Old Hollywood's shadow falls on Palm Desert

Special to The Times

It was dark and pin-drop quiet when we pulled into Mojave's circular driveway and walked down a winding path to our poolside room.

Steam rose from the lighted Jacuzzi, and grapefruit trees cast misshapen shadows on the patio. Inside our room, Frank Sinatra (or a worthy imitator) crooned songs from a bedside radio, and a vintage lamp illuminated French Moderne reproduction armchairs and black-and-white photographs of stark desert landscapes.

Either we had walked straight into a Raymond Chandler plot line or the hotel owners knew their history when they turned a ho-hum Palm Desert motel into a stylish 1940s-esque hideaway two years ago.

The last trip my husband and I took to the desert involved a huge self-contained resort that required a parking pass and maps to find the swimming pools. This time, when John and I decided on the spur of the moment to get away for the weekend, we downsized to Mojave, a boutique hotel about 15 miles east of Palm Springs, near the shopping district El Paseo. We had no regrets.

Most of Mojave's 24 rooms and suites frame a large bell-shaped pool and are decorated in shades of tangerine and lemon. Our standard room was $119 a night in mid-December, though peak-season rates will run around $169 through May. It had a king-sized bed, kitchenette and TV with VCR. The attention to detail impressed us most: soft sea-grass carpeting, comfy robes and floor-to-ceiling windows with curtains that shielded the room from the early-morning desert sun.

Mojave's subtly retro feel was orchestrated by the Bay Area firm Candra Scott & Anderson, designer of the Hotel Rex in San Francisco and the Governor Hotel in Portland, Ore., among others. Even the in-room snacks — Necco Wafers, grape soda, wax bubblegum lips — were creative throwbacks.

The canopied Jacuzzi was tempting (and open till 11), but we decided to forage for a late dinner after checking in. A 10-minute drive brought us to Roy's in Rancho Mirage and an appetizer "canoe" of Sichuan baby-back ribs, skewered shrimp, seafood pot stickers and ahi poke. It was a good way to sample the Asian-fusion style of Hawaiian chef Roy Yamaguchi and ease our way into the weekend.

Hollywood playground Saturday morning, John worked on a stack of magazines by the pool while I squeezed in a workout at a nearby gym, free for hotel guests. We also took advantage of the hotel's complimentary breakfast buffet, although the Costco-esque muffins and mini-boxes of cereal seemed out of sync with the luxurious surroundings.

When we finally emerged from the hotel at midday, we felt inspired to sniff out other examples of the area's reputation as a midcentury Hollywood playground. It turned out to be easier than we thought.

First stop: Estate Sale Co., a string of warehouses on East Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs that sell furniture, artwork and household goods on consignment, many of them high-ticket items put up for sale by local notables such as Rep. Mary Bono, author Harold Robbins and the late actress Loretta Young. I struck gold right away with the discovery of a gold-etched cinnabar grandfather clock that came from Mr. and Mrs. Red Skelton, reduced to $550 from $600.

Although the sales clerk said the store had paperwork proving the clock did indeed belong to the Skeltons, it wasn't possible to confirm the authenticity of all the merchandise. Many of the price tags were marked with the last names of sellers, but it was more fun to imagine who owned the over-the-top unlabeled items: the $600 leopard muff, the black onyx night tables, the turquoise empress chair. Zsa Zsa Gabor came to mind more than once.

The place is so big that I contemplated locating John by cellphone. When he and I finally reunited, we headed north on Palm Canyon Drive to Celebrity Seconds, a tiny shop in a downtown Palm Springs mini-mall. It also was an ode to Palm Springs' past, with vintage gowns, hats and jewelry that supposedly belonged to Ginger Rogers, Elizabeth Taylor and Nancy Sinatra.

A saleswoman singled out some of the showcase merchandise: a white and gold plaid coat dress that Rogers wore when she met the shah of Iran; an original 1960s Valentino wool coat and skirt (not for the budget-minded at $2,500) and a black-and-white peignoir that once graced the closet of Mrs. Mickey Rooney. ("We don't know which one because he had eight wives," she explained with a laugh.)

After a quick lunch of good chicken tortilla soup and decent tamales at the original Las Casuelas restaurant on North Palm Canyon Drive, we headed back to the hotel for a pre-dinner Jacuzzi soak and more lounging.

I had made reservations at Sullivan's Steakhouse, a restaurant near the hotel, and we happily abandoned car keys for the evening. We left early to window-shop on El Paseo, which lives up to its reputation as the desert's version of Rodeo Drive. Besides such typical chain stores as Williams-Sonoma and Tommy Bahama, the strip is lined with dozens of art galleries, beauty salons and specialty boutiques.

Sullivan's, part of an upscale chain of chophouses with a 1940s motif, was hopping when we arrived at 8:30, in contrast to the calm of the rest of the street. A three-piece jazz band entertained the bar crowd, and the separate high-ceiling dining room buzzed with conversation. We ordered glasses of Cabernet, porterhouse steak (excellent), braised short ribs (inexplicably dry) and a side of creamed spinach.

While driving along El Paseo earlier in the day, we had noticed a series of public art sculptures along the median. Curious, we took a closer look after dinner, when traffic wasn't a concern. Indeed, the 20 bronze and steel sculptures are probably best appreciated on foot and with the help of an interpretive map, available at the Palm Desert visitor center (72-990 Highway 111) or at http://www.palmdesertart.com .

On Sunday, after another leisurely breakfast by the pool, we resumed the role of celebrity voyeurs one last time.

The Palm Springs Desert Museum is paying tribute to Hollywood with an exhibition, "Icons and Legends: The Photography of Michael Childers," through Feb. 15. Childers, who lives in Palm Springs, has been capturing the images of screen icons and artists for 40 years.

As we gazed at the mesmerizing black-and-white portraits of Julie Christie, Groucho Marx, Mae West and a shirtless 29-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, we noticed a gray-haired man in striped sweat pants pointing to a photograph of a joyous Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner feeding birds in St. Mark's Square in Venice, Italy.

"I was with them on their second honeymoon," the man said, "on assignment for Look Magazine."

That's when we realized the man was Childers, cordially answering questions, signing books for museum visitors and providing a final glimpse of celebrity out here in this desert playground.

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