Palm Springs: Hollywood Connection

A one-time escape for film’s finest, this town still offers a connecton to the big screen—and its stars. Take a break from fun in the sun and enjoy the latest in cinema or a trip back to Hollywood’s heyday.

Hollywood’s rich and famous put Palm Springs on the map back in its heyday in the mid 20th century. Though you won’t see quite as many stars strolling the town’s sidewalks today, there is still a strong connection to stars and the film world, through eclectic movie houses, film festivals and tours of celebrity homes.

Offbeat Films: One Is Always Playing

While Palm Springs is known for its outdoor activities, there’s a lot going on inside. Inside movie theaters, that is.

This city is a film lover’s paradise. In a relatively small geographic area, you’ll find a wide array of outstanding theaters. Rarely crowded or even sporting a line of more than a few, the theaters are easy to get to—and easy to get into. In addition to the typical blockbuster fare, a couple of movie complexes specialize in independent and foreign films with a selection that rivals Los Angeles or New York.   

My film-fanatic mother prefers matinees, so when I’m visiting her, we often take in a movie a day. As a New Yorker, stepping into a dark movie theater on a warm, sunny, picture-perfect afternoon takes some getting used to. (My New York movie-going usually takes place when it’s cold, rainy, dark—or all three.) But in Palm Springs, just about every day is a nice day and once the lights dim, I forget what I’m missing outside.

With three spacious modern theaters and a café, CamelotTheatres is located downtown. From the expected indie hits to more unusual selections, this theater is always showing something I want to see. The Camelot attracts an audience of aficionados, so there’s a good chance you won’t be sitting near a yakker, a chomper or someone taking calls on his cell. The Camelot Café serves breakfast on Saturdays, plus lunch and dinner every day except Monday and Tuesday. 2300 E. Baristo Road, tel. 760-325-6565. 

Down the road is another complex where the bill is always good. Cinemas Palme D’Or is on the outskirts of a sprawling shopping center. According to the theater’s mission statement, it’s “the desert’s premiere address for cinephiles.” The goal is to “exhibit the widest selection of art, independent, foreign, documentary, experimental and classic film in the region.” And it does. There’s always plenty to choose from at the Palme D’Or and with staggered show times, the theater is able to offer even more films than screens. Plus the theaters are big and the seats are cushy. Named after the prize given out at Cannes each year, this theater is a prize for the film lovers of Palm Springs. Westfield Palm Desert, 72840 U.S. Highway 111, Palm Desert. Tel. 760-799-0730.

Film Festivals for All Tastes

Most cities this size would be happy with one film festival. Palm Springs has several. The big kahuna is the Palm Springs International Film Festival that kicks in just after the holidays. Hollywood celebs show up and the papers are full of movie news before, during and after.

I was there for the fest last year and it was truly film nirvana. Mom and her friends had chosen our selections from the vast array of international, independent and interesting offerings. The venues are varied—from the regular cinemas to public auditoriums and playhouses. Well organized and filled with film fans who’d come from near and far, we saw future hits from Eastern Europe, fabulous shorts and more.

The festival runs for about two weeks and offers several ticketing options, from single tickets to an all-film pass (in 2009, individual passes were $11 and passes including all films and some seminars were $275)—for those who are all about movies.

Like your films on the short side? Then the Palm Springs International ShortFest is for you. This year, it’s from June 23 to 29 and sure to feature lots of little-known wonders.

With a Native American population from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians living in Palm Springs, the Festival of Native Film & Culture is both relevant and entertaining. This annual festival, sponsored by the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, features films about native people from various locales. 

Old Hollywood’s Holiday Hideaway

It wasn’t always so easy for film stars to flee the glare of Hollywood. Before airline travel became routine or even an option, Palm Springs offered an easy and exotic escape. Stars like Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra, the Marx Brothers, Liberace and Bob Hope owned homes here. And Elvis and Priscilla Presley spent their honeymoon in a modernist masterpiece, now known as the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway (1350 Ladera Circle, tel. 760-322-1192), that can be toured today for fun and nostalgia. Many others vacationed in the town, often using it for their trysts.

In a neighborhood known as the Palm Springs Movie Colony, Cary Grant, Dinah Shore, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Benny and Al Jolson owned homes. This centrally located neighborhood is within walking distance of downtown Palm Springs. With 170 houses and the recently renovated Movie Colony Hotel (726 N. Indian Canyon Drive, tel. 760-320-6340), it’s worth a drive around.

Learn the lore and see the homes of up to 40 celebrities with Celebrity Tours, and in two stints and four hours, you’ll see all there is to be seen. I signed up for the full ride (some just did one leg or the other) and was pleasantly surprised at how much fun it was. The day begins at a small snack shop known for its date shakes (a local treat that can be ordered and enjoyed during the break in the tour) where you board your bus for the first leg, lasting an hour and a half. At two and a half hours, the second part includes Frank Sinatra’s former house and stomping grounds, plus lots of other stories, stops and stargazing—even if it’s just at their former edifices. 4751 E. Palm Canyon Drive, tel. 760-770-2700.

Although these homes belonged to some of the most successful stars of their day, you’ll be surprised at how modest many of their houses were. Surely, times have changed. Go. Gawk. And while you’re at it, give the date shake a try.

Destinations: Palm Springs

Themes: Art and Museums

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Sightseeing