The Palm Springs Racquet Club became a legendary watering hole of the stars after being founded by a couple of actors in 1934—and it remained there for 80 years, until a devastating fire in 2014.

Charlie Farrell would star in 46 motion pictures and a successful television series; his pal Ralph Bellamy appeared in 103 films, was in more than 400 stage plays, and made a number of TV appearances. The two came together to form the Racquet Club because they needed a place to play tennis.

They both loved the desert and had rented homes in Palm Springs—but the village’s only tennis courts were those at The Desert Inn and the El Mirador, and they were reserved for hotel guests only. They cut a deal with Warren Pinney, manager of the El Mirador, who allowed them to use the courts, but only if no guests wanted to play. It was better than nothing.

In the winter of 1932, they were out riding horses in a windswept area of the desert, about a mile north of the El Mirador. They saw a “for sale” sign and contacted the owner, Alvah Hicks. He sold them 53 acres at the cost of $3,500, or about $66 an acre.

Meanwhile, they continued to play tennis at the El Mirador—until Pinney was forced to kick them out, because too many paying guests complained that they were hogging the courts. It has even been reported that actress Marlene Dietrich was one of the complainants.

Over a drink, they commiserated and then had an idea: They would build a court on their “worthless” desert acreage, at what became 2743 N. Indian Canyon Drive. They hired the David Company from Los Angeles to come down and build them a court. While it was under construction, the contractor suggested they may want a second court as well; after all, all the equipment was there, and they would just need more concrete. They said OK, also adding a fence and a three-sided spectator shelter. That original shelter later grew into the main clubhouse which faced the No. 1 court.

The courts were ready by Christmas Day 1933, and the pair began charging their friends $1 to play—all day, if they wanted. That first day, they took in $18.

In time, they added two more courts, a restroom, a couple of bungalows and a swimming pool. According to Farrell, “I guess you might say that the Racquet Club started in a haphazard way and grew in the same crazy, mixed-up fashion. Nothing was ever really planned. We just built, added on or changed as we saw the need.”

By spring of 1934, they’d invested $78,000 in their venture—and wanted to share the expense. They sent invitations to 173 of their Hollywood friends, offering membership for $50 in the new Palm Springs Racquet Club. They only got four replies. Undaunted, they made a fancier batch of invitations, this time raising the offered membership to $75. They sent invitations every two weeks, raising the price of membership each time, until the cost to join was $650. The higher prices worked—and created such a demand that a waiting list had to be formed.

Ralph Bellamy and Charlie Farrell with Rudy Vallee (center). Photo courtesy of the Palm Springs Historical Society

The grand opening was Dec. 14, 1934. By this time, the Racquet Club featured four tennis courts (now sheltered by eucalyptus trees), a swimming pool, a kitchen, a dining room with a dance floor, and the famed Bamboo Bar, which would remain there into the 21st century. (In 2000 and 2001, my wife and I caught the tail end of this legacy, as we enjoyed the Friday-night seafood dinners there.)

The Bamboo Bar (or Lounge), designed by film director Mitch Leisen, was proclaimed to be the world’s first bar constructed from bamboo. The tables, chairs and trim were also made of bamboo. Some also made a much-disputed (and probably inaccurate) claim that the Bamboo Lounge is where the Bloody Mary was invented.

In 1936, Farrell and his wife, actress Virginia Valli, left for England, where they spent two years working on movies. They left Bellamy and his wife, Catherine, in charge of the Racquet Club. Ralph’s background was in acting, not business—and it soon became obvious that the club was mysteriously hemorrhaging money. After long-distance consulting with Charlie and getting professional investigative help, he caught a bartender and some waiters in a scam that was ripping off the club.

They hired Western cowboy actor Frank Bogert, who had been working at the El Mirador, to be general manager. According to Bellamy, “One of the smartest things we ever did was hire Frank Bogert as general manager of the club. He was more than a manager. He did everything but count the money and keep the books.” Bogert managed the club from 1938 to 1942. Both Farrell and Bogert would go on to become mayors of Palm Springs.

Bellamy was so busy at the Racquet Club that he began missing out on acting roles, so when Farrell and his wife returned from Europe in 1938, they bought out Bellamy so he could devote more time to his acting career.

Every year, the Racquet Club grew, with guest cottages added, and additions and improvements constantly made. The spacious and secluded “members only” facility became a haven for the Hollywood elite, and the membership roster was a veritable who’s-who of Tinseltown. The biggest movie stars were there, along with aspiring actors and starlets.

A few months after the Racquet Club opened, a 29-year-old pilot and movie producer flew to Palm Springs and was in the Bamboo Bar talking to Farrell. A 17-year-old English actress under contract at Paramount named Ida Lupino walked past Farrell and his guest, Howard Hughes. Hughes was immediately smitten and asked Farrell for an introduction. Enamored, Hughes spent the next few days buying meals for Lupino and her mother, who accompanied her. He later flew over to Catalina Island to see Lupino, who had gone there with her mother. At Catalina, Hughes and Lupino danced a bit, and then he took her for a plane ride—but according to author Terry Moore and Jerry Rivers in The Passions of Howard Hughes, he then realized she was young enough to be “jailbait,” frustrating his infatuation.

The entrance to the Bamboo Lounge circa 2001. Credit: Greg Niemann

Over the next few decades, almost all of the popular movie stars of the time frequented the Racquet Club, including Humphrey Bogart, Jack Benny, William Powell, Jane Russell, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn, Gene Autry, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Lana Turner, Betty Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and husband Robert Taylor, and many others. Spencer Tracy lived in Bungalow No. 19 all winter. The stars could be seen swimming in the pool or playing tennis during the daytime, and holding court in the exclusive Bamboo Lounge at night. Many studio photo shoots were done on premises, and Farrell was astute enough to allow younger, undiscovered rising actors and actresses to mingle with the established stars. In fact, it is said that photographer Bruno Bernard “discovered” a starlet named Norma Jean Baker (Marilyn Monroe) poolside at the Racquet Club. Hollywood agent Johnny Hyde met her there at the shoot—and the rest is history.

The Racquet Club was renovated in 1977, and again in 1999. The last portions of the legendary club closed after a fire in 2014.

Sources for this article include The History of the Racquet Club of Palm Springs by Sally Presley Rippingale (US Business Specialties, 1984); Palm Springs: Why I Love You by Tony Burke (Palmesa Inc., 1978); Palm Springs Confidential by Howard Johns (Barricade Books, 2004); Palm Springs: First 100 Years by Mayor Frank Bogert (Palm Springs Heritage Associates, 1987); The Passions of Howard Hughes by Terry Moore and Jerry Rivers (General, 1996).

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Greg Niemann

Greg Niemann is a Palm Springs-based author with five published books: Baja Fever (Mountain ’N’ Air), Baja Legends (Sunbelt Publications), Palm Springs Legends (Sunbelt), Big Brown: The Untold Story...

One reply on “CV History: How Windswept Vacant Land Became the Palm Springs Racquet Club, a Haven for Hollywood’s Biggest Stars”

  1. I’d love to see a ‘post script’ to this story to let your readers know the status of the property today. It’s at serious risk for fire and I hope it can be rescued. Cheers

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