No Coachella Valley establishment has ever catered to the partying Hollywood crowd as well as the longstanding Chi Chi Club in downtown Palm Springs.
The list of luminaries at the tables matched those who performed live at the Chi Chi. The fabled performers included Louis Armstrong, Desi Arnaz, Pearl Bailey, Milton Berle, Ray Bolger, Nat King Cole, Vic Damone, Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Gypsy Rose Lee, Peggy Lee, Liberace, Jerry Lewis, Tony Martin, the Mills Brothers, Patti Page, Louie Prima & Keely Smith, Lili St. Cyr, Sophie Tucker and Mae West.
The venue got its start in 1931, when Irwin S. Schuman converted his little Waffle Shop into the Desert Grill, the first dinner house in the village outside of the three hotels—The Desert Inn, El Mirador and Oasis. It was on property leased from Zaddie Bunker just north of The Desert Inn on Palm Canyon Drive (later replaced by the Desert Fashion Plaza, which itself was torn down and replaced by newer shops). The hotels usually closed from May until October, but Schuman’s Desert Grill stayed open in the summer.
Schuman transformed the Desert Grill in 1935 into the legendary Chi Chi, a bar replete with bamboo and russet leather décor, a fine restaurant and the Blue Room for entertainment.
Schuman, along with Jack Freeman, had previously owned and operated the popular Silk Hat nightclub next door to the Chi Chi. Originally run by Lee Humbard, the old Silk Hat had become famous—but it was the Chi Chi that would survive. In 1938, Schuman tore down the wall between the two nightclubs, doubling the floor space of the Chi Chi and adding dressing rooms.
During World War II, the Chi Chi was a favorite haunt for GIs stationed at Torney General Hospital (the converted El Mirador Hotel, now the site of Desert Regional Medical Center) and the temporary Camp Young out past Indio. However, it was the Hollywood crowd who regularly showed up to party that built the Chi Chi reputation. It became the “in” place of the “in” resort destination.
Responding to a demand for bigger shows and bigger entertainment, Schuman opened the Chi Chi’s famous Starlite Room in 1950. With a raised dance floor, the Starlite Room was terraced and seated 750 people. The adjacent dining room seated an additional 250 people. The opening was a major social event for Palm Springs. On hand were actor/Mayor Charlie Farrell and his wife, actress Virginia Valli, as well as leading actor William Powell and his wife, Mousie.
Headlining the Starlite Room opening was Desi Arnaz. He was a year away from his big television break, and was introduced as a well-known Cuban bandleader in the accompanying flier. It was where he first performed “Babaloo” on the bongos. It was written that he “set the pace for the big-timers that followed: Carl Ravazza, The Vagabonds, Carl Brisson and Rudy Vallee.”
It was common to see celebrities at the Starlite Room’s tables. Limousines often dropped off entertainers like Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra.
Schuman hired the Bill Alexander Band for dancing and accompanying the vast variety of entertainers. They stayed at the Chi Chi for 13 years. A 1959 flier boasted “Louis Armstrong and All Star Band with Bill Alexander’s Orchestra.”
In 1961, Schuman gave up managing the Chi Chi and the Starlite Room to focus on his new enterprise, the Riviera Hotel (today’s Margaritaville Resort). The Chi Chi went through a series of managers, but in 1964, Schulman resumed operations. In 1965, he put it up for sale; the Chi Chi was closed for most of the 1965-66 season.
Entrepreneurs George Arnold, Philip Richards and Helen Stoddard acquired the Chi Chi from Schuman in a $500,000 lease-purchase deal. They remodeled the place, and on Feb. 3, 1966, reopened it for a month’s run of a nude extravaganza called “Follies de Pigalle,” featuring expensive sets and a glamorous cast of 40 showgirls.
After that run, they brought in big-name entertainment. French singer Denise Darcel started a new show—but less than a week later, it was closed by the marshal after a $10,111 contracting bill for the remodel was attached against the property. Arnold later declared bankruptcy; the doors of the famed Chi Chi were closed.
In September 1968, owner Zaddie Bunker signed a lease with Sy Weiss, a restaurant owner—and for a short while, the club flourished. Crooner Hoagy Carmichael made a two-day appearance in 1969, but the Chi Chi’s new life was short-lived. After extensive redecorating, devastating floods in 1969 kept people away, and two charity events were considered flops. Finally, in March 1969, Weiss threw in the towel, lamenting, “I tried. I tried every way I know. I’ve had it.”
In 1970, Earle Strebe, Zaddie Bunker’s son-in-law and the manager of her estate, tried to make a go of it himself. He reopened the Chi Chi as a cabaret serving cocktails and dinner. The City Council approved a dance license in exchange for improvements in the parking lot behind the club. Nevertheless, after one season awash in red ink, he discontinued the operation. Chi Chi
In 1971, Don Cone leased the Chi Chi from Earle Strebe in hopes of subletting the place to theater groups and television-musical productions. All that amounted to was two nights in February 1971 when the Palm Springs Playhouse presented The Unsinkable Molly Brown in the Starlite Room. Another revival attempt, a discotheque called Jilly’s-in-the-Bush, lasted but a short time in early 1972.
A group from Denver, the EMT Corporation, in February 1973 opened the center third of the Chi Chi for an Italian “singing restaurant” called Mario’s, patterned after the ones in Denver and San Diego. The president of EMT was Mario Lalli Sr.
What happened to the other two-thirds of the illustrious Chi Chi? Well, on the south side of Mario’s was the Original House of Pies, and on the north was the Wonderful World of Wax Museum.
The knockout punch came in 1977, when the entire site was transformed to house three retail shops. The renowned basketweave brickwork on the building’s face that signified the desert’s most popular nightclub came down.
The use of the name Chi Chi did not end there. In 1987, John DeBoard opened a “New” Chi Chi, a lounge in an also “new” Desert Inn Hotel and Resort at 155 S. Belardo Road. It, too, was short-lived. Today, there is a restaurant named Chi Chi in the Avalon Hotel at 415 S. Belardo Road.
The original and famous Chi Chi is more than a memory; it represents the era that helped put Palm Springs on the figurative map.
Sources for this article include Palm Springs Confidential by Howard Johns (Barricade Books, 2004); Desert Memories by The Desert Sun (2002); various editions of The Desert Sun; and PalmSprings: First Hundred Years by Mayor Frank Bogert (Palm Springs Heritage Associates, 1987).
There’s a Chi Chi Club on Catalina Island in Avalon.
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