Palm Springs: A pleasing mix from low to high
In Palm Springs, a home built in the 1940s-1960s for about $20,000, today can sell for $600,000 and more.
An example of mid-century modern architecture in a Palm Springs home.
The Palm Springs tram travels from the desert floor to a mountain peak.
The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies troupe entertains from October into May.
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- After months of gray skies and chilly temperatures, a few days in the warm Southern California desert, drenched in sunshine, felt just about right during a winter trip to Palm Springs.
During the day, high temperatures in winter months average between 70 and 80 degrees, which is why October to May is the town's high season for tourism. Visit in the summer and you might just melt: Daily high temperatures average between 100 and 110 degrees.
With a population of a little more than 48,000, Palm Springs is a small town but it's part of a growing region, the Coachella Valley, which also includes nearby Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio and Thousand Palms
For tourists from chillier climes, the appeal of Palm Springs -- beyond the sensation of bare skin absorbing much-needed warmth -- might be as simple as this: Architecture, a show and a ride with a view.
Fans of "Mad Men" might remember the season two episode featuring Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) visit to Palm Springs and the architectural marvel of a house he stayed in. "Mad Men" actually filmed that scene at a home near Los Angeles, not in Palm Springs, but the look of the house fits Palm Springs' midcentury modern architectural style.
The Palm Springs Modern Committee sells a $5 map on its website (http://psmodcom.org) that offers a driving tour of some of the most interesting architectural examples. The group also helps to put on Palm Springs Modernism Week (www.modernismweek.com), held every February, ideally timed for an escape from a cold Pittsburgh winter.
But even without a map or tour, it's not hard to spot the modern architectural touches of Palm Springs. Driving down South Palm Canyon Drive, a visitor can't help but notice several shops selling midcentury modern furniture. Even the local KFC fast-food restaurant showcases the clean architectural lines that are the hallmark of midcentury modern style.
The best examples, perhaps, are single-story homes found in the Las Palmas subdivision, located between South Palm Canyon Drive and Mount San Jacinto. Actually, it appears we were walking through two adjacent subdivisions, Vista Las Palmas (http://www.vistalaspalmas.com) and Old Las Palmas (http://www.olpno.com/index.html).
Wandering these streets is like stepping into a time machine to see cutting-edge home design circa 1959. The houses in these subdivisions were designed by the father and son team of George and Robert Alexander, whose company built more than 2,000 homes in this area from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s.
The homes became known as "Alexanders" and feature peaked rooflines, some that imitate a butterfly's wings. Built for about $20,000, the homes today can sell for $600,000 and more.
Other tourist destinations in the Palm Springs region include desolate, rocky Joshua Tree National Park, a 60-to-90-minute drive from Palm Springs depending on which park entrance you use, and hot spring spas in the aptly named Desert Hot Springs, a 20-minute drive.
In Palm Springs proper, the big draw is The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, now in its 20th year with a show titled "Follies Forever." Patterned after the Ziegfeld Follies of the early 20th century, the Palm Springs Follies gives the Folies Bergere concept a twist by focusing on mature performers, primarily women ages 55-80, adorned in elaborate costumes that bring to mind a cross between a peacock and Carmen Miranda.
Housed in the Plaza Theatre, a converted movie house built in 1936, the Follies show runs two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission and often features a special guest performer. In January that was Lesley Gore ("It's My Party") and now the show is featuring The Four Preps ("26 Miles -- Santa Catalina") through the end of the Follies season.
The notion of aging showgirls in colorful headdresses dancing to oldies music conjures a potentially cheesy scene, but Follies impresario and host Riff Markowitz keeps the mood light with his humor that mocks the audience as much as he plays to it.
Stalking the stage and occasionally embarrassing audience members in the front row, Mr. Markowitz, who founded the Follies in 1991 with Mary Jardin, referred to Palm Springs as "God's waiting room."
"So many new faces," he said, looking out into the audience. "Same people, but a lot of new faces," a reference to some local residents' affinity for cosmetic surgery.
He jokingly referred to Palm Springs as "home of the gay '90s, because everybody here is either gay or 90." (The Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism reports 40 percent of the Palm Springs population identifies as gay.) In one audience interaction Mr. Markowitz noticed a teenage girl and asked, "What are you doing here? You're being punished, aren't you?"
The real attraction is the female performers parading full showgirl regalia to the tunes of "Oh, Pretty Woman," "Copacabana" and "Bolero." The introductions were followed by juggler Rejean St. Jules and a scene paying tribute to Broadway show tunes. Act Two opened with a hit parade of oldies music ("Johnny B. Goode," "Good Golly Miss Molly," "At the Hop").
Ticket prices for the current season, which runs through May 15, range from $50 to $92. The Follies do not offer shows during the summer, but the revue returns each October with a new production.
Despite Mr. Markowitz's Borscht Belt-style humor, the Follies took a more sentimental, expected turn with a patriotic scene that closed the show. From "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to "God Bless America," no patriotic stone was left unturned in these scenes that most conformed to the type of performance one would expect from a stage show aimed at primarily elderly patrons.
But at the very end Mr. Markowitz stepped back from the treacle of sentiment, barking orders at the audience: "That's it. That's the end. It's over. Get out," he said. "We have to lay down. Now!"
It was just as well. For snowbirds on the run from inclement weather, there's only so much time one wants to spend indoors while in Palm Springs. The whole point of a winter getaway there is to soak up some sun when it's the dead of winter back home.
Despite abundant sunshine and temperatures in the mid-'70s in the valley during our stay, Palm Springs does offer the familiar sight of snow -- but only if you take the Palm Springs Aerial Tram (www.pstramway.com) from the valley floor (elevation: 2,643 feet) to the peak of Mount San Jacinto (elevation: 8,516 feet).
Completed in 1963 -- with new, rotating tram cars installed in 2000 -- the ride takes about 15 minutes and each car can hold 80 passengers. We took the first tram of the day up to avoid the crowds. Midday wait times can reach three hours on peak days, according to our tram operator, Tom.
The tram's cable is strung among five support towers, the tallest rising 227 feet from the craggy mountainside below. En route, ears popped the higher we rose, and a view of the Coachella Valley emerged from behind the canyon walls that earlier hid most of Palm Springs. (Ticket prices: $23.25 adults, $16.25 children 3-12 and $21.25 seniors age 60 and up.)
At the mountain station, a short film delivers a history of the tram, but the real attraction is the 14,000-acre Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area, covered in what appeared to be at least a foot of snow during our visit. Some families came prepared with plastic sleds for their children to slide down trails (the mountain station gift shop sells sleds for $19.99). Others simply made due with found plastic: Pieces of shattered sleds left behind by previous visitors.
Ian Murray and his family -- wife Beth Casky and sons Jack, 12, and Danny, 10 -- were making one of their twice annual winter trips to Mount San Jacinto State Park from their home in nearby La Quinta. They visit four or five times in the summer to beat the valley heat. But on a winter day, the boys were content to slide down a small, snow-covered hill on pieces of a broken orange sled.
During our visit to the mountaintop the temperature was a comfortable 50 degrees under a sunny sky with snow under foot. We didn't bring boots on this trip, which would have been helpful. The visit would also have been improved by better trail markings. We tried to follow a trail on the tour map that the staff handed out with the tram tickets, but trampled snow paths yielded only a hint of where the real path should be.
But that was OK. We got to hike on top of snow under a brilliant blue, sunny sky. Most important, a warm reception awaited us later in the day upon our return to the desert floor and Palm Springs.
First Published March 13, 2011 12:00 am