Monday, February 15, 2010

Palm Springs

One of the things that originally brought Tim and me together was a shared love of Frank Sinatra. Not only do we think he’s one of the greatest singers of all time, but we remain fascinated by his glamorous Rat Pack lifestyle. Frank was and always will be the epitome of cool.

Not a surprise, then, that I bought tickets as soon as I heard our local PBS station, KCET, was holding a fundraiser at Frank’s former home in Palm Springs. The event kicked off Modernism Week, Palm Springs' annual ten-day celebration of mid-century living and architecture. Festivities, which continue till next weekend, include tours of architecturally-significant residences, author appearances, art exhibits, films, and a display of 1950s travel trailers.

To get into the spirit, I made reservations at the Desert Hills Resort, one of Palm Springs’ top “boutique hotels.” Nestled at the foot of the San Jacinto mountains, the resort is one of the town’s many 1950s motels renovated to mid-century perfection. It was quiet and cozy and reminded me very much of the places my family stayed when my sister and I were kids.

Frank Sinatra, of course, is no longer with us, but one of his contemporaries, Buddy Greco, is still going strong. So, in keeping with our 1950s theme, we got tickets for his show at the Spa Hotel and Casino, Friday night. At 83, his voice ain’t what it used to be, but he can still play a mean piano and render his own kitschy twist to standard song lyrics. We felt like we had been transported back to a small club in Las Vegas during the Rat Pack’s heyday.

Before leaving town on Saturday, we ran through the Modernism Show, where I bought a fabulous Nat Reed giclee print of the Capitol Records building. The perfect ending to a perfect three-day vacation.

More Palm Springs adventures below!

Frank Sinatra’s Home

Built in 1947, the former Sinatra estate, called Twin Palms, is located in what used to be the heart of Palm Springs’ “movie colony,” not far from our hotel. Architect E. Stewart Williams reportedly completed the house in seven months--just in time for Frank’s big annual Christmas party. According to one account, the home was so popular with Sinatra’s Hollywood friends that it inspired others to move to the desert, helping usher in the wave of modernism that defines the area today.

From the street, the house looked like any of the other mid-century homes in the neighborhood. But the entrance soon took our breath away as it opened onto a huge piano-shaped pool. Just beyond was the house with its sliding glass doors and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on the pool. Though we were early, people were already touring the home by the time we arrived. A man wearing a vintage suit and Sinatra-style hat was pointing out historic architectural features.

As soon as we entered the living room, Tim made a beeline for Frank’s state-of-the-art recording console that controlled music piped throughout the house.

We then wandered the halls, admiring the view while pretending we were at a Rat Pack party. Frank Jr.’s bedroom--now covered in photos of Frank Sr. and various celebrities (note the prominent portrait of Ava Gardner)--was especially popular as we all tried to guess who was in each picture.

An outdoor buffet eventually forced us to join the other diners in the backyard. Our tablemates were a filmmaker and her husband, plus an "ex-pat" L.A. couple who now live in La Quinta but maintain a condo in Marina del Rey. After our fill of roast beef sliders (Tim) and chicken (me), we took one last stroll through the house before returning to the pool. In the distance I could see more food. Could it be dessert? Indeed! Hundreds of tiny cupcakes were elegantly stacked for our pleasure.

“Where have you been my entire life?” I asked, after biting into a scrumptious strawberry champagne cupcake. I grabbed a lemon tart and one more cupcake (white chocolate raspberry--yum!), before Tim dragged me away toward the car. A truly magical evening.

The master bedroom

The guest bedroom

Frank Jr,'s bedroom

Moorten Botanical Garden

While Tim napped Friday afternoon, I took a quick jaunt over to the Moorten Botanical Garden, located just south of the downtown Palm Springs area. Established in 1938, the grounds are a self-described privately-owned “museum of desert lore” containing homemade displays of dusty Old West artifacts. The real attraction, though, is the decades-old garden featuring some 3000 varieties of cacti and succulents.

I thought I’d be the only person dopey enough to pay $3 to tour someone’s private collection of plants. But, no! Several people were there snapping photos, just like me. Here are some of the more beautiful plants we saw:

O’Donnell House

Before leaving home for Palm Springs, Tim and I watched the episode of California Gold featuring Ojo del Desierto (Eye of the Desert), an amazing Spanish-style home built above Palm Springs by oil magnet Thomas O’Donnell in 1925. We had never heard of O’Donnell, but were determined to find out more during our trip.

Sure enough, looking through one of the tourist magazines in our hotel room, I found a phone number for tours of the O’Donnell home. Turns out an extremely friendly and knowledgeable woman named Laura (the curator of the house) gives private tours if no weddings, etc., are scheduled that day. We arranged to meet her Saturday morning before heading out of town.

Perched above Tahquitz Canyon, the house has been meticulously restored to its early 20th-century splendor and can be rented for parties or sleep-overs. But for 90 minutes, it was all ours as Laura described the role Thomas O’Donnell and his contemporaries played in shaping the history of Palm Springs. The story she told was fascinating and the view of the valley phenomenal. See for yourself:

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Super Bowl Sunday

After hiding from the rain all day Saturday, we fled the house on Sunday as soon as the sun came up. Like everyone else in Culver City, we drove up to the relatively new Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook to admire the windswept view. (The best thing about rain in L.A. is how clean everything is the day after!) No new snow on the mountains, but the view of the city was spectacular. The Scenic Overlook is quickly becoming one of my favorite destinations.

From there, we drove downtown and used Tim’s pass to park for free in the ESPN lot. We then walked half-a-mile to the subway station at Figueroa and 7th.

“What?! Los Angeles has a subway?” you say.

Why, yes we do. And it’s a pretty darn good one, too, though it doesn’t go very far--only from downtown L.A. to North Hollywood (about 11 miles). Still, it’s new enough to be relatively clean and it’s fast, cheap and on time. It cost us only $5 total to ride to Hollywood and back--far less than the cost of driving there and parking. Plus, most of the subway stops are decorated in art depicting the local neighborhood. Our stop in the heart of Hollywood (Hollywood Blvd. and Vine St.), for instance, was festooned in film cans (the ceiling!) and old movie cameras. The hand-painted wall tiles reflected L.A.’s car culture.

I was hot to see the new W hotel that opened last weekend across the street from the Pantages theater, so we went to the W first. The red-carpeted stairwell and modern fixtures were dramatic; but at almost $300 a night (and that’s with my AAA card!), I doubt we’ll ever stay there. Back outside in the real world, we headed up Vine toward the Capitol Records building, where Beatles drummer Ringo Starr was due to get his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the following night. In the distance, we could see the Dept. of Public Works’ plastic barriers standing guard over Ringo’s covered star and, next to them, a man on his knees cleaning the sidewalk. Turns out he’s a volunteer who has “adopted” (i.e. maintains) John Lennon’s star. I, of course, immediately struck up a conversation.

I attended the ceremony when John posthumously got his star in 1988 and was thinking of schlepping back up to Hollywood to see Ringo, so I asked the guy what he knew about the festivities. He was happy to tell me and even offered to peel-back the protective covering over the newest star. But I decided Ringo should see it first and so graciously declined his generous offer.

We then turned our sights to the famous Hollywood farmer’s market, where we bought the usual fruits and vegetables (luckily, I always carry a microfiber bag in my purse for just such occasions!). From there it was a short walk to the subway station. It seemed a shame to be underground on such a gorgeous day, but my feet were happy for the rest. We were back home in time for the Super Bowl kickoff.

By the way, I never did return for Ringo’s ceremony, but I did watch it live on the Internet.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

L.A. in 24 hrs.

What would you do if an out-of-town friend said she wanted to experience L.A. through your eyes and had only 24 hours to do so? Well, this is the exact challenge posed by my colleague Suzanne, who was in town (from Sacramento) on Friday for a workshop and not flying out till Saturday night. After much excited deliberation, Tim and I pulled together the following itinerary:

1. Dinner Friday night - Border Grill is the westside’s self-designated “urban cantina” created by celebrity chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, the Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales.” Although Los Angeles is in the midst of its two-week DineLA festivities--where restaurants around town serve price-fixe meals at a reduced cost--we all decided to order off the menu--pork (no big surprise there!)--and had a fabulous dinner. Welcome to L.A.!

2. Main St., Venice, CA - Suzanne was staying in Santa Monica, so we picked her up Saturday morning and drove back to Culver City via Main St. in Venice. Two blocks away from the zaniness of Venice beach, Main St. is home to upscale shops and restaurants (Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois--yum!) as well as unusual architecture: the 10-ft. clown ballerina and Frank Gehry’s binocular building. We then cut over to Venice Blvd. via Abbott-Kinney (more upscale shops and restaurants), all the while regaling Suzanne with tales of the old Venice pier and the long-gone “red car” inner-city railroads.

3. Downtown Culver City - after a quick tour of our house and gardens, we zipped through the trendy part of Culver City and waved at Culver Studios, where exterior shots of Tara, in Gone with the Wind, were supposedly filmed. We wanted to go up to Kenneth Hahn Park to showoff the L.A. basin in its snowcapped glory, but the view was obscured by clouds and so we zoomed on to our next destination instead. (The photo at the top of this entry was taken on a clear day two weeks ago after the rains.)

4. Farmers Market - As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, the Original Farmers Market is one of my favorite places in L.A. Established in 1934, the market is a diverse conglomeration of food booths, tourist traps, and fruit stands, all with their own charm and stories to tell. Next to the Market is The Grove, an open-air, pedestrian-friendly mall that caters to the Beverly Hills set. We were worried when naysayers predicted the opulent Grove would diminish the more traditional Market. But just like everything else in the city, Old-school has managed to live in harmony with the New, making Farmers Market the single most quintessential symbol of Los Angeles.

5. Youngwood Court - No tour of L.A. is complete without a quick peek at Youngwood Court--or as we like to call it, the House of Davids--on 3rd St. and Muirfield in prestigious Hancock Park. The house boasts not one but seventeen (!!) copies of Michelangelo’s David, all of which are dressed in red velvet jackets and hats during the holidays. We feel bad for the neighbors, but can’t help stopping by periodically to see what new statues have been added. And, of course, out-of-town guests are always amused!

6. Hollywood sign - Suzanne had never seen the world-famous sign, so we headed up Vine St. toward Hollywood. On a clear day you can actually see the Hollywood sign (barely!) from the end of our block. But the very best view is from Lake Hollywood, the reservoir built above L.A. by William Mullholland in the early 1920s. As a kid, I'd never heard of the lake even though it’s a mere handful of miles from where I grew-up in Burbank. Tim and I discovered it when we moved back here in the 1990s and frequently walked around its perimeter when we lived in the mid-city. The dam is a marvel that’s completely invisible to the naked eyes of those wandering around Hollywood. Still, the main reason to visit is the up-close-and-personal view it affords of the ever iconic Hollywood sign. Click here for directions.

7. Driving home - We decided to take the long way home and so drove along Ventura Blvd. to give Suzanne a taste of the nicer parts of The Valley. We then shot up Beverly Glen so she could see the famous “stilt houses” perched precariously above the canyon. Suzanne had already seen Sunset Blvd. and UCLA, so I pointed the car south to Culver City. She was back at the airport by 6PM. Her tourguides were asleep in front of the TV by 9:30PM!