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­­­­A Brief History of Palm Springs Music Scene

starlite room

Mid-Century Nightlife in Palm Springs

Lets take a look as some of the history of the early Palm Springs music scenes. We not only had many popular stages and dinner theaters, but also a personal connection to some of the most famous early music stars from the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Chi Chi Starlite Room

starlite room
Credit: Palm Springs Historical Society

The Palm Springs music scene really started to take off with the Starlite Room. Opening night in October, 1950 found every available seat at the Starlite Room occupied by patrons there to see and hear Desi Arnaz, the “King of the Rhumba”, his Cuban music and songs and the customers applauded for more after each of his two performances.

The very popular Peggy Lee performed at the Starlite Room in March of 1954. She was discovered in Palm Springs. She had been struggling for “that chance” when an engagement at the popular Doll House offered itself (popular Palm Springs restaurant). While there, competing with the clatter of dishes, she sang so low and sweetly the patrons stopped talking and waiters stopped rattling cups and dishes. Her “soft-as-silk” singing style attracted the attention of Frank Bering, owner of Chicago’s Ambassador West hotel and Peggy was soon headed east to begin her career.

Nat King Cole opened Chi Chi at the Starlite Room on January 4, 1956, supported by an all-star show. Reservations had started even before public announcement was made of his appearance. The top recording artist of the country already had so many hits to his credit. Among them was “Nature Boy” and “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.”

chi chi starlite ad
Credit: Palm Springs Life archives

Nature Boy has ties to Palm Springs.

The author was eden ahbez (who insisted his name not be capitalized), a frequent to Palm Springs and acquaintance with William Pester, well-known fixture in town living in Indian Canyons. Pester was called the hermit of Palm Springs and they shared a common lifestyle philosophy that we might think of as the original hippie. Many believe that “Nature Boy” was written about, or certainly inspired by, William Pester. In 1947 ahbez composed “Nature Boy” having set one of his poems to music. Cole ended up with the tune through his manager and began including in his live performances, and later recorded it.

eden ahbez and nat king cole

Liberace performed the following January in 1957 and later teamed up with Jane Powell for a performance in March of 1958. Jane Powell is an American actress, singer and dancer who rose to fame in the mid-1940s with roles in various Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals. (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) Liberace would later move to Palm Springs until his death.

The headliners included the Mills Brothers, Patti Page, Ethel Waters, Della Reese, and so many more.

Purple Room

Opened September of 1961. Governor Pat Brown, then Governor of California, was on hand to cut the ribbon. Palm Springs Mayor Frank Bogart helped the Governor and a couple of Senators with the ribbon cutting. There were no movie stars in The Purple Room on opening night, but they came later. All of them. From Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Bing Crosby to President Eisenhower, Richard Nixon (before he was president), and many Senators and Congressmen. This became one of Palm Springs swankiest dinner clubs with live music nightly, and helped build the growing Palm Springs music scene. It was also the place Frank Sinatra proposed to Barbara Marx.

purple room

Plaza Theater

The 850 Plaza Theater opened in 1936 with the world premiere of Camille with Greta Garbo as the leading actress. Allan Jones, the great singer of Show Boat, entertained with a song. While it was built to primarily show films, it included a large stage for performances. Frank Sinatra often performed at the Palm Springs Plaza Theater. In June,1944, he did a weekly broadcast from the stage of the Plaza Theater. That September he sang to a crowded theater with Joan Blondell and a large band. Bing Crosby, his guests, Dinah Shore, Bill Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), Happy Peters and all of Bing’s cast, delighted a packed house at the Plaza theater in 1951.

plaza theatre
Credit: Palm Springs Historical Society

American Legion Post 519

The post was founded in 1934 by World War I veterans including prominent Palm Springs resident Earl Coffman and was named in honor of Coffman’s son Owen, who was killed in action during World War II. After raising funds for a permanent location, members enlisted renowned architects John Porter Clark and Albert Frey to design what was then called the War Memorial Building, which officially opened to veterans and their families on Jan. 3, 1948.

It includes a large ballroom and stage and the original 1905 Steinway baby grand piano.  That was used to accompany stars like Al Jolson, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and Doris Day during the weekly Kraft Music Hall variety show that was produced live from the post from 1948 to 1954.

American Legion 519

Bing Crosby and Bob Hope share the NBC microphone stationed at the American Legion Post No. 519 in Palm Springs used to broadcast the Kraft Music Hall variety show. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY AMERICAN LEGION POST NO. 519
Bing Crosby and Bob Hope share the NBC microphone stationed at the American Legion Post No. 519 in Palm Springs used to broadcast the Kraft Music Hall variety show. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY AMERICAN LEGION POST NO. 519

Coral Room of the El Mirador

This popular spot in the famous El Mirador Hotel opened in 1940 with Don Francisco and his orchestra. Francisco and his band, composed of violin, guitar, bass and accordion, had played most of the country’s finer hotels and cocktail lounges. El Mirador was an early Palm Springs hotel that opened in 1928. After it opened, the stars arrived. The Barrymores, Al Jolson and his dancing wife, Ruby Keeler; Bing Crosby and his wife Dixie Lee, and Marlene Dietrich. Other visitors included writers, composers (George Gershwin), directors and producers. This became a very popular Palm Springs hot spot for parties, dances, and live music.

Frank Sinatra

Frank is by far the most famous star that lived in Palm Springs because he spent so much time here. He began coming in the mid 1940s where he would vacation between broadcasts. Jimmy Van Heusen, four time Oscar winner for best song, was a good friend of Frank and introduced him to Palm Springs. He was really a man about town, and would define the Palm Springs music scene like no other.

He was involved in many Palm Springs charities and worked with Mack Gordon, Rudy Vallee, Bob Hope, and Jack Benny, among many others. There is so much more to say that we’ll save for another future article.

Learn about his Palm Springs Home, the Twin Palm Frank Sinatra Estate

frank sinatra
Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
frank sinatra police show
Credit: Palm Springs Historical Society

Rudy Vallee

Rudy was a famous radio musician and band leader from the 1920s and credited with being the first star “crooner” leader of a long line that would follow. He was the principle musician at the Palm Springs Racquet Club, one of the most popular clubs at the time, that would last for years.

rudy vallee
Credit: Palm Springs Life

Elvis Presley

The King was planning to wed his Queen, Priscilla, in Palm Springs. He popped the question to her just before Christmas in 1966 and presented her with a 3.5-carat diamond engagement ring. The wedding was set for May 1, 1967, which was a Monday. They arranged to lease the home by the well-known developer Robert Alexander. It was close to the home of Elvis’s Manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

Rona Barret, a famous gossip columnist that lived around the corner had her suspicions when Priscilla showed up with her entire family. She then made the announcement of the pending wedding. Frank Sinatra came to the rescue and arranged for a limo and private jet to take them to Las Vegas where then then wed. They then honeymooned in the leased Palm Springs home, which is now called the “Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway.”


elvis honeymoon hideaway

Trini Lopez

Trini López, the singer and guitarist who in the 1960s had hits with the songs “If I Had a Hammer” and “La Bomba” and appeared in the classic war movie “The Dirty Dozen.” He first began to stay in Palm Springs in 1966 and later moved here full time in 1981. He played for many charities in Palm Springs. In 1966 it was the Palm Springs police show, featuring Lopez, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Julie London, and the Andrew Sisters, among others. He was flown to Palm Springs by Frank Sinatra in 1971 to do a gig at the Tennis Club for the Bob Hope Desert Classic. In 1977 he performed with Sammy Davis Jr. at the Riviera Hotel’s grand ballroom. He would later perform with the Lennon sisters at the Palm Springs High School for another charity event.

trini lopez
50’s Album Anniversary with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin
The ninth annual Police Show on March 29, 1958, From left, Jimmy Van Heusen, Peggy Lee, Sinatra, and Ray Ryan.
The ninth annual Police Show on March 29, 1958, From left, Jimmy Van Heusen, Peggy Lee, Sinatra, and Ray Ryan. Credit: Palm Springs Historical Society

Current Famous Music Star

Barry Manilow

In 1983 Mel Haber welcomed Barry Manilow to his restaurant, Melvyn’s. He was living in Palm Springs in the greatest example of mid-century modern architecture, the Kaufman house. In 2008 Barry launched the Manilow’s Music Project by giving over 300 instruments to 20 middle and high school music departments in Palm Springs, and the Desert Sands. Barry Manilow is still a Palm Springs resident.

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