By Barbara Beckley
“This is the spot! Here on the tarmac where William Shatner, Christopher Lloyd and Katrina Bowden, (a 20-something girl in a swimsuit) were chatting next to a fancy convertible parked between two Vietnam-era fighter jets,” says Ann Greer, an official with the Palm Springs Air Museum located at 745 North Gene Autry Trail, north of downtown.
A romantic comedy called Senior Moment scheduled for release in March 2021, the film stars Shatner as a retired NASA test pilot who speeds around in a vintage convertible with his best friend, played by Lloyd, until the car is impounded and Shatner’s character plots to get it back.
Senior Moment takes place in Palm Springs “because producer Gina Goff has a home here,” Greer explains. “Goff loved this spot at the air museum with the iconic Palm Springs International Airport Air Traffic Control Tower and the San Jacinto Mountains in the background. Viewers will instantly know this is Palm Springs.”
The air museum is just one of hundreds of movie and TV scene sites throughout Greater Palm Springs — from early Oscar-winner Lost Horizon (1937) to the James Bond classic Diamonds are Forever (1971), Bravo TV’s Top Chef (2015) and A Star is Born remake (2018).
“Producers have flocked here since the early 1900s,” explains Renee Brown of the Palm Springs Historical Society. Why? “Because Palm Springs can be anything! From the Sahara Desert to a Caribbean island.” And “because everything they needed was in one place in Palm Springs – great site locations, close to Hollywood, easy to bring your camera crew and good small hotel accommodations.”
But Palm Springs’ notoriety began way before the cameras rolled, Brown adds. Protected from bad weather by the San Jacinto Mountains and providing fresh water in the midst of the desert, the area has been a welcoming haven for millennia. Populated for 12,000 years by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the tribe’s fresh water sources in Tahquitz Canyon made it a popular 19th century stagecoach stop. In the early 20th century, the tribe’s ancestral mineral hot springs – for which Palm Springs is named – turned the town into a coveted health retreat which spawned numerous small hotels.
Enter movie stars and producers! They fell in love with the year-round sunshine and easy lifestyle (read partying away from prying eyes) – and voila – Palm Springs morphed into a superstar destination.
Later this year you’ll be able to enjoy the Agua Caliente Tribe’s healing waters at The Spa at SEC-he. It’s part of the new Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza at the corner of East Tahquitz Canyon Way and South Indian Canyon Drive in downtown Palm Springs.
How can you get in on the lights and camera action? The film locations are easy to find. Footage has been shot across the valley at sites ranging from the Palm Springs Air Museum, The Riviera Hotel (now the Margaritaville Resort Palm Springs) and Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the exotic, concrete-topped Elrod House and scenic Tahquitz Canyon. You can see these sites on your own or as an added perk on many sightseeing tours. While some sites have changed, others are just as they appeared on screen.
The fun of seeing the movie locations is often twofold – enhanced by the experiences offered at the places where the shoots took place. As one of the world’s best, the Palm Springs Air Museum features 59 military aircraft from World War II through Vietnam and a host of related exhibits, experiences, documentaries, tours led by docents (many of whom flew the planes) and special events. It’s also one of the few that allows you to climb inside the aircraft, including the four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress which saw service over Europe in WWII. And take a 45-minute flight in the vintage C-47 Sky Train.
Knowing you’re on a movie set also adds to the thrill of riding in the world’s largest rotating tram car ascending 8,516 feet into the San Jacinto Mountains on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, located off Highway 111 at the west end of town. As the landscape twirls around you, picture yourself in The Cool Ones (1966), The Wrecking Crew (1968) starring Dean Martin, Hanging by a Thread (1979) or Into the Wild (2007). At the top you can hike in the Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness, or relax and enjoy fine dining at the Peaks or more casual fare at the Pines Café, all while enjoying spectacular panoramic valley views.
Nothing screams sophistication like Palm Springs’ mid-century modern architecture. Designed with walls of glass to bring the outside in, minimalist post and beam architecture to create patterns of light and shadow, and natural elements such as rock and adobe, this architecture style is ideal for desert living. The city boasts the world’s largest collection of mid-century buildings. It’s no surprise that when producers want the chicest of the chic backdrop, they film in Palm Springs.
James Bond dazzled audiences in the 1971 spy thriller Diamonds Are Forever, where he discovered two bikini-clad female gymnasts inside the 2,400 square-foot Elrod House at 2175 Southridge Drive on a private road in south Palm Springs. Designed by architect John Lautner in 1968, Playboy magazine called it “the ultimate bachelor pad.” A poolside scene was also filmed nearby at Kirk Douglas’ mid-century former home on West Via Lola in the Old Las Palmas neighborhood a few blocks from North Palm Canyon Drive. The swinging 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven had Palm Springs doubling as Las Vegas, where scenes were shot at yet another Las Palmas residence at 999 North Patencia Road. The 6,300-square-foot abode of glass, stone and mirrors, designed by mid-century master architect Quincy Jones, nearly overshadowed the star power of Brad Pitt and George Clooney.
The gloriously tawdry film noir, The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) starring Joan Crawford, featured Frank Sinatra’s low-slung, indoor-outdoor pad, Twin Palms Estates, located in the Movie Colony neighborhood at 1148 East Alejo Road. Rumor says Sinatra hosted many of his mafia friends here and reluctantly allowed the filming. American Gigolo (1980), starring Richard Gere, featured scenes filmed in the Rheimans House, a 3,300-square-foot geometric, post-and-beam design at 2389 South Yosemite, in the Indian Canyons Golf Resort.
Most of these homes are visible from the street, so they’re easy to drive by for a look. Or you can take an architectural tour to see these and others and go inside a few. The Martini & Mid Century Architecture Tour – The Rat Pack Edition, offered by Palm Springs Mod Squad is one of the best. You can even make like you’re in the movies yourself and rent Sinatra’s house from the current owners, who offer it for private vacations, events and dinner parties.
Plan to visit Palm Springs in April for Modernism Week. A range of activities costing from $25 to $175 includes home tours, guided neighborhood walks, fashion shows, Mixology Cocktail Clinics, a vintage car show and the 21st annual Palm Springs Modernism Show & Sale + Modern Design Expo. Can’t visit in April? Then attend a virtual Modernism Week online that runs through the end of February.
WINDMILLS PLAY A ROLE
“Lady Gaga was on a motorcycle – in there,” said Randy Buckmaster, tour manager of Palm Springs Windmill Tours, pointing inside Jalisco Tires, a small, blue-colored shop on North Indian Canyon Drive in north Palm Springs. He makes this stop on all his tours now, explaining how in April 2017, he watched Lady Gaga film a scene at Jalisco Tires for her 2018 Warner Bros. remake of A Star Is Born.
Another scene from the movie, where Bradley Cooper’s character descends into oblivion during a performance at a pharmaceutical convention, was filmed at the Palm Springs Convention Center.
Lady Gaga’s north Palm Springs scene is just one of dozens filmed at and near the towering wind turbines of the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Resource Area. Opened in the 1980s, the site is one of the nation’s first wind energy complexes. Today it comprises some 40 different wind farms, with a total of 2,100-plus towering turbines. Perhaps the most memorable scene is Tom Cruise’s harrowing helicopter chase in the 2006 Mission Impossible III. From the visitor center veranda you can see the cluster of windmills that doubled as Berlin, Germany, where Cruise flew his helicopter dodging and diving between the twirling 80-foot-blades to elude the bad guy’s helicopter and spring a fellow spy from prison.
1988’s Rain Man also features the wind farm, with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman driving past a field of twirling windmills in the movie’s opening minutes. As Buckmaster will explain if you take the tour, the constant technological innovations of turning wind into electricity are making the machines taller, the blades longer and the rotation slower for greater efficiency. The turbines now tower 20 stories above the ground and have 125-foot-long blades that make no sound save for a rhythmic whoosh. The innovation, however, means there are fewer of the short, stubby windmills you saw in Rain Man and more of the newer space-age styles popular as backdrops for sci-fi flicks, such as 2017’s The Space Between Us.
DESERT CLOSE UPS
In 2015, Bravo’s Top Chef contestants cooked on solar powered stoves close to the San Andreas Fault in the desert northeast of Palm Springs. The Season 13 episode was arranged by Desert Adventures’ Red Jeep Tours. Take the same drive out to the earthquake fault to see the fault’s jagged escarpments and long narrow ridges separated by level areas. The tour is the only way to get to this location since it’s on private land at the base of the Little San Bernardo Mountains.
The exact cook-off spot – Coyote Flats – is a sandy canyon at the edge of a palm-fringed natural oasis. If you’re a Top Chef viewer you’ll recognize the unexpectedly scenic landscape replete with indigenous Washingtonia fan palms and freshwater streams bubbling from the ground. After seeing where the cooking stations were arranged be sure to take a short 200-ft. walk to the second filming site in tiny Starlight Canyon, where the Quickfire Challenge took place and judges Tom Colicchio and Emeril Lagasse gave their verdicts.
Greater Palm Springs is home to North America’s only true oases, thanks mainly to the earthquake fault. The oases hopscotch across the foothills, marking the path of the San Andreas Fault, because their palm trees have shallow roots and need the water that’s being pushed to the surface by the movement of the North American and the Pacific tectonic plates.
You’ll also learn about the abundance of edible desert plants, many of which the Top Chef contestants incorporated into their dishes. You may be able to taste the salty, crunchy leaves of the “potato chip” plant (atriplex, commonly called saltbush), which the Cahuilla Indians used as a snack. Before heading back to the city, see how the Cahuilla lived 2,000 years ago by visiting an ancient Indian campsite with historic metate grinding stones and a recreated village that features a ceremonial house, Kishes (huts) filled with Indian artifacts and interpretive displays showcasing their food, weapons and tools.
If you’re a Top Chef purist, you might want to pop into the Whole Foods market on Highway 111 in Palm Desert. It’s where the Top Chef contestants bought the rest of their ingredients.
The beauty of the desert also entranced early film-makers. Hike into Tahquitz Canyon, off West Mesquite Avenue near downtown, and you’ll be walking where the characters in Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning Lost Horizon (1937) discover Shangri-La. Her Jungle Love (1938) starring Dorothy Lamour was shot in Palm Canyon which lies at the end of South Palm Canyon Drive about three miles from downtown. Paramount Pictures spent $330,000 – a fortune in those days – to buy and transport enough vines and foliage to turn portions of the 15-mile-long canyon into a tropical rainforest. Palm Canyon also was a setting for Captain Blood (1935) starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, standing in for Jamaica, where the couple took a long, romantic horseback ride, and Under Two Flags (1936) starring Claudette Colbert. Sahara, a 1943 war epic starring Humphrey Bogart turned the Coachella Valley desert into the sands of Libya. The Painted Canyon, a picturesque hiking & biking destination in the Mecca Hills southeast of Palm Springs, was featured in the 2016 remake of Ben Hur.
SLEEP ON IT
Remember the classically goofy Palm Springs Weekend starring Connie Stevens and Troy Donahue? While the Riviera Hotel has changed considerably since this movie was filmed in 1963, you still can visualize those classic swimming pool scenes at the new Margaritaville Resort Palm Springs at the corner of North Indian Canyon Drive and East Vista Chino.
If you’re a reality show fan, you’ll recognize the luxurious La Quinta Resort & Club on Eisenhower Drive in the city of La Quinta from The Bachelorette seasons 2017 and 2020. You can book the palatial suites you saw on the show, or opt for the luxe two-room casitas, with private plunge pools, enjoyed by the cast and crew of Top Chef in 2017 while they filmed in the nearby Little San Bernardino Mountains.
Don’t miss the opportunity to relive the wacky dinosaur scene from the 1985 movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It was filmed at the Cabazon Dinosaurs roadside attraction, off Interstate 10 west of Palm Springs. Take a selfie with the 150-foot-long Apatosaurus that Pee-wee Herman and the waitress ran around. You’ll be surprised at how much there is to do – and learn – at this roadside attraction. You can’t go inside the Apatosaurus (nicknamed Dinny the Dinosaur) like the waitress in the movie did, but you can climb the winding staircase inside the 65-foot-tall concrete and steel Tyrannosaurus rex (nicknamed Mr. Rex). Inside its cavernous head you’ll find a panoramic desert view through Mr. Rex’s 36-inch dagger-like teeth.
The dinosaurs originally were built as attention-getters for a now defunct restaurant. Today, they guard an amusing theme-park called Mr. Rex’s Adventure. If you love dinosaurs, or come with children, you’ll be impressed by nearly 100 authentic-looking Jurassic dino replicas from triceratops to stegosaurus including many that are life size. There’s also a dinosaur dig and fossil panning for kids. Inside the museum gift shop, six-foot tall animatronic flesh-eating dinos appear ready to attack.
GET OUTTA TOWN – CELLULOID STYLE
Movie sites are truly everywhere. Even when it’s time to get back to reality. Remember the convenience store scene in Rain Man where Tom Cruise slathers sunscreen on Dustin Hoffman’s face during their road trip to Las Vegas? The store’s still there on Palm Spring’s Overture Drive, conveniently waiting to provide snacks – and sunscreen – for your road trip back to Los Angeles.
Barbara Beckley is a long-time travel journalist, member of the Society of American Travel Writers and a part-time resident of Palm Springs.