Club is a must - you can have it for dessert and watch the bikini-clad starlets posing for the pin-up kind." When he penned that last line, Price must've been thinking of the story about the day Marilyn Monroe's poolside posing led to her big screen breakthrough. It was the late '40s and Marilyn, then a hopeful starlet, was at the pool on a photo shoot with Bruno Bernard, a pin-up photographer. Also at the club that day was Johnny Hyde, West Coast VP for the William Morris Agency. Hyde spied Marilyn posing in a blue two-piece, got a camera and began taking his own pictures. He would very soon take over her career. He went on to secure game-changing parts for her in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, both released in 1950. On the strength of these films he was able to negotiate a seven-year contract with Fox by the end of the year. But Johnny Hyde wouldn't live to see Marilyn Monroe's spectacular breakout because he died suddenly only days after her Fox contract was signed. 

On the radio: Frank Sinatra and Jack Benny
In 1932, Jack Benny's radio show hit the airwaves. It was a great success and aired for another 33 years. From the early '40s through the early '50s, the program periodically broadcast from Palm Springs. These shows sometimes featured a segment known as "Murder at the Racquet Club" and Charlie Farrell guested on these episodes. As part of a running gag, Benny usually referred to him as "the star of 7th Heaven." Other Hollywood names who were in town - like Peter Lorre, Sam Goldwyn, Frank Sinatra and others - also took roles in the sketches. The Racquet Club itself took a lot of ribbing in these skits, with jokes about its standing as a Hollywood hangout ("all that ham around there isn't just for sandwiches") and especially for its reputation for exclusivity. An early episode has Benny, as the local police chief, demanding entry to the club so he can investigate a murder that's taken place there. "Are you a member?" he's asked. "No," he says. "If you're not a member, you can't come in. I'll have to throw the body over the fence," he's told. In a later episode Benny, again as police chief, asks why most of the murders in Palm Springs seem to happen at the Racquet Club. "Because people here don't want to be caught dead anywhere else," Charlie replies.

Gale Storm and Charlie Farrell in My Little Margie

By the time Charlie made his last film in 1941, he had acclimated to Palm Springs life. Not only was he immersed in the Racquet Club, but he was also acting as an editor and columnist for a local newspaper and was playing regularly in weekly polo matches. Then came World War II and naval service. When he left the Navy in 1945, having risen to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, Charlie got involved in local politics. He was elected to the Palm Springs city council in 1945 and became mayor in 1948. He served as mayor for five years and resigned during his run as co-star of the popular TV sitcom My Little Margie and its radio counterpart (1952 - 1955). After Margie ended he undertook his own TV series, The Charlie Farrell Show, for CBS. The comedy was set at the Racquet Club and fictionally mirrored his own life as owner/manager and retired movie star. It was a summer replacement for I Love Lucy in 1956 and would re-air during the summers of 1957 and 1960.

Charlie Farrell played a key role in the growth and prosperity of Palm Springs from early days. He brought the stars and, thus, the spotlight to town. He served in city government for eight years and for decades was the town's most high profile promoter and spokesperson. For all of this and because his name had become synonymous with the place, he was known with affection as "Mr. Palm Springs." Farrell Drive, a winding thoroughfare that intersects with the street where he lived, was named in his honor and his residence on East Tachevah Drive would, in time, be officially designated a historic site.

In 1959, the Racquet Club was sold for $1.2 million. Financially, the Farrells were set. As for keeping himself busy, Charlie would be contracted through a second change of ownership to operate as managing director, host and public face of the Racquet Club. When he left at the end of the '60s after his wife Virginia passed away, the club's glamour years were effectively finished. Decline set in with a series of sales and management changes and as of 2011 it stood empty. Following a devastating fire in 2014, the Racquet Club was razed. One Palm Springs resident spoke of the significance of the Racquet Club's demise. "This is a loss to everyone in Palm Springs," he lamented, "because this was the birth of Palm Springs."

"Mr. Palm Springs"

Charlie Farrell lived out his life on East Tachevah Drive, passing away at home in 1990 at age 89. Reflecting back on his years in movies, radio and TV, he once told an interviewer, "I had a helluva career." In fact, he had a helluva life.

~

Members and guests on the scene at the Racquet Club 

 Left, Louella Parsons and Bill Powell; right rear, Charlie and Mousie; Back table, Frank Sinatra

Left: Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh; right, Doris Day and Kirk Douglas

Audrey Hepburn and friend in the desert sun

~

The Charles Farrell Salad, recipe from  A Treasury of Great Recipes: Specialties from the World's Foremost Restaurants by Vincent and Mary Price


~

Sources

Sports Illustrated, “Charlie’s Seventh Heaven” by Alfred Wright, April 15, 1963

A Treasury of Great Recipes: Famous Specialties from the World's Foremost Restaurants by Vincent and Mary Price, Bernard Geis Associates, 1965

Palm Springs Public Library History Project, Mousie Powell interview, July 15, 1987 (YouTube)

Los Angeles Times, “Charles Farrell, 89; Film and TV Actor, Developer, Former Palm Springs Mayor,” by Burt A. Folkart,  May 11, 1990

Palm Springs Life, “Creating a Racquet (Club)” by Gloria Green, December 8, 2012

The Desert Sun, “Racquet Club Attracted Hollywood to Palm Springs,” by Renee Brown, July 2, 2016

Palm Springs Life, “Love Match” by David Lansing, Sept. 1, 2016

6 comments:

  1. This was quite a journey to a time and place. Thanks for all the information and the delightful way you told the story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Paddy. It was great fun to explore that time and place, fascinating, really.

      Delete
  2. Wonderful history, Patty! I feel like I now know 'the rest of the story' about Charles Farrell. It's too bad his career in movies was prematurely (IMO) cut short, but you're right- what a life. I wish I could go back in time and join some of the goings-on there in Palm Springs!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Jocelyn. Having his movie career slow down turned out not so bad for Charlie. He ended up a very wealthy man, much beloved and respected - something an acting career rarely delivers.

      Delete
  3. OMG - I cannot tell you how much I love this - and this series. I could just get lost in this. Thank you for such a wonderfully researched article. I had to read it twice because it was so good and - as always - done in the elegant style of the always elegant Lady Eve.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you a thousand times, Marsha. I'm thrilled I was able to tell the Racquet Club/Charlie Farrell story in a way that gave you so much pleasure. Merci...

      Delete