Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Viva, Palm Springs!

My family didn’t travel much when I was a kid, but we did go out to the desert a lot. Palm Springs was close enough to drive and, in those days, fairly cheap. Plus my sister and I got to spend entire days swimming and lounging around the motel pool. The desert was our favorite vacation spot.

I no longer do anything that requires a bathing suit, but Tim and I do occasionally go to the desert just to get away. We especially enjoy Palm Springs because, unlike Las Vegas which has turned into a hideous monstrosity, the downtown area looks pretty much the same as it did in the 1950s/60s and the surrounding mid-century modern homes still reign supreme. As far as I'm concerned, Palm Springs is all about nostalgia.

For example, we were taking time out from a conference I was attending there this past weekend when I noticed an ad offering tours of Elvis Presley’s “honeymoon hideaway.” Turns out, May 1 was the 41st anniversary of Elvis’s marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu, the young woman he had met overseas while in the military. To celebrate, the current owners of the newlyweds’ first home were opening up the place to the public, Friday-Sunday, 10AM-5PM.

Now we are not Elvis fanatics, by any means, but we do know a good story-in-the-making when we see one, so I called the number in the ad. It was 10:15AM. A groggy voice answered the phone.


“Hello,” I chirped. “Is this the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway?”

“Yes,” the man curtly answered.

“My husband and I would like to take the tour. The ad says the house is open after 10AM. Do we need a reservation or can we just show up?”

“No reservations needed,” he replied. “But give me a few minutes to get over there first.”

We arrived an hour later.

There was no sign or even an address, yet we knew which house it was. Architecturally significant long before Elvis came along, the 5,000-square-foot home was dubbed “The House of Tomorrow” by Look Magazine in 1962 and is truly a magnificent example of desert modern design. Elvis moved in a year after the original owners, renowned Palm Springs contractor Robert Alexander and his wife, were tragically killed in a private plane crash. Elvis leased the home for a year and lived there for six months with Priscilla in 1967.

We approached the house reverently and knocked on the door. Through the huge front window we could see the living room and numerous photos of Elvis and his “Memphis Mafia” friends.

“This is already worth it!” I whispered to Tim.

We could hear commotion behind the door and then, after about five minutes, were finally greeted by two elderly women.

“Our first customers of the day!” one of them cheerfully exclaimed. The man from the phone was doing something in the kitchen.

We stepped inside as I silently gasped. To our right was a sweeping stairway that we later learned led to Elvis’s enormous bedroom. Poster-sized photos of “The King” decorated the walls above the stairs. To the left was the living room, looking very much like a James Bond set or some other 1960s movie. A built-in white naugahyde couch lined the perimeter of the room. Above it hung a large faded photo of Elvis and Priscilla during happier days. We could see the swimming pool outside beyond the dining room window.

After collecting our money, one of the ladies said she’d lead us on our tour, which began with a brief history of the house. She told us that the current owners bought the house in 1994 and immediately turned it into an Elvis museum, which is usually open by appointment only and on special occasions, like Elvis's birth and death dates and the honeymoon weekend.

She then told us about the Presley wedding as we ogled the various Elvis memorabilia displayed around the room. Seems that Elvis and Priscilla were supposed to get married in the backyard. But when gossip-maven, and local resident, Rona Barrett got wind of the story, they decided to elope to Las Vegas instead. At 3AM on May 1, 1967, the couple snuck through the bushes at the back of house—the same bushes we climbed through ourselves a few minutes later!—hopped into a limousine, which took them to Frank Sinatra’s private plane, and then flew to Las Vegas—all while the paparazzi crowded outside the house, waiting for the ceremonies to begin. When the newlyweds returned home, Elvis carried Priscilla across the threshold before heading upstairs for their honeymoon. Their daughter Lisa Marie was born exactly nine months later.

“Have you seen Priscilla lately?” our tour-guide then asked. “A friend of mine said she was on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and looked horrible! Too many facelifts! What’s wrong with looking her real age?!”

Although the architecture of the home was spectacular, the decor was garish, to say the least. The master bedroom was done in pink and the lamps throughout the house were gold-chrome. Thank goodness the owners didn’t feel compelled to recreate the shag rug that apparently covered most of the floors when Elvis lived there.

Since we were the only visitors that morning, we got a very special and prolonged tour of the house, including a screening of a homemade video about the grounds. I asked if there were any other celebrity houses we could tour while we were in Palm Springs.

“Well, Frank Sinatra’s home is now owned by a corporation,” our tour-guide revealed. “But no one wanted to buy Liberace’s home when he died. He wanted to turn it into a museum, but the city didn’t want it. Such a loss! There really should be a Liberace museum in Palm Springs.”

Later I asked if this was the house where Elvis famously shot his television set.

“Elvis shot his television set?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” the other woman, who was eavesdropping, said. “He was always shooting his televisions!”

“Really? I must admit that I wasn’t really a big Elvis fan until later in life,” the tour-guide confided. “I was always a much bigger fan of Liberace . . .”

“No kidding,” Tim whispered in my ear.

It was starting to look like there was no graceful way to for us to exit when, after about an hour, a group of tourists knocked on the door and asked if they could see the house. We thanked our hostesses profusely and eased ourselves toward the door, promising to return another day. And with that, we left the building.

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