48 Hours in Palm Springs for the Modernista

holiday house

By Barbara Beckley

It’s not just architecture that makes Palm Springs the modernism capital of the world.  It’s everything!

Modernism is a way of life here in Palm Springs. From cocktails to clothes, pools to supper clubs, décor to events like Modernism Week – Palm Springs has never left the swinging ’50s and ‘60s.

Remember the ‘60s smash movie Palm Spring Weekend?  That’s all the time it takes to trip the light fantastic and star in your own glamourous Palm Springs story – titled perhaps, “The Real Rat Pack of Palm Springs.”

Poolside Perfection

Begin at the pool — of course. Sipping cocktails. Posing on a lounger. Slipping into the sunny cool water. Which pool? Palm Springs probably has more pools per capita than anywhere else in the country. And arguably more mid-century modern buildings – including homes, inns and hotels all with glorious pools – than anywhere in the world.

Want cozy intimacy? Take your pick of dozens of mid-century inns. The 11-room Dive Palm Springs celebrates the 1960s French beach culture with savoir faire and the original 1954 Libott-designed pool.

dive doi pond

The Orbit In Hotel, circa 1954, wows with nine rooms and a free nightly Orbitini cocktail hour by the pool.

orbit in

The Desert Riviera Hotel, circa 1951, wins awards for its 11 classic poolside rooms and suites and hospitality.

Or maybe you want to live larger. The 28-room Holiday House boutique hotel, circa 1951, includes a full bar and breakfast at The Pantry restaurant serving simple Americana fare. And the Parker Palm Springs , circa 1959, is a full-on celebrity-centric resort, with acres of pools, villas, suites, rooms, six dining and drinking hot spots, a huge spa, games like tennis and French Petanque (think bocce ball), and the amazing mid-century Gene Autry Residence, where the “Singing Cowboy” actually lived.

Speaking of mid-century pads – why not plan a house party!  From modest to celebrity-ready, locally owned Acme House Company Vacation Rentals ModMansions and other home rental firms are happy to make your modernista dreams come true.

Cocktail Culture

When the sun goes down – make like the Rat Pack and head for the nearest bar. The vintage vibe has never stopped at Melvyn’s Casablanca Lounge, where the piano bar is as dark and sexy as when Rat Packers and fellow celebs from Debbie Reynolds to Marlin Brando stopped by.

Soon, it’s tiki time! Toast to blowfish lanterns and tiki torches over hand-crafted tropical cocktails at Bootlegger Tiki in the very same space – and sharing the same traditions – as the original 1953 Don the Beachcomber.

Dinner & A Show

This was the mainstay of mid-century entertainment and it lives on at Michael Holmes’ Purple Room Supper Club — in the very room and on the very stage where Frank, Sammy, Dean and their pals cavorted. Sit at a table by the stage, enjoy cocktails and dinner and watch live entertainment from the Great American Songbook to “The Judy Show,” a hilarious parody on the 1963 Judy Garland Show by impersonator Michael Holmes.

Check the schedule of PS Underground, another great dinner-show that goes the extra mile by asking you to dress the part for its varied performances. Wear your go-go boots and peace signs for “The Cavern” club show, an homage to the ‘60s British Invasion; poodle skirts and saddle shoes for “SITCOM,” inspired by TV hits like I Love Lucy, and Jackie O sheaths and polyester suits for “Nod to Mod,” during Modernism Week, February 13 – 23, 2020. Copa Nightclub reimagines the supper club glory with vintage-style big leather booths, bottle service and shows like “The Mod Squad Variety Show,” with piano and vocals from the Rat Pack to Broadway hits.

Copa

Retro Chic   

In case you forgot your go-go boots or want to enhance your retro style, it’s worth sacrificing some pool time to check out Palm Springs amazing vintage shops. Look to Dazzles for fabulous mod jewelry; The Frippery for like-new mid-century men’s and women’s apparel, and Gypsyland (no website, and it’s a really bad Facebook page) for funky and cool clothing and décor.

If you need to add to your pad, Palm Springs has killer mid-century furniture and accessory boutiques. Consider A La ModModern WayBon Vivant for colored bottles and owls, and The Art of Nat Reed  for works depicting the artist’s whimsical take on Palm Springs’ modernista architecture and life.

On the Town

Just like the iconic 1970 Poolside Gossip Palm Springs photo by Slim Aaron, it’s also fun to get out of the pool and get in on the gossip and party-packed history that went on behind the closed doors of Palm Springs’ glamorous mid-century designer homes.

The Modern Tour is pricey ($200), but totally worth it because you go inside – yes, actually inside! – Palm Springs’ most architecturally significant homes. Led by Michael Stern, author of the book Julius Shulman: Palm Springs, you’ll go inside stunning mid-century homes designed by Donald Wexler, Albert Frey, Richard Neutra, William Krisel and other mid-century architectural legends and lived in by stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Peter Lawford and Broadway composer Frederick Loewe of Lerner and Loewe fame. The homes vary by tour, but often include the coveted Albert Frey House II and the Kaufmann House seen in Poolside Gossip. This is the official tour of the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture + Design Center – so you also get free admission to the museum, and a copy of the Julius Shulman: Desert Modern film which aired on PBS.

Get the inside stories – along with architectural appreciation and a little exercise – on a P.S. Walk With Me tour, created and led by Palm Springs-born-and-raised modernism expert/activist Jade Thomas Nelson. Jade spills the beans as you stop outside iconic homes throughout Palm Springs storied neighborhoods. Choose from four tours. “The Marvelous Movie Colony Stroll,” from mobsters to Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. “Legendary Las Palmas,” with homes and gossip including Liberace, Clark Gable, Kirk Douglas, and the church where JFK worshipped. “Melvyn’s to the Mountain: The Heart of P.S,” divulging secrets of the modernist inns, custom homes and historic Tennis club, where Sinatra hung out and the church Eisenhower visited. Don’t worry. Jade’s tours are easy, averaging 1.5 to 2 miles in up to 2.5 hours, with lots of stops in front of dozens of homes and buildings. .

And not only are these tours fun and informative – guess what?  They’re an ideal way to decide where you’ll spend you next 48 hours in Palm Springs.

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