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Palm Springs History

Best known as the cocktail playground of mid-century Hollywood stars, from the Rat Pack rowdies to RFK and (whisper, whisper) Marilyn Monroe, Palm Springs and its surrounding desert hot spots actually got their start much earlier. Palm Springs, in fact, is named after real natural hot springs, which still flow today—only now the waters go directly into the spa at the Spa Resort Casino downtown. During the 19th century, these springs were a natural oasis for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and adventurers and pioneers crossing the desert on their way to more fertile California landscapes. In the 1890s, Dr. Wellwood Murray opened the first Palm Springs hotel across the road from the springs, and voila—a vacation destination was born. Movie stars flocked to the desert from the early-20th century on, to splash, drink and relax in peace, away from the prying eyes of Hollywood tabloids. In the ‘30s, gambling added to the entertainment. Remnants of those times can still be seen in places like the basement of the Colony Palms Hotel, which bears art deco murals from its time as a gambling den. In the ‘40s, Lucy and Desi, Frank, Sammy, Bob and Bing made the desert an enclave for the rich and famous, who hired the foremost architects of the day to build their homes and commercial structures. It was these remarkable buildings—Palm Springs is acknowledged to have the most mid-century-modern structures in the country, and probably the world—that brought the city back to life in the 1990s, following a couple of disastrous decades of rowdy students on spring break. Gays were among the first to restore Palm Springs’ modernist jewels, and today Palm Springs’ population is nearly 50 percent gay. Soon, everyone was flocking to the desert. The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, a cabaret show starring chorus girls 50 and older, opened in 1990, effectively jump-starting downtown Palm Springs’ revitalization. Soon, hotels and meticulously restored ‘50s- ’60s-era inns, restaurants, shops, galleries and nightspots multiplied—and the rest is history.